Several years ago, I applied for a leadership position in a new division of the company where I was working. The executive who interviewed me asked what things I would do to integrate team members who didn’t work at the home office or even in the same country.
At the time it seemed like the easiest question in the world to me. I already lived that experience. I worked from home (in a different time zone than the home office), and I was part of two different international teams with colleagues from Mexico, Brazil, Switzerland, India, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. Every week included one late night meeting and one very early morning meeting with my cross-functional colleagues as we worked on various initiatives like rolling out offerings in new regions.
From experience, I knew the irritation of meetings at inconvenient hours of the day, and the difficulty of establishing functioning and trusting relationships with people whose work history and cultural backgrounds I was unfamiliar with. But more than those things, I knew the frustration and time waste of not understanding the bigger picture mission and need behind the tasks we were asked to accomplish.
Even the military, which I used to think was the epitome of expecting people to blindly follow orders, provides their troops with situation, mission, intent, and then orders so that field members can make decisions on the ground that by necessity may deviate from the order, but still drive toward the mission and intent.
Besides the potential to put effort and progress into a direction that completely misses the business need, there is established research that shows people suffer when they lack connection to meaningfulness in their work.
“Without a clear notion of purpose, workers cannot make intelligent choices about work activities, and they are also deprived of a sense of the meaningfulness of their work.”
-- Kenneth W. Thomas from his book “Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement”
So I answered the question by saying that I would do my best to make sure people knew the big picture goals of our projects, knew the leaders we were working with, their initiatives and key drivers, and knew the guiding principles behind how we work – so they could make decisions which kept us all aligned and unified. To quote James Flaherty from his book Coaching: Evoking excellence in others, “If we know what we intend to accomplish, we can correct ourselves as we go, and we can evaluate our success at the end.” I wanted to provide that type of insight to team members so there was less need to directly manage and so that people could feel empowered to make their own choices about how to get to the finish line.
At the end of the interview, I asked this leader how I performed and were there any concerns about my ability to perform in the role. The response I got was that this executive felt I would not be very effective working with people in different countries and time zones because I didn’t respond with solutions like: I would hold meetings using web cams so I could get to know my team members personally, or I would shift meeting times so they were not at inconvenient times for people in other countries. I said I was surprised because these foundational things were already part and parcel of my everyday life and I was looking at what things were often missing in our current operations like the goals and business value behind our projects. Needless to say I didn’t get the job.
The person who did get the job lived up to all the executive’s specifications and was fired from the company within a year, as was the executive.