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Secrets To Successfully Leading A Diverse, Distributed Workforce

The workplace has become more diverse and dispersed. Managers need to adapt by listening, embracing curiosity, and finding way to encourage engagement.

10 Productivity Hacks To Kick-Start Your Day
10 Productivity Hacks To Kick-Start Your Day
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Leading IT teams in the modern workplace presents challenges for many managers. Technology has transformed the nature of work and the way workers can participate from distant locations. But IT managers haven't necessarily adapted or acquired the appropriate skills.

In a telephone interview with InformationWeek, Katy Tynan, managing director at CoreAxis Consulting, said that technology companies, in particular, often struggle because they promote people who are great individual contributors into leadership roles. But not everyone is prepared for, or desires, that responsibility, she said.

Tynan, who will be presenting on this topic at Interop in Las Vegas on May 3, said the ability to manage teams composed of people from different backgrounds and different locations has become much more important.  Collaboration and communication technology has helped open doors, while there is growing recognition by companies that diversity empowers innovation, a belief backed by numerous studies.

[ What's ahead for your career? Read 10 Best Tech Jobs For 2016. ]

Managers of diverse IT teams need to understand how to motivate workers and how to help them engage with one another across cultural, ethnic, and gender differences and across geographic boundaries. They also need to understand how to deal with different expectations among workers, some of whom may prefer the flexibility of part-time work to traditional full-time employment. And, they need to have a grasp of the tools available to help them manage.

Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, said in a phone interview that technology increases the odds that you'll be working with virtual teams at some stage in your career. "That creates a set of novel challenges and increases the likelihood that people will be working together across cultural boundaries," she said. "So the question becomes, 'What can team leaders do to be effective?'"

Yahoo: What Not To Do

Yahoo, said Tynan, provides an example of what not to do. In 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer disallowed working from home in what she characterized as an effort to improve communication and collaboration. The result was huge employee turnover, said Tynan, who acknowledged that the plan may have been designed to prompt employees to leave so the company could avoid layoffs.

"Yahoo has not been successful and did not turn around," said Tynan. "I think part of that is the company rejected a dispersed workforce."

(Image: BsWei)

(Image: BsWei)

Yahoo's troubles are more complicated than that -- its inability to compete as an ad platform has doomed it -- but noted business leaders such as Richard Branson and Sheryl Sandberg have argued that Mayer erred in her decision. Some research supports remote work programs, but the case for telecommuting isn't necessarily clear-cut. A 2014 Gallup poll indicates that the benefits of telecommuting apply only when employees work remotely 20% of the time or less. Let it suffice to say that morale matters.

Edmondson offered a counter-example in Tristram Carfrae's oversight of the design and construction of the Water Cube at the National Aquatics Center for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. Carfrae, deputy chair of global professional services firm Arup, "did a magnificent job" managing the project, said Edmondson. He created trusting relationships between dispersed, culturally different teams through visits to each other's sites, and he employed cultural ambassadors to bridge different groups, she said.

The Water Cube, said Edmondson, was completed on budget, on deadline, and was innovative, sustainable, flexible, and beautiful. "What they did wasn't rocket science in terms of leadership," she said. "What's surprising and rare is doing it so consistently and effectively. The challenge is to remain aware of the need for leadership to make things work well. The assumption is good work is enough. It's just not so. Boundaries must be curated and managed."

The design and construction of Autodesk's headquarters in Waltham, Mass., in 2009 presents another example of compelling leadership, said Edmondson. "They did something called Integrated Project Delivery," she explained. "Everyone got together to brainstorm about how to make the project as innovative and exciting and efficient as it could be. Phil Bernstein, an architect who led the project for Autodesk, did a great job of project management and of managing interpersonal relationships among disciplines with historical animosity."

Invest In Management Skills

To achieve positive results, Tynan said, management has to be managed. "Companies need to invest more time and resources into helping entry-level and mid-level managers so they can develop management skills," she said.

With regard to diversity, Tynan stresses the importance of mentoring. "Mentoring is probably the number

[Correction: In a previous version of this article, Phil Bernstein was misidentified as as Scott Simpson.]

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2016 | 1:14:14 PM

"He was someone who had no filter on his language," he said. "The accommodation was making sure everyone on the team could handle him. It was really about creating awareness of his difference, and making it clear what I thought and why I thought it was important to have this person on the team. After that, I didn't hear any more complaints. People understood."

Yes, they understood complaining about him wasn't going to help anymore. This goes to the point of ridiculousness. The "awareness of his difference" was that he was rude/crude/etc. Shoot ing your mouth off enough to get complaints probably means he was being entirely disrespectful to many people. This isn't a cultural diversity point, it's just bad behavior. I'm all for making sure everyone, regardless of their gender, sexual preference, race, creed etc. can have a shot within any given company, but why does that include people who are disrepectful of everyone else?

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