Leadership in a 24/7 World

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It takes a certain kind of individual to manage teams across multiple territories. Apart from being able to laugh in the face of jet lag, these business leaders must be brilliant communicators, using technology to stay in touch with their teams while also knowing the value of making those face-to-face meetings. What’s clear is that the complexity, not to mention pressure, of being a global leader shouldn’t be underestimated.

Helen Grace, VP for Global Airport Sales at financial services firm American Express, has spent the last 18 months launching multiple new foreign exchange offices across four countries, requiring more than 100 days of living out of a suitcase. “I need to be ready to mobilise very fast if needed,” she says. “[You must] be organised and know what you’re doing… I think that the quality needed in managers is the ability to inspire people. You must have loyalty and commitment and you should be ready to trigger that when you need it.”

Establishing good relationships with those on the ground is crucial. Leslie van de Walle, Chairman of international recruitment consultancy Robert Walters and a Criticaleye Associate, says: “When you have managed to establish personal contact and trust with each of your remote employees and when, as a management team, you trust each other, you don’t need to meet physically to continue those relationships.”

A sound understanding of the markets at hand will also be important when developing those relationships. Ruth Cairnie, Executive Vice President for Strategy and Planning at Shell, says: “When you travel around, make sure that you’re talking in a very open way to the local teams… You really do have to listen to people’s concerns and help them to address these in the context of your overall direction.”

Ian Mills, Group Vice President of the Worldwide Technical Expertise Platform at global service solutions business Sodexo, comments: “Things like accuracy of data and reporting all come into line, but again, you’ve got to be culturally aware [particularly of] the way business language is used. Quite often people can say things that have totally different meanings to other international standards… Once you’re confident [you’ve been understood] and they have that trust in you, you’ll be able to much more easily operate a networked, remote relationship.”

Given that you won’t able to manage directly, the culture and tone of leadership in an organisation take on added importance. Ruth says: “I believe very strongly that command and control is the wrong leadership style anyway; partly because of the geographical spread, but also the scale and complexity of operations. I think you’re going to be much less effective as an organisation if you’ve got one small team trying to make all the decisions, which is why you have to be really clear about what you want people to be doing.”

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Staying connected 

Those embarking on the jet-setting, 24/7 lifestyle of a global manager must learn to find workable methods to stay in touch and keep on top of things, whether it’s via email, phone calls or other connective technology. Michael Thorley, Partner at leadership and organisational change consultancy Transcend, comments: “There is a fundamentally different skill-set to working virtually than there is to working within your own geography. Many organisations assume that you can train and develop people to go into that, but you have to fundamentally look at what it’s about… What kind of protocol is there for using technology such as webinars and video conferencing? How are people supported when they are doing virtual working?”

Ian says: “Technology is vital to be able to communicate and be efficient. I can’t visit 80 countries, it is impossible. The advance of technology such as telepresence, does give some advantage because you can watch body language much more so than a video conference, and that helps you understand the engagement of the people you are talking to.”

The other side to this, of course, is the personal challenges of gruelling hours and constantly being faced with complex problems to solve. Gary Kildare, Chief HR Officer, Global Technology Services at IBM, says: “Some leaders thrive on the heavy workload, of being accessible 24/7 and changing time zones – but it’s important to find ways to switch off and step back and to create ‘personal boundaries’, although this is very unlikely to be in terms of fixed hours or days.”

Helen comments: “You have to be fair on yourself and your team. I practice taking the time back and I don’t monitor it, and I’m really delighted when a team member says: ‘Next week, I want to spend some time with my family on a Friday afternoon.’ It’s more based on trust and judgement than on formal process. It’s no easy task but discipline is the key to an enjoyable time.”

Stress and burnout are no good for anyone. Provided there is an element of balance, those who take on an international role do so because they relish the challenge. Ruth says: “Just the opportunity to work actively with people from all across the world is something from which I gain huge stimulation and understanding.”

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