Workin’ 9 to 5 (…and leading in an ever-changing world)

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This week I’ve invited business leader and tech advisor/consultant Peter Bohnert to guest blog for my weekly “9 to 5” column where the focus is on the career, from finding a job to the various facets of being in one, whether it be the daily grind, leading teams, the art of running your own business, and much more. Originally a client who became a dear friend to my husband and I (and participated in last year’s interview series!), Peter is a highly respected leader of teams, with a lot of wisdom to share. In today’s post, Peter shares his thoughts on collaboration in today’s evolving and globally distributed business world…

On the morning of September 20th, like many people around the world, I was eager to hear of the results of the Scottish independence referendum.

Having lived and worked for a time in the Republic of Ireland and have traveled there many times over the years, I’m familiar with the long history and tenor of independence debate and struggle from those island nations. There continues to be quite a lot of fallout from the election results, with both feelings of relief from many (most?) in the UK as well as clear positioning for more devolvement: i.e., witness the English wanting to have ‘England only’ votes in the House of Commons.

I am struck by two things: there is a lot of truth in seeing four different peoples be “better together” as one country and there is equally a lot of truth to the great advantages of local governance. I imagine these themes are going to continue to play out for the UK for some time and a greater degree of devolvement within the country – for English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scots – will probably take place.

A further significance of this event started to crystallize for me some time later during a conversation with a senior engineering director for a globally dispersed software company. This person clearly was chafing at the constraints of centralized leadership “sending down direction” from another geography and wanted to know how I would manage such a distributed set of teams in one company if I were the overall head of engineering.

I thought to myself, is there a lesson here from Scotland?

I have built my career on managing engineering and product teams in many different kinds of software companies. I’ve also started two companies of my own and admit I have enjoyed the adrenalin rush of needing to grow my company and product when I cannot find my engineering talent either within my locality or within my budget. Or both.

There was a time when the question of who I would hire was more often a financial one, and I first started working with hybrid onshore/offshore team models around that time. As time has passed, it has become simply more and more difficult to find enough talented engineers to meet the kinds of aggressive product and project timelines we have and to do so in ridiculously hot hiring markets like Portland and San Francisco.

Suffice to say, it is for all of those reasons that I’ve spent the last ten years of my career embracing the notion of distributed teams. I say ‘embrace’ because I truly believe the best way to move creatively in a distributed world is to look for advantages in this model, rather than get stuck on the challenges.

Everywhere I look I see this as one of the leading growing trends – that the only way to survive and flourish is to hire your talent where you can find them and let go of the very natural desire to have every member of your team in the same room.

I am a firm believer in the power of collaborative teams – cross-functional teams at that. The very notion of collaboration implies to me the ability to work side by side with others and bounce ideas off each other as you work the creative process. There is truly something distinctive and bonding about being able to be in someone’s presence as you first get to know them and as you face difficult problems together. I’ve seen teams truly galvanize and accomplish amazing things together.

But how do you do that when you have product teams dispersed across four, five or more different physical locations?

I have found the answer lies in balance. In balancing between building global cultures and local ones.

Recently I built a team for my company – a team of 75 technical and product people across 4 continents and 6 time zones. It was crucial to aim for a globally defined culture – to have a sense for what it meant to be a member of the overall team as we were building a new product with new technologies and we wanted a single Agile process throughout.

There were a lot of components in our approach to succeeding at this and yes they did include frequently putting people on planes and more often utilizing video conferencing, group chat and other collaborative technologies. Laying the groundwork of a new team with everyone in the same room tended to make the follow-on long distance collaboration more effective. Frequently repeating the “in person” experience keeps that connection refreshed.

I found that much depended upon consistently setting the example and leading from the front: regularly demonstrating the importance of connecting and collaborating across geographies. As the manager of this distributed team, I believed that I needed to make it my regular practice to set direction, let collaboration flourish, take measurements, share feedback across the teams and set new course corrections based upon that. Then repeat. And repeat again.

Leadership, however, is not just leading from the front. As your cross-geography team starts to get momentum, it is critical to find those opportunities to delegate and then lead from behind and from the side. As you do this, you can also start to look for ways for local culture in each of your different geographies to thrive and contribute to the overall success of the team. Local culture is one of those hugely important elements in what keeps technical and product people engaged – increasing the sense of belonging and community amongst a team.

I’m not just talking about fun stuff like beer & wine in the fridge, special team outings and local traditions that help bind that team together (and yes those are very important).

I’m also talking about looking for local efficiencies – perhaps your Portland team has the greatest concentration of your webstore/shopping cart technical knowledge while product catalog know-how might be in Austin.  If you find a situation like that, let those sub-teams and team leads run with their specialty while you as manager ensure that the connecting points continue to get the attention they need.

I want my team leads to not be afraid to try out new ideas locally and also not to get caught up in asking permission first. Yes, that is something that needs to be moderated to a degree, but I find a huge benefit in pushing for innovation while keeping the connective links between your teams and geographies.

Can this go too far? Can you be too distributed? Yes, indeed.

Everyone’s threshold is different – every team I’ve managed has its own rhythm, cadence and collaborative framework that works most optimally. Experimentation is key here, along with a willingness to admit one approach has failed and to try another. Think in terms of Agile processes – for example, I favor an approach where we regularly do a “lessons learned” look at how we are collaborating together across geographies and make adjustments accordingly.

Ultimately, where we fail is when we are lulled into wanting our work to be a checklist item – can I just mark this done and go work on something else? Instead, keep your focus on this as a practice, where you regularly alternate between making course corrections based upon the team’s shared experience, and then letting those collaborative teams make their magic without you breathing down their necks. It’s in finding that balance between the efficiencies of small co-located teams and the accomplishments feasible with networks of such teams all closely collaborating with each other.

Like our friends in the UK, there can be great momentum and execution as one global community, even and especially while you are also pushing large amounts of decision-making authority and accountability down to the local level.

It also helps if each team has some really great flags to fly.

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