Meet the World’s Most Virtual Manager
Three lessons from the next frontier of managing
Thomas Winter works from a village of 3,000 people outside Zurich, Switzerland. Not a single member of his 100-person team works in the country. He conducts weekly meetings and delivers performance reviews virtually using video conferencing. He’s accountable to business leaders in Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters and others in cities across the globe. Oh, did I mention his team is responsible for driving adoption of a new commerce platform for $40 billion in Cisco product revenue through 1,000 partner organizations and 20,000 Cisco sellers?
What’s interesting talking to him is how normal all this seems to him. Jack Welch recently said, “The Jack Welch of the future cannot be like me.” Talking to Thomas, I’m pretty sure I’m getting a glimpse of one of those “jobs of the future.” A new frontier of managing from anywhere using virtual technologies is emerging. So what does it take? If new opportunities present themselves but require – or allow – us to lead virtually, how ready are you?
Here are three take-aways from my conversation with the person I’m dubbing, the “world’s most virtual manager”:
1. Going virtual means you have to find new ways to play to your strengths. “I’m genuinely interested in people, but all of a sudden I’m not a local manager anymore and I couldn’t do the things I would naturally do – like going to dinner – to learn about people.” His advice: get good at three virtual skills. First, engage via social media such as Facebook or Twitter to see if you can learn about people’s interests; “You have to be the one to reach out,” Thomas points out. Second, make a much, much bigger effort at remembering and documenting conversations with people and moving those discussions forward. “How many people remember what they talked about with you last month?” Third, focus your listening skills on “audio clues” that reveal a person’s true feelings or concerns. “Listening for people’s tones is a new skill for me.” Industrial psychologists have long known that up to 90 percent of what people truly hope to communicate can be found in body language – not our words. I found this idea of “tones” an interesting new twist on an old idea, and I’m going to incorporate it into how I manage.
2. Dedicate 5-7 hours a day to engaging or communicating. “I wasn’t ready to re-locate, but I quickly realized I had a corporate job, a headquarter kind of job.” Nine time zones removed from California, Thomas determined he had seven critical hours each day when most of his business partners and team are working – from 2-6 p.m. and 9-12 p.m., Zurich time. Those are his set engagement hours. But it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that meetings serve the same purpose as informal communications with a teammate. His advice: set specific goals to balance scheduled meetings with ad hoc time. “I want to walk in the shoes of my peers and my people, and if you really want to get to know people, you will have to take ad hoc meetings to a whole new level.”
3. Courageous leadership now includes what meetings you will or won’t attend. “I had carved out dinner for my family, but that wasn’t enough,” he told me. As leaders there is a good lesson here: Not all meetings are created equal with the same degree of purpose. The hardest part: “Telling your boss you won’t meet because it is Friday night at home.” (My Cisco colleague Carl Wiese and I devoted an entire chapter in The Collaboration Imperative to the more productive use of meeting time, a chapter appropriately called, “Stop Wasting Time.”)
As a percentage of Cisco’s population, virtual workers like Thomas receive a higher share of the top grades in the company’s performance management system. This is exactly why CEOs and line of business leaders find collaboration so attractive as an organizational strategy to “go faster” in their pursuit of market opportunities. The war for talent is a critical lever in winning those opportunities. It takes more than video to make it work, but with a little bit of effort, it’s possible to virtually manage every bit as effective as a local manager – maybe even more effective.