Managing Staff from Afar
How do you add value when you manage staff from afar? That is an increasingly common question these days, as leaders manage staff in different states or countries. Distance can be a barrier but it shouldn’t be an excuse.
Employees often enjoy the freedom of being out from under the corporate eye. Particularly in the case of experienced, self-motivated professionals, autonomy in their own jobs can be the best of two worlds…the benefits and infrastructure of a big company, but the freedom of an entrepreneur. Most field-based employees want to be left alone but don’t want to be forgotten. They want to know what is going on at the home office, they want to weigh in on pending changes, and they want help and advice on complex issues.
While they don’t want a boss checking up on them, they admit having a leader who touches base and provides advice and guidance can be just the right balance between feeling abandoned and feeling smothered.
There are pitfalls to being in the field. Lack of visibility can be a problem. They often don’t get the face time at the home office, so they miss opportunities insiders can jump on. They aren’t put on committees because of the cost and hassle of traveling to attend meetings. They can get too far afield of the company’s guidelines and policies and need to be reined in. They miss important cues because they aren’t plugged in to the corporate politics.
This is where their leader can play an important role. Managing a talented, field employee is a little like being a jockey on a fast, high-spirited horse. You need to apply pressure to guide and pace the “thoroughbred performer” and pull back on the reins when they are going in the wrong direction, but for the most part, you just let them race to the finish line with as few distractions as possible.
So how can you add value when you are their manager? What do you have to offer? Consider that the manager is the cross-pollinator and touch point between each person and the company. Like switch on a railroad line, you control the direction, speed and flow of information. Relying on company emails, or using excuses such as, “They’d rather be left alone to do their jobs,” is just lazy leadership.
Here are some time-tested techniques:
- Touch-base with each person regularly. Some leaders keep a chart that they use to track how often they have spoken to each person in the field. Others schedule a once-a-week/twice a month call in. In some cases, employees may view a call as an interruption but a savvy leader will insist on at least a minimal check in to keep them informed and offer help if needed.
Technology is enabling a variety of venues that feel like face-to-face. For instance, I use videoconferencing to coach executives across the country. It’s almost like being there.
- Rotate field into the home office and vice versa. There is nothing that can duplicate the actual day-to-day experience of living in the other person’s shoes. Field folks who have worked in the home office understand the politics, know how to get things done and can internalize the company position. Home office leaders who have been in the field have gained the practical wisdom of what it takes to execute policies and strategies in the field. They know what will fly and what won’t.
- Get field staff together for face-to-face sessions. Even though they are individual contributors, they can benefit from rubbing shoulders with people who understand their world. It helps them maintain a connection to the company. I know a manager, in an insurance company, who is going to each region and pulling field reps together to review cases in litigation. They all learn from the case and each other. It’s a good way to dip them in the corporate culture and inoculate them with policies and guidelines.
Unfortunately, too many companies bring in field people and turn on a fire hose of information. Days of mind-numbing presentations are not valuable. Field folks usually prefer small-group roundtables where they can digest and dialogue on important issues and relate the information to how it affects them.
- Share best practices. Whether it is online or on a conference call, far flung employees are usually hungry for tips that will make their workday more efficient or effective. Often, they have invented their own creative tricks that no one else knows about. Creating forums where they can share what they do best is a great way to spark learning and motivation. And who doesn’t love showcasing something they do well?
- Give enough time and attention to all your employees, not just the strugglers or high performers. Often a leader will get sucked down the black hole of trying to shore up poor performers. They chase and micromanage them instead of holding them accountable for reporting on their own progress and following through on the action plan you’ve agreed to.
On the flip side, some leaders just want to hang out with the winners, rationalizing the 80/20 rule. Clearly, time management is a balancing act but ignoring one group for another is almost always a mistake. Sometimes pairing a new staff member with a seasoned team member can be a mutual win. Asking an experienced person to share a tough case or to make a presentation at a regional meeting can keep him fresh and provide growth to everyone.
- Don’t over rely on competition. Just because an individual performer is striving for individual goals, doesn’t mean he or she is motivated by winning at the expense of the team. Pitting one against the other can backfire. There is often more to be gained by everyone when the team can celebrate each other’s wins for the sake of all.