Keeping control when you're not in the office: Five tips for managing a dispersed team

Keeping a team working effectively if you rarely meet can be hard: here are some best practices.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Managing a dispersed team can mean some hard people management questions.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andy Williams, global CIO at Save the Children, is well-placed to talk about the challenges involved in successfully managing a global technology organisation: he's responsible for IT across the 120 countries to which the charity delivers its services to children.

Williams also chairs the IT steering group through which the charity decides how technology is used to help fundraising operations. He says his global remit represents a challenging yet hugely rewarding role that provides new leadership lessons on a daily basis.

Williams joined Save the Children in October 2012 and has strived to professionalise internal IT during his time at the charity. He continues to find ways to make the most of both digital technology and his global workforce. From encouraging people to work together to celebrating achievements face-to-face, Williams shares his best practice tips for managing a dispersed team.

1. Embrace the cultural differences you face
Global responsibility is nothing new to Williams. After spending more than 20 years on the consultancy side of the IT industry, he was head hunted by consumer giant Unilever in 2007, where he spent five years running IT transformation. He held two key roles at Unilever, vice president of IT global services and head of IT for Europe.

While Williams ran a widely dispersed team during his time at Unilever, the remit of his IT organisation at Save the Children covers a much broader range of locations. Rather than just serving capital cities, Williams and his team provide resources to islands, outlying cities, and rural locations.

"To be an effective leader of those teams, you have to be naturally curious about the culture they're working in and how it may or may not differ to Western nations," he says. "That's not something you can fake. You have to be authentically curious about the geographical differences you face."

The key, says Williams, is getting to know people in each location. Senior executives must spend time visiting their dispersed areas of responsibility during the early months of any new engagement. "I travelled almost 50 per cent of my time during the first six to eight months in this job," he says.

2. Get your people to put the team first
It's great when people are driven to work hard in their individual roles, but success is also a team game. CIOs with a global remit must create a collective purpose that gives people around the world a reason to communicate and collaborate on a regular basis.

"That's not always easy because people are rightly focused on executing their own individual goals," says Williams. "But it is worth spending time setting team goals in order to help show everyone how interdependence matters."

Williams is a big sports fan and spends time outside work coaching. When it comes to running a global team, he draws on his coaching knowledge and says sport can help explain the most likely route to leadership success.

"You need to understand the positions of your people and the role that they play in each part of the field," says Williams. "But you also need to make sure people get their heads up. You need to help them see that they will only deliver the maximum possible value if they operate as part of a broader team."

3. Make sure everyone knows what success looks like
CIOs running remote teams must strive to find a small number of measurements that help prove success. Having set a collective goal, IT leaders must make clear the two or three things that will only be attainable if everyone contributes.

Williams give the example of a key infrastructure project: Save the Children's IT organisation has recently upgraded about 12,000 devices to Microsoft Windows 10; the global project was completed in just four and a half months.

"You can only run an infrastructure project like that if everyone understands the end goal," he says. "People need to know what success looks like, so they can help each other out and pass on critical information to others."

4. Be prepared to make tough people management decisions
Over time, CIOs might find that certain individuals do not work well as part of a global team. Williams refers to this challenge as the hard edge of the CIO role, suggesting that IT leaders must sometimes make tough decisions.

"While I've approached this global role with a strong focus on coaching, I've also changed a few people," he says.

5. Celebrate the achievements of your team face to face
Williams and his global IT leadership spend a large amount of time communicating in real time via Skype. However, he also invests some of his IT budget in an annual kick-off meeting at the start of the year.

Ten direct reports and the highest performing IT professionals from each of the charity's five business regions around the world come to London for a week every January. Attendees reflect on the attainments of the previous year and set the agenda for the next twelve months.

"We talk about what we've achieved and we celebrate the importance of the team," he says. "IT professionals can find it quite easy to focus solely on the technical elements of their work. CIOs need to give their people the permission to socialise and to get to know each other."

The kick-off week includes a mix of formal and informal events, from strategy planning sessions to a light-hearted awards ceremony. "It's a great way to bring people together and to get everyone talking face to face," says Williams.

"When you send a message saying your people deserve five days together, it proves that you value your personnel. If you don't value your team as a CIO, neither will anyone else."

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