A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 25, 2015

Making Time for Face Time in the Digitally-Driven Global Economy

Who says you can't be two places at once? This is a 24-7 world. We're mobile, agile and hostile. There must be someone working on a time-travel patent by now.

But in the interim, for those whose direct reports remain humans rather than algorithms or server farms, there is this issue of having to communicate. You know: listening, sharing, emoting and all that other people stuff that makes texting so much more efficient.

And, as the following article explains, this human-to-human interface is optimally managed in person. An exchange, in the historic sense of the word, no Snapchatting.

Given that most people would just as soon text, email or Facebook rather than walk 50 feet across the office to actually talk, this is a bit of a challenge. Especially when you're expected to manage teams in three different time zones and clients in five more. You'll figure it out. Just ask your smartphone to set it up. JL

Joann Lublin reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Businesses expect senior leaders to both manage far-flung teams and spend more time with distant clients. Face-to-face encounters are much more revealing than a text or an email.
Alan Buckelew, chief operations officer of Carnival Corp., moved to Shanghai last September so he could help the world’s biggest cruise-ship company expand in China. He still supervises five executives at its Miami headquarters.
A heavy workload forced Mr. Buckelew to conduct year-end performance reviews for three of those deputies via videoconference—but he wasn’t happy about it.
“A review is probably the one time when you want to be physically present,” Mr. Buckelew says. He says he apologized to them about his Miami absence, and vows to evaluate every lieutenant face-to-face this year.
As businesses expect more senior leaders to both manage more far-flung teams and spend more time with distant clients, face time has become a precious commodity—and a source of professional agita. Technologies like videoconferencing and enterprise social networks claim to enable true connection over great distances, but the reality is often is far from perfect.
When it comes down to it, there is still no good substitute for being in the same room with a direct report or a high-level boss, many executives say. Yet there is little consensus about how much face time it takes to manage effectively.

“Few executives can deliver business results quickly and engage their people at the same time,’’ says Matt Paese, vice president of succession management and C-suite services for leadership consultants Development Dimensions International. “But increasingly, our corporate clients try to hire or grow ones who can,” because they recognize “they can’t sustain business growth without a healthy culture.”
Hands-off leadership carries career risks. Take, for example, Louis Chenevert, who abruptly relinquished command of conglomerate United Technologies Corp. in November 2014 amid criticism that he was too detached from his top team.
Traveling frequently for work can leave employees without adequate feedback or a boss wondering whether you manage well, suggests Bruce Tulgan, author and chief executive of Rainmaker Thinking Inc., a management researchand training firm. “You have to be there to problem-solve.”
Ramesh Tainwala, CEO of luggage maker Samonite International S.A., says that after advancing into the top job in October, he quickly replaced its head of Latin America because the man ran the region from Denver and spent only 40 days a year in Latin America. (Samsonite previously had been based in Denver.)
“Unless you are in the field with your people, it’s difficult for you to manage it,” he adds.
The new head of Latin America is based in Chile, but is almost constantly on the road. Mr. Tainwala told him, “You need to be traveling 20 to 25 days a month” in the new role.
Mr. Tainwala himself travels 25 days a month for Samsonite from his base in Hong Kong. Since becoming CEO last fall, he has held four face-to-face sessions with his senior management team, stationed in four regions world-wide. An April 13 session in Mansfield, Mass., will be his third far from Hong Kong.
“A conference call cannot substitute for face-to-face interactions,” Mr. Tainwala continues. “When we meet in person, we almost hear each other’s thoughts.”
Yet a distant boss with a sudden yen for face time may encounter resistance from subordinates. That happened to a senior manager at an environmental consulting firm in 2012.
The manager realized she had been too hands-off with her team, missing meetings due to conflicting client demands, she told Mr. Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking after attending his seminar about being a highly engaged boss. She soon scheduled half-hour sessions with each team member.
Several staffers bristled at the sudden outreach, complaining that she was micromanaging them, according to Mr. Tulgan. She convened a meeting to explain how her increased engagement could be helpful. “I want you to help me help you,” she said. Her team adjusted over time, and that helped her land a higher-level role at a larger rival early last year, Mr. Tulgan says.
Even when the team is nearby, isolated bosses must find ways to appear present. When Rick Russell managed 1,100 people as chief commercial officer of Sunovian Pharmaceuticals Inc., a small drug maker in Marlborough, Mass., his dozen deputies occupied the second floor at headquarters. He toiled behind closed doors in the executive suite two floors above.
After a 2012 employee survey concluded that people felt walled off from their leaders, he decided to make himself more visible. He created a second-floor satellite office surrounded by glass on three sides. Dubbed his “fishbowl,” he worked from the office nearly every Friday, with a deliberately light schedule and no executive assistant.
Wary colleagues gradually grew comfortable about dropping by, Mr. Russell recalls. The chief medical officer adopted the satellite-office idea, too.
The next year’s poll showed Sunovian employees’ trust for the top brass improved significantly.
“Fostering close ties with your lieutenants is the stuff that gets results,” says Mr. Russell, now CEO of Greer Laboratories Inc., a midsize biologics concern. “You have to rally the troops. You can’t do it from a memo.”
Mel Berning, chief revenue officer at A+E Networks in New York, takes a different approach. He travels two weeks a month for the cable network. While at headquarters, he says he tries to avoid “antiseptic” formal meetings and calls with his six direct reports.
Instead, he breezes into somebody’s office at 8:30 a.m. “You have a conversation that is less hurried and less guarded,” Mr. Berning notes. “Face-to-face encounters are so much more revealing than a text or an email.”
Inhi Cho Suh, a unit vice president at International Business Machines Corp. who manages a far-flung team, says being reachable at odd hours helps her stay involved.
During a West Coast business trip last year, she rose at 4 a.m. to join a conference call with East Coast team members as they struggled to launch an important new service. IBM unveiled the cloud-computing service in October.
Ms. Suh works hard to decide when she must deal face to face with lieutenants. For an urgent decision, she occasionally alters her schedule to meet them in person.
“It’s not about being available all the time,” observes Ms. Suh, who is on the road 40% of the time. “You have to be available when they need you.”


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