Leading from a Distance

This is a guest post by Michael Sliwinski. He is the founder of the time and project-management application Nozbe (the task manager I use) and editor-in-chief of Productive! Magazine. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

I love my complicated situation. I lead an Internet company based in Poland (Central Europe). Most of our team is located there, with one person in Germany, collaborators in the USA and Japan—and me in Spain. And our customers are all over the world. Leading a company like this is complex but rewarding.

The Connected World - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/enot-poloskun, Image #7298729

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/enot-poloskun

We all work from home. It’s our lifestyle choice. Everyone works the way they want, at the time they want. It gives us all lots of freedom, but it also requires a tremendous amount of focus—and great leadership skills from me. I’m learning as I go, reading this blog every day as well as every leadership book I can find. I’m also a GTD (Getting Things Done) aficionado and this helps, too.

Here are five best practices I’ve learned so far about leading a team remotely:

  1. Schedule weekly reviews. In his best seller, Getting Things Done book, David Allen highlights the importance of the “Weekly Review,” a meeting we should schedule with ourselves to review our past week and prepare for the next one. This is indispensable for ensuring that I am focused and on-task.

    Although we’re a small team, my first two team members, my Chief Technology Officer and Customer Service manager, are responsible for day-to-day management of their teams. That’s why every Monday I do an hourly Weekly Review with each of them. This helps us stay focused, summarize last week, and set priorities for the next one.

  2. Host a weekly “All-Hands” meeting with the entire team. Every Thursday afternoon we call in for an hour-long conference call where everyone shares how their week has gone so far. This bonds the team and lets everyone know what’s going on. We can also ask questions and just chat. We actually look forward to these meetings every week.
  3. Schedule my time strategically. This is really important. Without this you can find yourself being in response-mode all day long, so I decided to divide my day into two parts:
    • Before noon is my creative time. My e-mail application is closed. I don’t schedule any phone calls. I work on our strategy, vision, and product. I also write articles, even code a prototype of an app if needed. No distractions, only my work. And sometimes a run or exercise.
    • After noon is my responsive time. Now I open my e-mail and get it to “inbox zero”. I prepare feedback for my team, schedule phone calls, interviews, brainstorming sessions, I’m all “at my team’s disposal” now.

    Michael has highlighted on this blog several times how he values responsiveness and I try to follow his advice and in this part of my day make sure I respond to everything that needs attention. My team comes always first.

  4. Communicate through online collaboration apps. We use apps like Dropbox, Google Docs, Socialcast, and our own project-management application to communicate through these tools instead of e-mail. This way everyone is on the same page as to what is going on in the company and on what we all should be working on. E-mail is great, but it wasn’t built for online collaboration. There are better tools.
  5. Embrace the fact that control is good, but trust is better. The Germans are fond of saying, “Trust is good, but control is better” I’d say it’s the other way round. Trust is key. I’m trusting my team to do a great job, and I’m doing my best to help them. If someone doesn’t deliver, sooner or later you’ll notice. It’s hard not to. People also work better when they know you trust them.

As a bonus, once a year we meet for a retreat. We all fly to some nice place to spend a week together. We dedicate around three to four hours a day talking about work and bonding and the rest of the time relaxing. These retreats help us get to know one another on a different level and recharge batteries.

I’m also traveling a lot, so whenever I’m close to someone from my team, I try to make sure we meet, eat lunch, or grab a cup of coffee. We need this in-person contact with one another.

Leading a team remotely is challenging, but it is also rewarding. With the technology currently available—and a little intention—it is very doable.

Questions: Have you ever led a remote team? What have you learned? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Want to Launch Your Own Blog

or upgrade to a self-hosted WordPress blog? It’s easier than you think! Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it, step-by-step. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started. Watch My Free Screencast
I’m no longer running comments on my blog. For more information regarding this decision, please read this post.