Why productivity is the only thing that matters when leading international teams

The recent post by Ted Bauer “Why do we confuse “productivity” with “face-time” or “seat-time” at office jobs?” led me to reflect on my time at Tier 1 large multinational corporation when I was managing an international team.

Our organization operated separate legal entities in 30+ countries in Europe. My team was 15 direct reports, with 3 – 5 indirects (pools of people) in those 30+ countries. I utilized most of this pool of people for International Delivery of our in-house developed IT Solutions.

Such environment teaches you quickly to forget “face-time” or “seat-time”. All that matters is the productivity of your team. You have to set goals and create the best possible environment for your team to deliver against those goals. Simple rules are:

  • empower your team and trust they will deliver
  • never dare to care where your people are: office or home office, local Costa Coffee or Starbucks (you name it…)

Your means of communication with each other resort to phone, Skype, Lync meetings or text messaging. You manage to gather all the team together in one room somewhere in a convenient location for everybody – this was Paderborn in Germany in our case – for a couple of days only twice a year at best if you are lucky enough.

As a leader in such set-up, you have to give up controlling. You can’t be that manager who wants control. You have to trust your team enough to delegate responsibility. Then you just sit back, relax and believe all will turn out well.

Once we have sold a shiny new product we have just announced GA to the EMEA market. The customer was in Algeria. Our plan was to send one Consultant to implement the product at the customer site. The installation time required was about 15 mandays of work.

All was arranged for one of my consultants based in Spain to fly over to Algeria. It was just a quick flight over the Mediterranean Sea. Out of a blue just days before we agreed with the customer on the schedule, I have receieved a call from our local HR department in Spain. They’ve told me that unfortunately, they cannot allow the person from my team to fly to Algeria due to safety concerns; and that this is now a company-wide policy due to serious incident recently.

As you can imagine, in the corporate environment this means immediate escalations, senior VP involvements and internal politics. I came to the conclusion that the only thing we could do to move forward was to involve our two engineers who worked for our company in Algeria. Problem was, they had no experience whatsoever with our shiny new product. The plan was to do a dry-run of the implementation with those two engineers via webex and remote access on our kit in Paderborn. And then let them do the implementation by themself at the customer site.

Despite many sceptical voices in the company; and these came mostly from those types of managers who wanted control (“this cannot be done like that!”), this approach was a success.

Lessons learned? Physical location of people involved in this project did not matter. Office hours (“seat-time” or “face-time”) did not matter. What did matter was to achieve the goal. We had to be productive. I had to ensure my team cared enough about their work and about our customer. How do you ensure there’s such a commitment in your team?

Surely not by enforcing “seat-time”. And surely not by the “if you’re not in the office 9 to 5, then you may not be doing anything” approach.