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.
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  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    If remote means 3 hours from the nearest McDonald’s (by plane), then, yes. :-)

    “… control is good, but trust is better …” reminds me of “…trust but verify …” I know my wife works with a boss who would agree with “control is good.” Just today, Ellen offered her boss a helping hand with moving some chairs because she knew the boss had a back problem. The response was “I’ll do it myself.” When Ellen pressed, the response became, “Because I’m the boss.” That leaves my wife cold and, though both capable and accomplished, feeling less than appreciated.

    • http://www.nozbe.com/ Michael Sliwinski

      I think the ego of your wife’s boss is just too big. When you lead from a distance your ego should be kept constantly at the lowest level possible… when you lead locally it should be actually at the same low level.

      • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

         “low level” = humility and that attitude draws people in. An I’m-the-boss attitude alienates. My wife did make a childish retort. “Fine. Don’t come complaining to me when your back hurts.” She later apologized for the remark which opened the door for her boss to say, “I shouldn’t have pulled the I’m-the-boss card.”

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Michael, that sounds like quite the team you have. The trust you have in your team must energize them and give them confidence that they can do what needs to be done.

    As for me, I’ve never led a remote team though the idea is intriguing. Maybe once I’ve built my brand and have something that needs a team, it will be done remotely.

    • Kimberly Adams

      Sorry to be jumping in, I know I’m not Michael. But I thought you may want to know- this post is a guest post, it’s not from Michael Hyatt himself. :)

    • Kimberly Adams

      You know, I replied to you… but it seems I’m the one mixed up. :) My apologies!

      • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

        It’s alright Kimberly. I felt weird saying Michael because it wasn’t Michael Hyatt but a different Michael. It’s all good!

  • http://talesofwork.com kimanzi constable

    Great post, this will be helpful once my internet business takes off!

  • Kimberly Adams

    Hi Michael!
    Just letting you know that there is a small grammatical error in the post- step 4, ” E-mail is great, but it wasn’t been built for online collaboration. ” I believe the “been” needs to be removed. Hope it helps!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I have to take responsibility for that. I (supposedly) edited the post! Thanks for your help. I have fixed it.

  • http://www.hope101.net Lori Tracy Boruff

    Great take away!  Thank you!

  • Constance Buckley

    My team building is not remote, but in trying to improve my skill level, I stumbled across The Definitive Drucker written by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim with the subtitle of Challenges for Tomorrow’s Executives – Final Advice from the Father of Modern Management. What a resource! I enjoyed your article. Thank you.

  • Pingback: What You Might Have Missed | Top Thoughts | Thad Thoughts

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Really useful. I have led teams from afar for years. Great tips here!

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    The physical absence! We as a team find this as a great disadvantage. We always like our boss to be around us atleastonce in every six months.

  • Edwin Sarmiento

    Weekly meeting updates are essential to keep the team in the loop and stay focus. One of the challenges of remote teams is when members have to deal with fulfilling time requirements.Information workers should be measured by the results they produce,not the amount of time they spend completing a task.Unfortunately,that is not the case for most organizations who employ information workers.I do hope that mindset changes in the long run.

    Communication is also very important.If necessary,drop the email and pickup the phone.It helps convey the emotion that email sometimes miscommunication.I can’t count how many times a remote colleague has expressed how thankful they were for hearing a voice behind the emails

  • http://twitter.com/jasonmatyas Jason Matyas

    Some great thoughts here.  As a consultant and startup entrepreneur working in several different ventures, all with different teams, managing teams of people (and multiple teams simultaneously) is something I think about every day.  As a technology enthusiast, I’m much more willing to implement good tools and methods than most – the challenge is often getting people to fully buy in to the method/tool.  Especially difficult is when others on the team are, like me, juggling multiple projects or other ventures, which makes the good use of collaborative methodology and technology even more important.

    One of my ventures, http://www.freedomfilmdistributors.com, also has a team of independent distributors across the country that need leadership and support, though at a lower level of involvment that the management team.  While email still is the primary form of communication for this group, I use tools like Eventbrite to schedule conference calls, record the audio and post it for those who couldn’t attend, and Mailchimp (with their keychain system of accessing subordinate email marketing accounts) to lead and support this distributed team.  I’ve had a remote marketing apprentice since late last year, and have been implementing project management control using Microsoft’s Office 365, which provides robust toolsets through their SharePoint Online service, and allows me to have advanced tools and ultimate Outlook integration (yes, I’m one of those guys) at a very reasonable price.

    I’ve also started using SharePoint Online for managing client projects, by setting up a project workspace for each project, and providing a project timeline and task list, which keeps them informed of both what they need to complete and where the project is at.

    Above all, I rely heavily on MindManager 2012 to help me organize and prioritize the dozens of projects I’m working on at any given time, and its great Outlook integration allows me to connect the data in Outlook to the visual context in MindManager, and then be able to “push” it to SharePoint for sharing with a team.  MM 2012 even has a new Mindjet Connect service, which allows you to share mindmaps online so the team can have the same benefit of the visual context it provides.

    Since the challenges involved with this topic are something I face every day, I thought I would share some of the helpful tools I’ve found and implemented. I’d love to hear if anyone else is using any of these tools and if you’ve found any tips or tricks to share.

  • arrow soft

    I would add : relevant text links on your pages, all your web pages should be accessible from at least one text link, images and files should have in their names the keywords targeted
    Full colour Printing

  • http://www.g10ltd.com/ Fast food takeaway menu

    Fast food take away Menu I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaleel-Polin/537558754 Jaleel Polin

    I got the opportunity to work during more than four years in different
    global organizations in virtual teams. I am actually working on my doctoral
    research thesis in e-leadership and virtual teams. In fact, I found that issues
    pertaining to e-leadership have not yet been deeply investigated. Leaders are
    still using the conventional leadership models though they are leading in a virtual
    world. Up to now I have found the that
    the key issues affecting virtual teams and e-leadership are: cross-cultural
    communication & cultural differences, the element of trust, time-zones and reliance
    on computer mediated communication.

    Jaleel Polin

  • http://www.transformationalleadershiphq.com Mighty

    I’m a part of a global team, too. I’m the only one based in the Philippines and most of my colleagues are based in the United States, and another one is based in Africa. I’d say that the Weekly review is really an important means to keep each other updated and overcome the sense of “being alone” on the other side of the world. 

    great post!

  • Brandon Caroland

    I do lead five remote team leaders. My biggest take away here is using the early day for creativity. Emptying the inbox to zero is something I am tenacious about, but it could wait.

  • http://twitter.com/joshua_murry Joshua Murry

    Working from home and in front of the computer is very difficult, how much more if you’re leading the team. You need to study and learn things to keep the team motivated at work and make sure to not have any misunderstanding with their tasks.
    At our company, we use tools like Google Docs, Skype and Time Doctor (for monitoring employees’ productivity). With this, we make sure we keep communications open every time we work so that we can ask for help whenever we need to.
    Time Doctor is also very important for us. It makes us procrastinate procrastination since our attention is being called whenever we’re not doing anything productive for a long time.