DISTRIBUTED: Two Things All Successful Leaders Have in Common

In our last blog, we discussed four common mistakes bad bosses make. Now it’s time to take a look at the flipside: What about the good bosses? Believe it or not, there are still plenty of them out there. And we believe the most accomplished leaders have two qualities in common: They are accessible, and they are explicit.

Here’s how the Oxford Dictionary defines these two terms:

ac·ces·si·ble: (of a person, typically one in a position of authority or importance) friendly and easy to talk to; approachable.

ex·plic·it: (of a person) stating something in a clear and detailed way.

In our experience, one of these leadership attributes is pretty much useless without the other. No matter how friendly and approachable a manager might be, she can’t be effective if she gives employees ambiguous answers and vague instructions. On the other hand, even if leader delivers precise instructions and well-defined expectations, his team will never thrive if they’re afraid to approach him with questions or problems. To lead a team to success, a manager must possess both of these essential qualities.

Don’t Be a Joker

A leader who is not accessible and explicit will quickly lose his followers—and as author and business consultant Steve Balzac has said, “A leader without followers is just some joker taking a walk.”

Yet far too many jokers, I mean, business managers just can’t seem to nail these two essential leadership skills. As a result, thousands of U.S. employees are jumping ship each year. As we mentioned in our last blog, the number one reason American employees quit is because of a bad boss or immediate supervisor, according to a Gallup poll. The poll also revealed teams under lackluster leadership are half as productive and 44 percent less profitable than well-managed groups. “In the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,” writes the Gallup team. “The effect of poor management is widely felt.”

Leading from Afar

As if effectively managing a team isn’t difficult enough, leading a distributed team is even more daunting. How does a manager establish authority, earn respect and forge a bond with employees who rarely lay eyes on him? The answer is quite simple: He does the same things traditional managers do—but he does it much better.

“Managing in itself doesn’t really change that much [in a distributed environment],” explains Glenn Dirks of Teletrips, Inc. in Managing a Remote Workforce: Proven Practices from Successful Leaders, a Citrix Online-sponsored Future of Work report. “Managers just have to accept their responsibilities for being a good manager—which means de?ning the work that has to be done, assigning the work to the right people, setting clear performance goals, and then holding people accountable for getting it done.”

Dirk says a leader’s abilities become much clearer in a distributed business where they can’t peer over their team’s shoulders all day long. “In short, the more you go ‘virtual,’ the more the quality of management matters,” he adds.

Explicit Instructions & Big Rules

When remote employees are uncertain about the company’s rules and norms, they can quickly become paranoid. Remote managers have to explicitly communicate expectations to remove that sense of insecurity.

In our experience, most effective distributed team leaders always provide each employee with well-defined, written expectations for their job, explicit instructions for what they should be working on, and clear-cut deadlines for their work. These awesome bosses also define deliverables and schedules—even for areas that don’t generally have defined deliverables.

In a report called Managing a Remote Workforce, authors James Ware and Charles Grantham identify the primary attributes of an effective remote manager based on their conversations with distributed work experts. They say the most successful remote managers not only set clear expectations and goals, but they also establish “explicit ‘Big Rules.’” (There’s that word again: explicit.)

Ware and Grantham say it’s important to clearly define acceptable etiquette, protocols, expectations, norms and values. “Do not assume everyone will understand ‘how things get done around here,’” they emphasize.

Répondez S’il Vous Plaît (Within 24-48 Hours)

But as we mentioned before, the best leaders aren’t just explicit—they’re also accessible. Not only are good bosses easy to approach, but they’re also diligent about responding to their employees’ emails, calendar invites, voicemails, IMs and any other communication within 24 to 48 hours.

In other words, a good boss never leaves his staff hanging. That’s because he realizes that without his advice or guidance, an employee may hit a brick wall or reach a stand-still on a critical project.

This 24 to 48 hour response time is especially critical for distributed teams. Here at Intridea, we’ve found that the use of scheduling, email task-management plugin or CRM tools can help with this quick response time.

Because remote managers don’t work shoulder-to-shoulder with their staff, there are no chance encounters or casual meetings. So if you don’t respond to an employee’s email or request in a timely fashion, you might run the risk of forgetting about it completely. In the meantime, the employee might perceive the delay as sign that you’re not taking her requests seriously.

Bonding Time

Because distributed teams are not physically in the same space, it’s even more important for leaders to make themselves as accessible as possible. At Intridea, all company leaders mark out several hours a week when anyone in the company can schedule a time to talk with them via phone, Skype or other methods.

Additionally, whenever our CEO and Managing Directors travel to New York City, they make a point to let the local team members know they’ll be in town and invite them out to lunch or dinner. This helps them build those personal bonds.

Many people are under the misconception that a distributed company is absolutely 100% remote, and no one ever sees each other in person; or worse, that we never want to see each other. To the contrary, we genuinely value the times we get to see each other face-to-face, and we try to make it happen as often as possible. In fact, unlike traditional companies, we make the most of these encounters, which leads to richer relationships.
Tune into our next blog to discover the three most desirable traits for distributed employees. In the meantime, got any stories for leading distributed teams? Keep the conversation going! We’d love to hear from you.