Leadership

Four Easy Ways to Make Remote Employees Work

I had a discussion yesterday with a client about hiring an out of territory sales rep. The company has never done it before and is skeptical a salesperson could be effective in this role.

In the current state, that may be true for them, but continued growth - particularly in niche industries - is eventually going to demand it. Being able to do so earlier will open a wider and more skilled talent pool to the company.

Here are four things that can make it easier and more likely to be successful:

Upgrade Core Technology

This does not need to be expensive. The odds are you already own most of these things, you're just not using them. The following tools are critical:

  1. VOIP Telephony: The phone system should have the ability to have a phone with an internal extension anywhere with internet access and should have a mobile app that allows 
  2. Cloud Apps: Ideally these are web-based, but if you have a Citrix environment or a terminal server, that's just fine. The point is, people should be able to access all of your core applications from the field at any time.
  3. Instant Messenger: You already own this, your employees probably just aren't using it yet.

And the following tools are nice to have:

  1. CRM: If you aren't using it yet you should be anyway - no matter how many salespeople you have. If you are onboarding remote salespeople, CRM will be critical to making them successful - particularly if there are backoffice or internal sales and service folks they will be working on the same customers with.
  2. Collaboration tool like Slack which is a great way to organize subject or project-specific internal conversations
  3. Video Conferencing: You may already own something that offers this as well (Google Hangouts, Microsoft Skype) but it takes some heavy management to get people to use it regularly. Video can really shrink the distance between a central team and remote workers.

Organize Your Content

Odds are your information is fragmented across the company. Using a tool like Google Drive, Microsoft SharePoint, or even Box or Dropbox, organize the information that the prospective employees will need to do their jobs. Your employees should get away from storing things in their own hierarchies and on their own devices anyways.

This exercise will also force you and your employees to rationalize what's really important and identify clear gaps in your documentation. Work to fill these gaps over time as you on-board new employees and get them up to speed.

Institute Management Reporting

"Management by walking around" is a great discipline but in the modern work environment it needs to be paired with some level of regular reporting and data-based analysis.

Work with management to develop the core, key management report - both activity-based and output based - that gives them an understanding of what's happening in their department at a macro level. Ideally, generate these from a centralized system (e.g. CRM, order management, production management) rather than asking people to compile them manually.

Once again, this is just a good management discipline. Regardless of whether you're adding remote workers you should be doing this; but in order to be able to manage remote workers this is absolutely critical.

Hire Millennials

That's right. Seek out and hire millennials.

They will challenge you in some ways - they'll ask for more flexible schedules, they will want more feedback from their managers, and they will want a collaborative and fun work environment. Embrace it.

They will also show you how they can be effective under these alternative arrangements. You will need to work with them to find the balance between flexible and traditional.

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[Breathe] Presence [Breathe]

When I was in big consulting, we were taught how "presence" is critical to providing excellent client service. There were big picture ideas like "make the person know you're listening and want to learn learn more" to tips like "put your phone face down," "take handwritten notes," and "look the presenter in the eye."

As I have worked to get my business up and running over the past four months, I have discovered a subtler, more pervasive element of "presence." It's the presence that builds a community of supporters around you in every facet of your life. When there are other obligations; when you can't figure out how you will catch-up, you still need to "come up for air", so-to-speak - breathe, relax, and remove distractions for a little time to offer your presence to the people around you.

I attended an event recently where there were four sponsoring entities. I know for a fact that two of the entities are struggling - one reputationally and one financially. The other two are doing quite well - strong growth, good brand, community support, etc. Two entities had senior leaders show up to the event, two didn't. Guess who was who.

I'm sure if you spoke with the two who didn't attend they would offer good reasons - I won't even call them excuses, because it's really the judgement they made on tradeoffs of attending or not. No doubt there were other pressing matters they needed to attend to and the individuals may even have made a decision I would agree with if I knew all the details.

But to the people at an event, appearance is binary. They didn't need to be there to have a meaningful discussion or present a new cutting edge viewpoint. They needed to say "hi, thanks for coming", and shake a few hands. They needed to be recognized by a few other attendees. That would have made it feel like they were part of it. Their printed logo on a flyer did not.

The way I have internalized this is to participate in the community as much as possible. Go to events without the intent of selling yourself. Be seen. Say hi. Follow-up with emails or tweets. And don't do it once - go to events where you will see the same people 3, 4, 5 times. Become a known entity. Care about the people you meet.

It takes time but people gradually begin to trust you; to know that you are grateful to get to know them and their interests in the community. Two months ago I doubted I was spending my time in the right places. But as I get further into this journey, I realize that even if I don't make a new connection; even if I only see someone I saw two weeks ago and shake hands and talk for 30 seconds, it is usually worth it.

This will get more complex as things get busier, no doubt. I will choose (and have chosen) family and work events over another breakfast or cocktail hour and I will continue to do so. But when figuring out how to balance work and life, I will save time to just be places; to relax, breathe, and show up smiling and excited to see friends and acquaintances and to meet new people.

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The Culture of Successful Projects and the Superbowl

As has been noted ad-naseum today, last night's Superbowl commercials were decidedly more subdued than in past years and many brands made a clear pivot to conveying more "authenticity" in their brands. I would like to think this is a good thing, but there were a few brands who...well, let's charitably say they didn't do this very well.

The worst sequence of ads reminded me of the characteristics of dysfunctional project teams. It came from InBev's Anheuser-Busch who managed to turn themselves in a bully with three commercials. I couldn't help but think how emblematic they were of my least favorite managers and implementation partners. Let's go through their sequence:

First, they aired a commercial intended to convince people to return to Budweiser by mocking craft beers and the people who drink them. Full disclosure: I am a bit of a craft beer fan. What you'll usually find in my fridge is either from Two Roads (Probably their "Road 2 Ruin" double IPA) or from our local Stamford brewery, Half Full. Let's first say that this campaign doesn't make any sense: Budweiser is in the process of aggressively buying craft breweries and marketing them as "craft" brands trying to win back some of the 15% of the market that hundreds of local breweries have taken from them. But then, they try and do that by mocking - without any relevant content - the people who enjoy these products. It's a really unfortunate, bullying approach.

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

Then, that lost puppy commercial. Trust me when I say that my wife and I love puppies like everyone else in America. We have a dog. She was a puppy once and we enjoyed that. I "like" puppy pictures on Facebook when my friends welcome new canine members of their families. I legitimately enjoy puppies. Despite this, my wife and I looked at each other after this Budweiser ad and said "That was basically offensive." It felt like Budweiser was trying to manipulate us into liking them - not that they were making an authentic connection. It was focused on creating a tenuous emotional connection to their logo rather than anything to do with their product. It didn't work for us.

Finally, AB aired the obligatory "drink responsibly" commercial also containing, for some inexplicable reason, a dog. How about a wife and kids? Maybe families of someone else on the road that night? Anyway, I actually didn't have much of an issue with this ad in isolation but found it to be problematic in their sequence.

So, in about 90 total seconds, InBev AB:

  1. Mocked everyone who doesn't like their product
  2. Tried to emotionally manipulate us into liking their corporate logo with a commercial that had nothing to do with their product
  3. Insisted that they are good guys because they want people to be "responsible" with their product and protect their dogs or families, or something.

Insult your opinion. Try to break you down emotionally with messaging unrelated to the main topic at-hand. Protect themselves from blowback by insisting they are good guys and only have your best interests at the top of their mind. Sound familiar?

This happens on big, hard projects all the time and it's the best leaders and managers who can craft a culture that redirects these tendencies. It only takes one person on the team who embodies AB's approach to damage everyone on your team. This will not only damage the mentalities of the people on your team, but create an unhelpful, unproductive and highly political environment that will make it difficult to get meaningful things done. 

There are many approaches to avoiding this type of team culture, but I'll outline five of my favorites here:

  1. Repeat early, often, and in every venue, that all opinions are important. Thank people for sharing their opinions even when they are not necessarily productive. Eventually be direct (and nice) about your viewpoint, but during the process of developing it be thoughtful about every idea and opinion. Avoid mockery or belittlement at all costs and never, ever condescend someone because of an opinion they provide. Assume they arrived at their opinion thoughtfully and probe it - don't seek to discredit it.
  2. Avoid the blame game. Things will go wrong. People will make mistakes. At least once (probably more), someone on the team will make a mistake that requires everyone else do a lot of work to correct it. That's unfortunate, but it will happen. These projects aren't hard because they require everyone to work hundreds of hours towards linear goals: they are hard because there are hundreds of interlocking decisions, ideas and goals that have to interact perfectly. The biggest sentence to avoid: "How could this happen?" There is almost never a productive answer that will help you move forward. The answer is that it's because people are people and you're asking them to do something difficult. One of my favorite quotes to use here comes from HBO's "Too Big to Fail" - [paraphrased] "If you want to go back in time and figure out what happened we can do that later, but right now we need a solution and we need it quickly."

  3. Keep the main thing the main thing. Be the person to redirect the conversation. People will try to use their version of Labrador puppies to sway others to their point of view. Don't let them. You need to be the person to (again, nicely) redirect the conversation to the main question you are trying to answer. There will be lots of good stories, lots of interesting ideas and lots of ways to never solve your hardest problems. State the intent of every conversation or meeting and make sure the dialogue is productive and stays on track.
  4. Meet people where they are. Make authentic connections by being interested in their interests. Do not force generic tropes or mindless sentimentality on them - make an impact by listening to their stories, picking up on queues about their interests and openly expressing interest. I had a client with a division in the Netherlands during the 2010 World Cup. Many of us Americans knew very little about soccer, but some of our team members talked to our Dutch colleagues about the game, its cultural implications, why it was important to them, etc. Many of those discussions turned into real friendships which, in turn, led to a wonderful, productive work environment. It's only because those were real conversations. 
  5. Own it. This is repeated so frequently that I hesitated putting it on this list, but I've seen this at so many clients I feel it still needs to be said. After Russell Wilson's game-ending interception last night, Pete Carroll went to the media and completely owned the turnover. It wasn't a bad pass, there wasn't anything wrong with the route or the receiver, it was a play that he wanted to run that just didn't work out and that was his decision. I loved that. When things go wrong and it starts to point back to you or one of your team members, don't say "well yeah but I'm a good guy because I want you to drink responsibly and I do nice things for people all the time and I give my time to charities and I donate to my alma-mater and...and...and." Just own the mistake, apologize and move on. People will respect it and forgive the mistakes.

No matter what AB's Superbowl ads were, I wasn't going to suddenly start drinking Budweiser. But I could have at least enjoyed the ads and not thought less of the company. Instead, they embodied everything bad about poorly run projects.

Poorly run projects are just awful: they wreck careers, they destroy people's self-confidence, they industrialize an organization's worst cultural tendencies. They represent horrible opportunity cost because good projects can serve as the spark to turn companies around.

Don't run your projects like Anheuser-Busch. Run them like a carefree Labrador puppy trekking back to his best horse friend after sleeping on a not-so-smart craft-brew fan's couch the night before because he had integrity and cared about being responsible.

See what I mean?

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