Building Distributed Teams – Team Leadership

This is the fourth¬†post in my series on Building Distributed Teams. So far, we’ve covered why you need to be building a distributed team, ¬†what makes an ideal distributed team member, and individual vs pods when hiring. As a reminder, this series is focused on building a distributed technology product team. While the principles here might apply to building a distributed sales team, it is not the focus.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the kind of leader you need to be in order to run a successful distributed team.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Successful distributed team leaders have three characteristics in common:

  • They are fully committed to the distributed model, as are the rest of the senior leaders
  • They are able to communicate clearly through written channels
  • They acknowledge the flaws in the model and have the patience to deal with them

I’m going to take these in reverse order.

Be Patient

Things are going to go wrong in a distributed model, and the way they go wrong will be different from a more traditional “office” model. At times things are going to grind to a halt because you will think you’re being clear about a particular topic but you’re not. As a result, work will not be done the way you expected. The temptation will be to blame the model, but you should first look at how you can communicate better.

If you’re consistently not getting the work you’re anticipating, one of the best things you can do is have your team recap what you’ve told them. At the end of every conversation where important decisions were made, ask the team to repeat back to you what you decided and what the next steps are. You will be surprised how often you think you’ve been clear, but everyone heard something completely different.

Instead of getting angry, adjust your processes and be patient.

Clear, Written Communication

If you communicate best by having people in the room with you and collaborating, running up to a whiteboard, or waving your hands frantically to make your point, you’re not going to succeed with a distributed team. An essential skill is to take what is in your head and communicate it through written media.

It doesn’t mean you can’t use a whiteboard, but you have to be able to take what’s on your whiteboard and share it with much more detail than you’d expect.

The ability to draw diagrams (even if simple block diagrams) is an critical.

Last, you must be able to reduce the clutter in your head to clear, written sentences. If you wander all over the place in chat, you’re going to have lousy results. Clear communication, clear directives and clear expectations will help you lead the team.

Commitment to the Model

You can’t dip your toe in the distributed team model. You have to make the decision that you’re going to make it work and then hire appropriately. If you and the rest of your leadership team say things like “Maybe we should try building a distributed team” you will fail.

One other thing: If you have people on your senior team that are not in favor of this model, you either need to change their minds before you start or be prepared to be questioned over and over again. When things go bump, which they will, those who were not in favor of building a distributed team will make this THE issue around why your team is failing. “We really need to have everyone in the same office. It’s just not working.” It may be true that it’s not working, but the answer is rarely as simple as having everyone staring each other in the face all day.

Make the decision and don’t look back. Or, if you don’t think it’s for you, don’t do it. There’s no right or wrong answer here. You have to do what’s best for you.

In our next post, we’re going to cover perhaps the most important factor in distributed team success: Team communication. See you next time!