Cultures are Different – People are Not!

When a client called last Spring with an intriguing invitation, it was one that I’d heard before. Would I take our program across the world to her team in India? It was quite an invitation, but I waited for the trade-off that I thought might come next.

I’ve been asked to lead a global program before, and it usually comes with a trade-off. Can you…coach 40 people in a half day instead of 10 people in a full day? Can you run a program remotely? Can you take out the videotaping and coaching? And yes, we can do all of those things. But, the modified formats can dilute the program and reduce the impact that we have. So, I waited.

But, there was no trade-off to this request. This leader was focused on consistency and impact. “The remote leaders are as much a part of my team as the domestic leaders. I want the coaching experience and the development opportunity to be the same.”

And, that seemed like the right reason to travel to India.

Coaching a leader from a different culture was not a new idea to me. Our workshops have included managers and leaders from many different cultures for more than two decades. Executive coaching has exposed me to leaders from different countries with diverse beliefs, but the skill of communicating to drive influence and impact is a universal one. India would be a new experience for me, and I was excited to work with these leaders and learn more about their challenges and opportunities to influence colleagues who were more than 9,000 miles away.

So, what was different?

Timing and exposure for the remote leaders.

When you talk to a leader about influencing groups, you start by understanding the kind of visibility and opportunity they have. And for teams that work more than eight hours ahead, that exposure can be the most difficult part.

Calls with US colleagues and leaders often take place late at night. Their report out segments are five minutes, not 30 minutes. So, communication is short and makes it difficult to position clear messaging and takeaways.

Add to it the inconvenience of participating on a call late at night. I learned that remote managers reduce the limited visibility they have by turning off video on calls and participating from home where the internet is less consistent.

So, even when they have the potential for exposure, they aren’t leveraging it. Would you want to be on video at 10pm? Unintentionally, they are more absent than they realize. An invisible listener on a call is easily forgotten and actually, often isn’t there. Because they are usually only listeners, they tend to drop out of the big group calls. They’ve gotten complacent as listeners and as a result, they miss some of the very insights that could help them build relationships across the company…even from a great distance.

When we work with any group, we label remote communication as the hardest scenario for leaders and managers to build their brands. And while many recognize it isn’t their strongest opportunity, for these leaders it is their only one. The ability to establish impact with the voice is more critical to this group than any other group across the company. They are always remote, it’s always late in their day and it’s all they have to gain visibility.

So, their communication skills have to be crisp, clear and compelling.

It means all of their impressions are created through the strength of the voice. In cultures where English is a second language, that’s a tall expectation. And in India, the speech habits are often talking fast, talking softly and running syllables together. When words aren’t understood and speech patterns move quickly, impressions form of an individual who can’t make a point, isn’t really committed to the project at hand and seems uncomfortable communicating in front of a group.

Nothing could be further from the truth with the team I met.

They were bright, engaging and very earnest about their work and their impact. And, they left every ounce of skepticism at home the day that I met them. They were eager to learn, grateful for the feedback and quite good with the concepts. As engineers, they just hadn’t thought about impressions and they didn’t have the tools to influence those impressions.

I worked on fundamentals to improve the voice impression from rate of speech and articulation to voice projection and expression. And knowing how they fit within a broader corporate picture, gave me an opportunity to look further at their desire to increase visibility.

How do you solve for visibility with a remote team?

It isn’t easy. You can’t change time zones, but you can help people think beyond the existing meeting structure and the limitations of their current visibility. Here’s what I told them:

Build Relationships. If you want increased visibility, don’t wait for this five minute call to be the only vehicle. Reach out beyond the current project and audience. Build new connections and relationships across the company. Engineers aren’t always great at doing that among their own work groups. Thinking about an internal network that cuts across divisions takes work.

Know the Influencers. Because I knew this company, I was able to provide real examples of people who could influence their next opportunity. It isn’t always one connection or one phone call. If you’re committed to new opportunities in a company, invest the time to know who influences those opportunities. It takes time to build trust, so get focused on the effort.

Deliver a Sound Bite. Prepare for calls. Take your five minutes of visibility seriously. Learn how to make your point and drive home a sound bite. If you’re out of sight, you are often not top of mind. But, you can make an effort to be. And if you miss the opportunity, send a note. Leverage opportunities. Don’t skip them.

Strengthen your Presence. Personal brand and executive presence were new concepts for the groups I met. Technology groups are like professional groups. They are valued for what they know, and they don’t always connect that the way things are said determines whether they get heard.

Here’s my takeaway:

Cultures are different, but people are not. My thirty years’ experience brought as much value to leaders in India as we see weekly in our US-based programs. In fact, it may have brought more. And, that’s because it brought together two concepts: the fundamentals and the relationships. Just as we have done for their US leaders, we were able to connect their roles into the organization through communication skills and relationship knowledge.

The group in India validated this. While they have had core training, they don’t have access to resources who know their companies and their leaders. And, they found the insight on the group they were trying to influence very helpful in considering their brand and their impact.

While this was my first trip to India, I reached out to other clients with global and remote leaders to ask if the dynamics were similar. And, they validated that what I learned from one company rings universally true for many of them.

So, I’m recanting my skeptical response and worry about trade-offs. The core reason to take a US-based resource to your global offices is that they are a US-based resource. And, if we know your leaders here, then we’ll be more successful than others in helping the remote leaders gain influence with them.

It took one of my most trusted relationships to show me that, and now I believe it. So, ask me about global travel again. I’m ready to connect your leaders.

Call us when you need us!

Trust Me

Some of the best work I’ve done in my current role, I’ve done at the Blue Bottle coffee shop. They serve one of my favorite coffee brews, the service is always friendly, and there’s always a general buzz of excitement from the other patrons who, like me, are furiously banging on their laptops or scribbling down notes on their latest project. It’s noisy, crowded, and smells heavily of twenty different types of caffeine. Some people might be hard-pressed to get any work done there, but for me, it’s a perfect fit.

Working remotely is a growing trend. Go to a coffee shop, walk through a park, or take a few sales calls and you’ll find an increasing number of people who are “working from home today.” And why not? Wouldn’t you rather work on spreadsheets on a blanket in the park, or fix that bug in your code while you knock out some long-neglected chores? It’s a no-brainer. Chances are that most of us, if given the opportunity, would leap at the chance to work remotely.

And many companies realize this. Flexibility to work remotely is an incredible incentive to attract and retain talent, and not just because “it’s more fun.” For many employees the option to avoid lengthy commutes, not have to pay for child-care, and to be closer to their families throughout the day can be life-changing. So then why doesn’t every company offer the ability to work remotely?

Well, depending on which company you ask, you may get a different answer. But at the root of most opposition to remote working is trust. And it’s an understandable issue. For managers, what they want to know is “how am I supposed to manage someone who isn’t here?” Particularly in managing early career employees, there is often a very large trust gap between managers and their employees. And the trust divide is a bit more complex than you might initially think.

First and foremost, when you take an employee out of the office, how do you make sure they aren’t watching TV and ignoring the tasks at hand? But beyond that first, basic layer of trust there are other hurdles to managing remote workers that stem more from experience and development concerns. As a manager, if Samantha is not in the office very much and my only communication with her is through email or over the phone, am I going to be able to coach her as effectively on what I need done as someone who is sitting just a few desks down from me? What about if there’s an urgent need from a client and Jack took his dog for a walk and I can’t reach him?

These are reasonable concerns. However in reality, I would argue that they are not concerns with remote working, but accountability concerns.

The first myth to debunk is that working in a company office is more productive and more free of distractions than remote working. The truth is, I can be just as distracted in my office as I can be at home. I can access ESPN, Facebook, and my Gmail account just as easily at work as I can from home. And, as much as I hate to admit it, when I’m in the office I will peruse the internet when I hit a brick wall or there’s a lull in my call schedule. Bottom-line: if you want to check-out, you’ll find a way to check out.

However, when I work remotely I am more easily able to put my nose to the grindstone for two hours, then take my dog for long walk to clear my head, then put in another two hours fresh, stop for lunch, etc. And I find I will actually work longer days on days I am not in the office than days I’m in the office.

But as a manager, it can be difficult to extend that level of accountability to someone you don’t have tabs on, particularly if they do not yet have the established credibility and industry skills of a veteran employee. There are countless studies of millennials’ lower attention spans and the unorthodox and risky practices of multitasking. And I’m sure there are hundreds of stories from managers of remote employees who don’t meet expectations or are frequently late on deadlines. It’s not a system that works for everyone. Miscommunication can create mistakes, delays, and, worst of all, loss of revenue. Those are all bad outcomes and they are risky enough gambles to understand why a lot of managers are still skeptical of their employees working remotely.

And, truthfully, there are some fields that do not lend themselves to remote flexibility. If you have to make immediate trading decisions or handle large client investments, it’s probably better to do that in the immediate range of support in case a problem should arise. But my point is that regardless of where the work takes place, managers should always be striving to establish a level of trust and fluid communication between themselves and their teams where they can focus on the result and not have to worry so much about the process. If that trust exists, then working remotely becomes a non-issue. If that trust does not exist, then that’s a bigger internal issue.

And one of the best ways to establish trust between managers and employees is to foster a culture of accountability rather than one of micromanagement. Netflix has recently evolved into one of the corporate standard for accountability cultures. At Netflix, you work where you want, and take as much time off as you want, you just have to get your work done. It seems like such a simple concept, because it is. Extend trust, hold your people accountable, and you’ll get the best product. At Netflix, their management style is to promote a culture of self-enforcement with the expectation that you will consistently meet their high-standards. And if that’s not the case, Netflix protects itself with routine performance reviews and will politely part ways with employees who do not meet their high standards.

That model may not fit within every job function, but it’s a prime example of a company valuing their employees’ results more so than their process. In today’s market, if you can turn out a high-quality project on-time while being responsive to questions, calls, and emails, it doesn’t matter if you’re at the office or in a noisy coffee shop. And in the continuous drive to innovate that so many companies are now facing, the companies that invest in trusting their employees and promoting self-regulation are the ones that will be able to draw-in and make use of top talent.

What are the policies at your company around working remotely? Do you think they are too lenient or too strict? Head back to Base Camp to join in the conversation!