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Leading Globally Distributed Teams

Sridhar Ramanathan

By sridhar ramanathan
Posted on September 2009 in Market Strategy

If you’re like most executives you manage a global team. But what’s the secret of running a team that cuts across time zones, cultures, and languages? How do you create a strong culture that balances centralized control with distributed authority? What metrics drive the right behaviors and business outcomes when you can’t see your team on a daily basis?

I had a great lunch with my friend, Suresh Balasubramanian, who is a director in charge of a sales/field marketing team in a very large software company. He built a good sized team that spans 13 time zones. Listen in on our lunch conversation and I think you’ll find it both entertaining (see his funny story at the end) and highly informative.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and what your team does?
I work in the worldwide field operations group of this large global software company and we are in charge of operating primarily in the emerging markets and look at new ways to generate demand and acquiring legitimate customers.

You mentioned high scores in an internal survey for team performance and manager effectiveness; can you tell us more about that?

Yes, we conduct annual surveys within the company to measure and sustain a high level of team effectiveness; we also take the opportunity to ensure the team gets to voice their opinion on manager effectiveness among other topics. In the recently conducted survey, my team “ranked” much higher on most dimensions of performance and effectiveness compared to our peer groups and the company as a whole. This is a key indicator of a highly motivated and high performance team. This is especially noteworthy since the team I manage is geographically and culturally diverse spanning over 13 time zones with NO two team members in the same office location

How did you create a culture that spans your highly distributed, global team?

From the very beginning when I got to this company, I knew that it was really important to have a common mission/vision a strong set of “values” that the team can get behind. We spent a lot of time discussing this and developing a core set of values and a mission statement. This exercise helped out quite a bit in developing a culture that focused on performance, success and recognition. The team naturally embraced these values as they are to some extent “universal”. I believe by doing this early on and communicating and demonstrating this as we operated and grew as a team it became a critical part of our success.

What were the important metrics that you use for your “dashboard” on generating sales and demand?
Given this was a highly distributed team, developing some key performance metrics was critical to our success. We created a set of 10-15 metrics that could be set and measured every quarter to ensure that optimal level of performance. By standardizing on a set of metrics for the entire team, it was also easy to compare regions and groups to detect over/under performance and take appropriate action. The metrics were both quantitative like revenue and also qualitative where it measured things like response ratios and press impressions for campaigns.

What are the do’s and don’ts that you’d pass on to executives who run a distributed, global team?

Do’s

  • Do take the time to develop a clear mission/vision/charter and communicate this constantly to the team (and the external stakeholders the team interacts with)
  • Do recognize the strong cultural differences that influence interpersonal behavior that will affect how you interact with members of your team across NA, EMEA, APAC and Japan. As a manager of such a diverse team you have to “flex” your working style to get the best out of your team.
  • Do ensure you have a way to continuously monitor and collect information on key performance metrics. Especially with a global team, it is hard to do “last minute” things.
  • Do take the time to use visuals as much as possible when communicating with a global team. Remember English is not their first language and visual communication goes a long way in ensuring clarity


Don’ts

  • Don’t drop action items/deliverables on the team “last minute” and remember “last minute” for a global team is Friday morning Pacific Time
  • Don’t assume emails are “processed” the same across the world. Some cultures like North America are an email happy culture and most people are on email and will respond right away. Same is not true for other cultures say like Chinese or Japanese, email is treated very differently there and response times/styles vary a lot
  • Don’t take silence as “consent” especially when dealing with cultures where “speaking out” is not encouraged
  • Minimize the use of “idiomatic” expressions in your meetings and presentations. Even something like “hitting the ball out of the park” or “carrot & stick” doesn’t always translate well outside North America!

You coined the term “asynchronous management” over our lunch. What does this mean and why is this important?
This concept of Asynchronous Management ™ started developing in my management style as the team scaled up and we reached a critical mass where there were managers in every manager time zone and region. Each manager had to operate within the parameters on that particular region’s go-to-market but at the same time they were part of this global team with global responsibilities and deliverables. Budget Data / Performance metrics and activity level information was needed from the entire team often at a moment’s notice (when I needed these back at HQ). By developing an interactive online dashboard and instilling a sense of discipline and routine within the team, we got to a point where each team member would update all their data/information during their business hours, yet the information was available to me (real-time) when I needed it. I did not have to “ping” the team last minute to get up to date information. This is the essence of Asynchronous Management™ where you have a global distributed team working on their own schedules/deadlines, yet through technology, business process and general discipline the team is able to present up to date data/information when called upon. This is extremely important in a fast moving field organization where decisions around budget and results are needed instantly. By utilizing this concept I have increased the effectiveness and efficiency of the team tremendously over the last 2 years.

How do you balance centralized control/direction with distributed authority?
Early on in the “forming” part of the team culture, it is critical establish the things that can be developed and executed at the local level and things that need approvals from HQ (myself). Getting to agreement on this helped in rolling out a planning process that balanced the local / regional needs against overall budget / revenue impacting decisions that were handled globally. Actual programs, content and execution took on a regional flavor and had a high degree of integration with our go-to-market activities, whereas budgeting decisions and revenue targets where done globally which ensured that in a given quarter the targets where set with the overall team goals in mind and budget decisions had enough flexibility to assign “optimal” budgets to the regional teams.

What is a memorable story that comes to mind when you think of the organization you built over the last 2.5 years?

My most memorable story will have to be one around the use of idiomatic expressions. I was going over a strategy slide with the entire team and talked about the “carrot & stick” approach. Very quickly I realized that I had lost a good portion of my team as they didn’t understand this expression and some of them did not want to speak up to ask me what this meant! Finally my manager from Germany said “ I don’t understand this , what does this mean?” Then I gave him the whole horse, carrot & stick story and he was still confused! He said “why would you beat the horse?” why feed it carrots, why not give it beer? I can still remember the laughter and if I had been able to see his face, perhaps his confused expression!

Copyright © of Aventi Group 2009. Asynchronous Management ™ as applied in the organization context is a trademark that belongs to Suresh Balasubramanian. Suresh is the author of the narrative responses to Sridhar’s questions.