Fly-in managers on remote control

A brief visit by senior management to a remote office can be more disruptive than helpful. But a well-planned visit that is sensitive to local concerns can boost engagement, says Stefan Stern.

Oct 17, 2017
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Out of sight, out of mind. This age-old saying speaks to an ever-present (if under-discussed) concern about international business: how do you manage people you cannot see and seldom visit? While businesses love to celebrate the promise of globalisation, there is less discussion of its practicalities (until a scandal strikes a far-flung office and local regulators want to know who knew what, and when).

It’s all-too-easy easy to mismanage remote offices. In their research on the effectiveness of remote teams, Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta found that only 18% of the 70 businesses surveyed considered their performance ‘highly successful’ with the remaining 82% disappointed by what they achieved. One-third of teams surveyed rated their performance as largely unsuccessful. However, if well-managed, productivity gains can be as high as 40% according to Aon Consulting, and remote teams can even outperform those working in the same office.

The key to better performance is senior leadership visibility. As Japanese proponents of quality have long argued, if you want to find out what is going on, you have to ‘go and see it for yourself.’ Tom Peters called this ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA), after studying HP founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. In a global context, this means getting on planes, or as Rosabeth Moss Kantor puts it: ‘management by flying around.’

Unfortunately, too many senior management trips amount to little more than vanity visits, typical of the so-called ‘seagull manager’, who will ‘fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, and then fly out.’ While there will always be some disruptive artificiality about the ‘state visit’ from head office, fly-in managers can be effective if they bear in mind three essential elements that Peters identified in MBWA.

Local staff will have problems and questions, and you should be prepared and able to give people on-the-spot help.

First, listen. Your visit may be brief but you must allow time for people to tell you what they want you to hear.

Second, use these meetings to transmit the company’s values face to face. Leaders are closely observed, especially when visits are rare. So consider what messages your behaviour and demeanour send out. For example, face time will be viewed by many employees as a status symbol—it can create resentment among those who don’t get to meet you.

Third, be useful. Local staff will have problems and questions, and you should be prepared and able to give people on-the-spot help. Quick wins and disputes resolved will boost morale and enhance any manager’s reputation for competence and effectiveness.

When planning your next trip, therefore, consider the following:

  • Plan meticulously but be generous with your time. Management time spent with direct reports is precious—it needs to be managed carefully and sensitively, so key staff are not left out.
  • Build in slack. Unexpected issues crop up and important discussion go on longer than planned.
  • Make it enjoyable. Don’t scrimp on the budget: offer some entertainment that the team will appreciate and help ease their anxieties.
  • Come again, as often as possible. Schedule regular visits, including spontaneous, unannounced trips so you see people in their everyday routines.
  • Beware ‘death by airmiles’. Even if you are travelling in relative comfort, changes in climate, time zone and cuisine can be exhausting, and over time lead to burn-out. So manage your energy as well as your time for everyone’s benefit.

Stefan Stern

Visiting Professor, Cass Business School

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, a business journalist and former FT management columnist. He is co-author of Myths of Management.