Gluing distributed organisations together (& the associated leadership challenge)

Summary: My wife just recently shared David McGraw’s article “Communication Tactics For Remote Companies” with me. Reading it made me realise that it contains a lot of implicit “reason-why” for the current situation of the Digital Workplace in many companies. I want to build on what David has written about start ups which, in many ways, experience the same challenges as globally distributed enterprises. And I want to elaborate on the leadership aspect that should go way beyond preaching connectedness and start to take action and balance empowerment and motivation (or shall I say “gentle enforcement”) of the required behaviour.

First of all, I have met people who frown on a military past when it comes to business leaders. For those who mistake the military business to be a pure command & orders structure I can assure you: there is nowhere better to learn to trust people with your life. I am not American and I have served only for a very short amount of time. But the people I met and that were respected as well as high up the military ranks were empathetic, charismatic and trustworthy characters. It made me seriously rethink my picture of the leadership aspect in the armed forces.

David writes about three core aspects: “(…)

  • Why transparency, leadership, and even celebrating play a critical role
  • The value of consistency by formalizing communication channels
  • How employees and leaders might suggest ways to improve the current virtual environment

(…)”. Let me pick up on those and add my personal thoughts and a “Digital Workplace” spin on the subject as well.

Building a purposeful “we care about what others do” culture

The foundation for a successful organisation is a joint purpose. People need to understand the contribution they make, where it connects to what others deliver and how it’s a piece in the bigger picture. Simon Sinek is probably the best known speaker about purpose and “How great leaders inspire action“.  Seeking the “why” seems to be built into our DNA and is almost instinctive. Why else would young children persistently ask “why” when they are forbidden or asked to do something? Most parents will confirm that “just because” is the worst answer one can give in that situation. In large corporations it’s no different.

The same goes for “caring about what others do”. Leaders and managers need to make sure that success is not determined by delivering on individual goals and KPIs. Furthermore, and this has been a rule  of mine whenever I have been in charge of distributed teams, not being physically present should not get in the way of the success of others. It’s important to understand that personal freedom, for example the place one prefers to work from, must not be allowed to impact others in situations where input is required. A virtual meeting requires a proper connection and everyone to be able to look at the same shared screen. Frankly, I can’t count all the conference calls and virtual meetings in which attendees were in fact driving cars, walking through an airport or simply “just popping in but I don’t have my laptop with me”…it makes me palms sweat just writing about it.

Formalising the “us”

David writes about stand ups and distinct channels for sharing success, progress or even whereabouts. In my experience “celebrating success” is one of the most essential things that can act as glue for distributed teams.

However, I’ve just recently run an analysis for a large company to determine the performance of their intranet function for thanking others publicly and the results were rather modest. Even though it isn’t the usual “launch spike & fade out” scenario, the people distributing recognition were few and the adoption of the opportunity was almost exclusive to the HQ and main markets. Saying “thank you” hadn’t become part of the corporate culture despite the availability of a distinct channel just for that. Together, we determined quickly that the shortcoming wasn’t technical, it was simply the lack of leadership and management attention (and contribution) to this idea. Only very few intrinsically motivated people kept up the good spirit.

It is essential that a collaborative attitude is established, led and lived sustainably. In particular when companies grow (organically or from M&A), maintaining the spirit of common purpose and “we help each other” is what leaders have to really strive for in addition to securing effectiveness, productivity and growth.

Governance, or in my words: Simply knowing where to go for what.

In his article David writes about standardising the communication channels. Honestly, there is no greater challenge than this in global organisations. The fact that in today’s world a large majority of companies have been built from mergers & acquisitions leaves them with legacy, pride of the past and “not invented here” scenarios. There isn’t one single place to go for product knowledge. There isn’t one corporate channel that would deliver all (as in: no exceptions) formally required information. And of course there isn’t one single “organisational chatter” room, in which people meet and actually show interest in what’s going on across the globe, pro-actively, because they feel that it’s important to “stay in touch”.

In order to pull off the “Digital Workplace” – and by now I feel the field has agreed that it’s more a concept or an ideology than a thing – there needs to be a certain level of standardisation. We really really need the “this is how we do” governance. It’s required to create an environment of

  • confidence (I’m sure I’ve got what I need to be successful)
  • trust (We are all on one page and help each other) and
  • motivation (We can get anything done, because together we are strong).

3 Pillars for Success: Purpose. Care. Leadership.

The transformation from “how we used to do things” to “this is how we do things now” needs to be purposefully led.

People cannot be ordered to care about others.

Trust and motivation to work as a unit cannot be commanded, which connects back to my military reference from before.

It all needs to be carefully implemented and “lived” top down. In combination with a joint purpose and a “we care for each other” attitude, organisations might become unbeatable!


Published by Philipp

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