Managing diverse, multi-location teams

The management challenges for CIOs are only going to grow in the digital age. The question is: are they ready?

According to Theodore Levitt (author of “Thinking about Management”), the problem is that most managers manage for yesterday’s conditions, because yesterday is where they got their experiences and had their success. But management is about tomorrow, not yesterday.”

Leadership, for this reason, needs to enable an increasingly diverse set of employees across multiple locations. Leaders especially CIOs, need to act like cultural anthropologists to succeed.

Simply put wherever they are, they need to be able to decipher the cultural axioms and manage the organization, so it achieves its goals especially regarding its digital future.

Typically, in employee surveys, senior management rank lower than immediate supervisors. Does it have to be this way?

Some CIOs feel this occurs for the same reason that many people hate the Congress but love their Congress person. Relationships built on personal interactions are valued. Employees, in similar fashion, can deal with their supervisor daily. How often do they get to interact with executives? The supervisor relationship simply put is person-to-person.

Other CIOs speculate that lower senior leader ratings are really tied to employee performance reviews where raises are passed out based upon forced rankings. In this process, immediate managers are seen to be fighting for their people, while higher ups cannot show the same passion for people.

CIOs believe, fortunately, that senior leaders can change the perception, but they must work at achieving it. This is probably why so few leaders do so. Leadership, nevertheless, exists that does a great job of outreach—several exist within the #CIOChat. The call to leadership is something that all leaders should spend more time on. Smart leaders care about the directionality of feedback. They want to know whether it shows improvement or not. What do the results say about why it is lower, and is there a root problem that can be addressed? One CIOs said here, “it is helpful to dig into employee surveys to understand what bits of leaders don't rank well”. 

The frequency of feedback is a common question. Do CIOs wait until the yearly review to talk to their people? If so, why aren't they communicating more frequently? Discussion should be taking place all the time. Transparency in communications matters.

Are diverse, multi-location teams the future?

CIOs have differing opinions regarding this topic. Some say it is strictly a function of organizational structure. Clearly, not all organizations will be multi-location, but many will increasingly be. CIOs think that the future will require multi-location including different time zones, even for universities. However, for organizations that are single location, remote work and remote workers will become more common. Clearly, with high-speed interconnect, colocation is becoming less important than 5 years ago. With this said, it remains critical that leaders enable connection building activities. There needs to be occasional in person meetings to form a team. Many organizations are resistant to remote staff, but it is free benefit and is often more productive than working in a shared desk environment.

At the same time, the businesses and CIOs must work with more partners versus internal employees as companies look to put more and more to source externally where feasible. For many, they will have smaller internal team with many more contractors.

While CIOs say governmental agencies have tended to have policies discouraging remote work, CIOs are moving in this direction. Zoom, Slack--all sorts of communication tools--have made it easier. And it's not just about building an engaged team, it's also about engaging with customers. In higher education, CIO success may depend on whether they can accept that the educational experience can be independent of geography.

Having said this, another CIO said they currently are developing a replacement portal and the development teams for this effort are geographically dispersed. How should CIOs manage this? A DevOps culture predicated on constant communication is seen by this CIO as the solution. Clearly, CIOs need to find ways for the team to interact in person from time to time (either conferences or a couple times a year at the mothership). Also, CIOs say use video rather than phone whenever possible. Many find better engagement with video chat over phone. One CIO said extolled the virtues of have daily Zoom leadership meetings and notes from those meetings made available to all staff via a Google doc. This can provide needed access and transparency. And G-Suite has even added a video option that is apparently easy to you.

With regards to diversity, CIOs say that they are hopeful that the future will be more diverse. The building of teams is a key to the future. One CIO said that a recent event focused on a team that logs into Zoom all day long every day to create a "virtual team room". They simply un-mute when they need to ask for interaction/help. It is important to not relegate engagement downstream - not just keep it at highest level of organization. Companies that share employee interaction/engagement across locations build more cohesive teams. One CIO said that as a funny aside, one of their mountain time zone staffers came in to give them a hug today. They were a bit shocked, but very happy, to see her "in the flesh."

Another CIO said they always have a director at each location that they trusted to handle day to day and has great communication skills to work with business they supported. I don't think you have to change job description. Just change what you tell the recruiter to get more diverse candidates.

If teams are more diverse, how about leadership?

CIOs believe completely in leadership diversity. Broader job descriptions and requirements that recognize that formal training is often less important over time than potential, attitude, and willingness to grow. Diversity, they say, creates strength and flexibility. You need to look at what you need to get the job done and determine what the minimum set of concrete skills are. As well, it is important to find someone to push on assumptions and history. This will leave the organization open to new types of responses that may even surprise leaders.

Leadership, CIOs believe should reflect the workforce and the community served. One CIO said here that they only have 4 or 5 actual job requirements. CIOs stress the need to avoid a laundry list of desired qualifications that ensure you aren’t using culturally biased language. Instead, CIOs say you should for example eliminate degree requirements in favor of skill requirements.

It is important that leaders be involved and reevaluating their hiring practices frequently. Building cultural competencies in the hiring process, in addition to job requirements is one way to attract a wider audience. The rate of change is increasing and we, as IT leaders, need to shift our thinking to best accommodate it. This applies to organization, culture, process, technology, data, and relationships.

And part of this is shifting things around so you can embrace remote work and the life needs of employees. One CIO said that they were lucky enough to not have this problem. 6 of their 8 directors are women and probably 40% of rest of staff. Their retention is great, and they say that they owe it to the outstanding directors who made it a great environment for women to work.

Where cross team integration is required, what steps should CIOs take to enable coordination and working together?

CIOs say start by getting senior management buy-in. With this, they say ensure everyone can connect and communicate. With this complete, they say make cross-team integration easy. The key is to have a great project manager who handles the entire integrated team. It doesn’t matter if the PM comes from the business or IT. However, the PM must have both ITs and the business sponsors backing.

Meanwhile, it is important to ask your folks what great culture looks like. With this, CIOs need to find ways to foster great teams. As well they need to reinforce this in a positive manner. Here, they say that IT leaders shouldn’t focus on tools but make tools available and build habits around them to make them part of your flow. A key thing is for CIOs to find out where does the existing culture encourage decision making and collaboration deep into the organization. If you must give people permission to work together the organization has already failed. A big part of this is quickly determining what to invest in, investigate those potentials, or revisit decisions later.

Leadership today needs to be able to manage an increasingly diverse and multilocation workforce. This is essential to get diverse points of view and managing for disruption. Additionally, it needs to move from a focus on span of control to cheerleading and chartering. In this mode, effective leaders especially CIOs need to act like cultural anthropologists to succeed. Simply put wherever they are they need to be able to quickly decipher the cultural axioms and manage the organization, so it obtains its goals especially around its digital future.

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