Leon Gettler: Managing a virtual boss



In this day and age of telecommuting and remote working, more and more people are working with bosses they never see. Managing a virtual boss is a completely new skill set.

Michael Watkins at the Harvard Business Review says people in that situation need to do several things. The first is to find a way to spend some face time with the boss early on as there is no way you can make a personal connection and lay the foundation for a strong working relationship solely through electronic means. Secondly, he recommends finding the right way of electronic communication. Some prefer email, others do it by instant message or text.

Also, pick up the phone more than you would if you were located nearby. If you can’t talk in real time, he says, make more use of voice mail. Another good strategy is to find the right windows for making contact. Take the time to figure out your boss’s routines and identify times when she is more likely to be available. And finally, he says you need to discipline yourself to make the connection. In the end, it’s your responsibility, it’s not up to the boss.

“Force yourself to take the initiative to reach out regularly,’’ Watkins says. “Put reminders to do so into your calendar. Above all, keep in mind that the consequences of getting disconnected, and going off course as a result, will mostly be borne by you.”

In her book, Managing Your Virtual Boss, Carmela Southers recommends scheduling a twenty minute one-on-one conversation with your boss every week for updates. Also, make sure that your twenty-minute call ends early (your boss will appreciate the gift of time). And ask your boss a simple question: “what can I do to make myself easier to manage?” (they will appreciate that). Also, share your success stories with an emphasis on the names of those who helped you, see every email as an opportunity to build trust, relationships and reputation and leverage your flexibility as a virtual worker to build your own professional network. Remember, the best defence is a good offence so never let your boss be caught by surprise. If you can’t reply immediately to your boss, explain your current situation (e.g. on a call) and when you will respond and remember, if you work in a matrix organisation, each boss and team leader may require a different approach.
Like Watkins, Southers makes it clear that it’s the responsibility of the worker, not the boss who is unlikely to be trained for that sort of thing.

“Fewer layers of management, a larger span of control and the virtual workplace makes your boss’s job more challenging, ‘’ Southers writes. “When your office moves into virtual space, many of the lessons learned from the face-to-face experiences of leading, partnering and teamwork are no longer effective. Even if your boss attends great leadership training, most of the leadership techniques taught to managers are designed for management by walking around, not management via email. Your boss needs to feel informed, valued and safe from the surprises that happen when he or she cannot see you working.”

How would you manage a virtual boss?


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Leon Gettler: How to become a better communicator

Managing communication is now the critical skill for leaders and managers. As we move away from command and control models in organisations, managing the flow of information to and from employees, and among them, is now more important than ever before. The problem is that many managers never learn it formally.

What makes it more complicated these days is that most managers only landed the job because they were technical and operational experts in their field. Communication skills were not necessarily their forte as they managed projects, not people.  Also managers these days have to deal with a daily avalanche of electronic communication, quite the opposite of the connection you get when you have a direct face to face conversation. In other words, managers might find it more challenging these days to communicate well.
So if communication is now the core management skill, how do managers pick it up?

Psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne identifies certain essential things that any manager would need. First, and probably most important of all, is that you have to listen and talk second. You also need to do some homework first on the person you’re talking to so that you can ask questions and engage them better. You have to use reflecting skills where you restate what you heard, or what you think you heard. That creates a connection and lets the person know you’ve been trying to take in what they’re saying. Next, zero in on non-verbal detectors. Read bodily cues such as posture, eye contact, and hand movements. Also, don’t make snap judgements, things aren’t always what they seem.  Also, finally don’t expect they’re necessarily going to agree with you.

Forbes lays out some basic ground rules for managers: be crisp, clear and concise; put the headline up front and make the most important point first, don’t beat around the bush; make it about the other person and pay attention to the listener; stand up straight and look them straight in the eye and for goodness sake, put away all gadgets; ask open ended questions that will draw them out, like “Can you clarify that point?”; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything; if you have a negative message to impart, just say it; if you have to deliver bad news, do it in person and don’t do the cowardly thing and hand pass it to anyone else; don’t be a naysayer and if you disagree, frame the disagreement as a question.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review , Boris Grosyberg and Michael Slind identify certain elements of organisational conversation that will help conversations become more interpersonal.

One idea is intimacy: “Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.  This intimacy distinguishes organisational conversation from long-standard forms of corporate communication. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas.”

Another is gaining trust:  “Where there is no trust, there is no intimacy.”
They also tell managers they should listen well: “Leaders who take organisational conversation seriously know when to stop talking and start listening. Few behaviours enhance conversational intimacy as much as attending to what people say.”
And they should get personal: “True listening involves taking the bad with the good, absorbing criticism even when it is direct and personal—and even when those delivering it work for you.”

Grosyberg and Slind write: “Conversation goes on in every company, whether you recognise it or not. That has always been the case, but today the conversation has the potential to spread well beyond your walls, and it’s largely out of your control. Smart leaders find ways to use conversation—to manage the flow of information in an honest, open fashion. One-way broadcast messaging is a relic, and slick marketing materials have as little effect on employees as they do on customers. But people will listen to communication that is intimate, interactive, inclusive, and intentional.”

What measures would you recommend to turn managers into better communicators?