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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

February 17, 2016

9 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: BsWei)</p>

10 Productivity Hacks To Kick-Start Your Day

10 Productivity Hacks To Kick-Start Your Day

10 Productivity Hacks To Kick-Start Your Day (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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."

Figure 1: (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.]

(Continued on next page)

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10 Unique Perks At Tech Companies

10 Unique Perks At Tech Companies

10 Unique Perks At Tech Companies (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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one strategy for engaging a diverse workforce, and I mean mentoring in both directions." In other words, when managers and employees come from different cultures, each should be expected to learn from the other.

"It's complicated, but it's important for managers to engage in processes that value people's differences," said Tynan. "Those processes are really important, which means that companies can't be too rigid about roles. Flexibility is one of the critical processes that people need to think about when managing a diverse workforce."

Similarly, Edmondson argues that good management is primarily adaptive because, even though there are some recognized best practices, no two human relationships are identical.

"It's good to be knowledgeable about other cultures, but it's better to be curious about them," said Edmondson. "We can know and honor cultural differences but not be bound by them."

[ Is your enterprise ready for this? Read Design Thinking Is Taking Hold At IBM.]

Organizations and leaders, said Edmondson, can create special environments that are conducive to doing great work. She points to the Toyota Production System, which -- in defiance of Japanese cultural norms -- requires that people speak up when a process can be improved. "This is so deeply embedded in that system, and this is not Japanese," she said. "This is TPS."

Creating a sense of a shared goal is often overlooked, according to Edmondson. "Don't assume that because we're all on this team that we have a shared goal," she said. Managers, she explained, have to make workers care about what they're doing "to motivate the hard work of teamwork."

Are You Familiar With Adversity?

David Loftesness has worked as director of engineering at Twitter and as search product architect at Amazon's A9. He is co-writing a book on team management, Scaling Teams: Strategies for Successful Growth. in a phone interview with InformationWeek, Loftesness stressed the importance of recruiting as a way to ensure diversity and to shape the parameters of management.

"It starts with how you recruit," said Loftesness, who said there's a lot more awareness now of the downside of cookie-cutter recruiting. It's important, he said, to move away from questions and interview processes that tend to magnify privilege. Likewise, it's key for hiring managers to recognize that job effectiveness is about more than having a narrow technical skill, like knowledge of data structures.

Figure 2: (Image: GlobalStock)

(Image: GlobalStock)

Loftesness said people who have overcome significant problems in life can often overcome obstacles at work. He added that those raised with privilege can have difficulties when challenged at work, because they're unfamiliar with adversity.

At the same time, Loftesness cautioned that diversity isn't always beneficial in the context of management. "Diversity can slow you down in some cases and create complexity," he said. "For a small team, it can make it hard to get people on the same page."

Like Tynan and Edmondson, Loftesness emphasized that managers need to be flexible and adaptable. "All of management is really context dependent," he said.

Loftesness recounted the case of one co-worker who had a tendency to shoot his mouth off all the time. "This person had received performance feedback about this multiple times," he said, adding that the employee was incredibly valuable as a software engineer.

In trying to figure out how to handle the situation, Loftesness said he came to the conclusion that the engineer wasn't irredeemable. "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."

Managing diverse teams often involves diplomacy. Loftesness said he's seen programmers from non-traditional backgrounds, such as those with university degrees in English and philosophy, struggle to keep up in meetings with peers steeped in technical vocabulary. "Sometimes, people would talk past them and use flowery language to push their way though," he said. "That's something you can coach for, leveling the discussion so that everyone can participate."

Does your company offer the most rewarding place to work in IT? Do you know of an organization that stands out from the pack when it comes to how IT workers are treated? Make your voice heard. Submit your entry now for InformationWeek's People's Choice Award. Full details and a submission form can be found here.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

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 master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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