The world we live in is influenced by a multitude of social, economic and political factors driving rapid change across industries. Its impact is visible in the global markets as well as in our current workplace dynamics. For instance, successfully navigating the global economic landscape is pushing shared service organizations to rely on a geographically dispersed workforce. So, leaders the world over are building location-agnostic teams to harness the best possible expertise and knowledge.
As firms draw on the benefits of international diversity, garnering value from unique experiences remains the top priority. But leading expansive global teams comes with its own share of challenges. With teams spread across continents and functional backgrounds, there’s the risk of deteriorating communication, misunderstandings, failing cooperation and many other pitfalls that need to be avoided. From my own perspective, there is then the added complexity of not actually being based in any of the locations in which my teams are based.
As a leader of over 2,000 core business service professionals within a Global Shared Services organization, what are the advantages and disadvantages of not being based in the same location as my teams?
Advantages of leading a team remotely
- Having an unbiased viewpoint: I often sense in other leaders a natural bias to the teams in their “home” location, even if they have teams in multiple other locations! Not being based in a location with my teams avoids any conscious or unconscious bias toward a particular location.
- Enjoying closer proximity to key stakeholders: The physical proximity to stakeholders should never be underestimated. I have the advantage of being based in the global headquarters and can therefore pop into someone’s office for a chat or grab a quick coffee, which are both powerful tools to build connections.
- Early responsibility is given to my next-level leaders: While I may not be based in the same location as my team, I still need leaders on the ground in these locations. By virtue of the fact I am not around, these location-based leaders have more development opportunities without the pressure of me looking over their shoulders!
Disadvantages of leading a team remotely
- Feeling the pulse is hard: If you are not based permanently out of a given location, as a leader it then becomes incumbent on you to visit your office as much as possible. However, as a “visiting” leader, you are all too often subject to special treatment. This makes it much harder to just be able to “feel” how the teams are doing in terms of motivation, collective wellbeing, energy levels, etc.
- Travelling is not that fun (and not a good use of time!): In the pre-pandemic times, I’d spend two weeks a month on the road, just so I could spend some time with the teams. It is an essential part of any global leadership role, but not one that I necessarily enjoy. It is also not great from an environmental perspective, and I am hopeful that as we come out of the pandemic, the need for so much travel will permanently reduce.
- Solving problems is tougher: Resolving conflicts becomes more challenging when everything has to be done on mails or video conferences. One cannot just sit in a room and thrash out the problem with an instantly developed solution!
So, now that I have outlined the pros and cons of leading a team when not based with them, where does that leave me as a leader? At the end of the day, wherever I am based this is still my team. However different individual members are from one another or whatever language they speak, my number one priority is to embrace those differences and build a seamless single group who are laser-focused on delivering value to our clients.
Ensuring that each and every one of my team feel part of that team, no matter what location they work out of is crucial. We need to be united behind common values and goals, we need to display certain behaviours and have a certain level of knowledge and expertise. As a leader, it is my responsibility to display those values, articulate those goals, model those behaviours and impart knowledge so that all members of my team can help each other learn and deliver the desired client value. Working authentically needs to be a conscious leadership decision and we need to embrace the diversity of our teams and ensure everyone feels included and be able to be themselves.
“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” – M.K. Gandhi
Richard Sheldon is an Enablement Services Group Leader in Markets, BMC Agency and AWS at EY Global Delivery Services. He leads a large team of over 2,000 global shared services professionals across multiple disciplines and geographical locations.
Disclaimer: The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.