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Secrets To Successfully Leading A Diverse, Distributed Workforce

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.

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."






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 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."

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