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Leading remote teams: Influencing without authority

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Q: A middle-manager for a large global corporation tells us: I’ve been asked to lead a highly-visible project that requires extraordinary cooperation from team members across all functions and many regions. Trouble is, I don’t know any of them well, and I have no direct authority over their work. To be honest, I question how committed they are to the success of this project, since they all seem to be maxed out with their current workload. Any ideas as to how I can galvanize this team from afar?

With everyone carrying a fully-loaded “day job” as it is, persuading team members to invest time and energy in this new project will be a challenge. And since project team members work remotely, it may be tough for you to assess what their level of commitment really is. After all, just because they agree to attend conference calls doesn’t mean they’re really present. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Pick up the phone and introduce yourself. Share your enthusiasm about the project. Let each member know what this project means to the organization and to you personally. Indicate the extent of your expected involvement, in terms of time, attention and activities you will be leading or participating in. Be honest about the challenges you face in pulling the team together, and solicit ideas and guidance for jumpstarting the team.
  • Determine whether team members have a real passion for the project. Do team members see this project as a plum or as a necessary evil? Discover the potential benefits of this project from their perspectives, and speak persuasively about the benefits of project membership from your viewpoint. You may not sell them on the benefits at once, but you can start planting the seed.
  • Assess how much time and energy each team member can realistically invest. Understand the full range of responsibilities team members now carry and how much of their time their current tasks absorb. Ask them candidly how much time they think they can really devote to this project, and over what period of time. For example, some may be able to spend a half-day each week for a month, and others may declare that the best they can do is read email reports to stay informed. Just because someone has been assigned a project doesn’t mean they really have time to participate.
  • Set expectations about the kind of help you need from each member and how frequently. For example, you may require intermittent input and feedback from some team members, while others may be required to play a more time-consuming role on an ongoing basis. If you see a significant disconnect between what you feel is required and what this person has to give, be prepared to request a replacement, and notify the team member of your intentions and rationale.
  • Pay attention to communication preferences and styles. Before you hammer out a team communications plan, take the time to observe how team members communicate most effectively. Do some people communicate more easily in writing? Are some more informative when attending a con call? Do some members seem peeved by requests for more details, while others are frustrated with “blue sky” conversations? Asking people to go against their grain can heighten resistance and diminish enthusiasm. Be prepared to adjust team communications methods to invite more energetic contributions.
  • Honor the contributions of team members at every opportunity. Use multiple channels such as phone, email, and web postings to spotlight great ideas or to celebrate the completion of especially important milestones. Make sure that members’ managers are kept in the loop. Acknowledge suggestions that lead to positive change. Thank people for ideas even if they cannot be implemented, and be sure people understand why some ideas are adopted and others are not.
  • Invite team members to influence and shape your project goals, strategies and tactics. Make sure your request is genuine and not just a token gesture. Acknowledge how this project will benefit by a diversity of perspectives and take the time to ask people what they think. Create an environment where healthy debate and dissenting views are actively encouraged, and build in time for meaningful discussions that will yield richer results.
  • Limit meeting time at first. Reel them in slowly by taking the time to plan and run a few interesting and productive meetings at the outset, where people have an opportunity to learn and contribute. If you later find you need more frequent meetings to get the work done, you may be pleasantly surprised to find calendars clearing more easily for team sessions.
  • Check in frequently. Arrange time to meet with members 1:1 at scheduled intervals to find out how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. Many people may be reluctant to confess to feeling overwhelmed or slipping behind in a team meeting, especially if everyone feels compelled to play the role of good corporate cheerleader. As team members cultivate trust among each other and for you as their leader, these 1:1 sessions may need to be less frequent.

It’s never safe to assume that just because someone has been appointed to a team, that s/he will automatically participate as energetically as you’d like. When you’re leading a team of people over whom you have no direct authority, make the up-front investment to earnestly discuss ideas, goals, and challenges. As a result, you’re far more likely to convince people to jump on board with both feet. And if they can’t make the kind of commitment your project requires, it’s better to know up front while there’s time to do something about it.