Distance Should Raise Concerns

Proximity matters.  Particularly when it comes to communication and control within a corporation.  A subordinate in the office next door is much easier to manage than one in an office on the other side of the world.  Your distant subordinates – particularly those with a broad span of control – need plenty of additional contact.

Perspectives of a Subordinate

I’ve worked both near to and far from my bosses over the years, and I can say without qualification that I was much more diligent in carrying out their wishes when I was nearby.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Close proximity allowed me to better understand my boss’s mind.  I grasped the political implications of my decisions, what he was trying to accomplish, and generally had a tighter bond with him when his office was next to mine.
  2. Distance permitted me to rely more on my own decisions – a situation I preferred, even if it wasn’t always in my best interests.  Like a race horse with the bit between his teeth, when left alone I quickly developed an aversion to relying on anything other than my own judgment.

One of my many bosses was, for a year, located in the office adjacent to mine.  We had lunch together almost every day.  I found myself frequently redirecting my efforts in support of whatever objective he was currently striving for.  I became a valuable and useful subordinate under those conditions.  My utility to the company at large was less clear and highly dependent on my boss’s ability to direct me productively.

Then I moved a thousand miles away, and took another position – although one still reporting to the same boss.  The dynamic changed dramatically.  Even though I liked and respected this particular boss, the distance meant I was suddenly “out of sight, out of mind.”  I found myself making lots of my own decisions, most often without even discussing it with the boss.

Ultimately, when I decided to leave the company, I conducted my job search in secret.  My boss, who would have undoubtedly helped me, was no longer close enough (physically and emotionally) for me to entrust with this most confidential and sensitive of tasks.

Other than the distance and frequency of interaction, little had changed yet the relationship was completely… different.

Video Conferencing isn’t Enough

Through trial and error, I’ve discovered there is no substitute for close, frequent, face-to-face contact when dealing with your bosses and subordinates.  In general, I prefer my direct reports to be as physically close by as possible.

Of course, this isn’t always possible.  When you have a subordinate responsible for a remote location or territory it is often impossible for them to co-located with you.  In those cases, there is a “hierarchy of contact” that you should pay close attention to.

  1. Face-to-face contact is by far the most effective for managing your subordinates.  I’ve found that casual time spent together (meals, trips, etc.) is at least as productive as hard-core meetings and discussions.  Don’t skimp on this, even though it may be expensive and/or inconvenient.
  2. Videoconferences are a distant second.  While you can “see” each other, the ability to read subtle cues such as body language and facial expressions simply isn’t there.  The commitment to the communication simply isn’t the same – how many times have you seen someone in a videoconference working on something that isn’t a topic of discussion?
  3. Almost as good as videoconferences are phone calls.  You can likely call much more frequently than you can videoconference.  Frequent phone calls are the backbone of most distance relationships.
  4. Emails, texts, and other written electronic communications are almost worthless when it comes to managing your subordinates.  These methods are usually completely impersonal, and are easily “misinterpreted,” delegated, or outright ignored.

When you have a remote subordinate, you should plan to have regular and frequent contact.  The weaker your personal relationship, the newer the employee, or the more headstrong the subordinate, the more you should bump up the quantity of contact.

One of my remotely located subordinates was charged with transforming a foundering business.  Unfortunately, I was spread too thin to maintain close contact with him, and his decisions became increasingly… unsound.  His excuses for continuing performance problems multiplied.  Eventually, it became clear that he business was getting worse, rather than better.  I discovered the subordinate had his own agenda for the business’s rehabilitation, one that weren’t likely to lead anywhere I wanted things to go.  I had to fire him despite the fact that he SHOULD have been the perfect guy to fix the thing.

The Burden is on Both of You

Is it the boss’s responsibility to make sure the challenges of distance are overcome?  Or should it be the subordinate’s burden?

In my opinion, the challenge falls on the shoulders of both of you.

As a boss, you want your people to succeed, and you need them to support your efforts.  It is in your best interest to devote considerable time to maintaining a tight relationship.  Distant employees are one of your biggest points of vulnerability.

As a subordinate, you’re at risk of career derailment when you are out of sync with your boss.  Even if you value your independence.  Even if you don’t like him or her.

I once had a boss I loathed working for – his fake and insincere behavior, his interfering in the simplest of decisions, his armchair quarterbacking – these were only a few of his deplorable characteristics.  That dislike, combines with my predilection to make my own decisions and live with the consequences, meant we rarely talked.  And while I wasn’t a long way from his desk (20 miles or so) it was a challenge for me to communicate with him, to say the least.

Eventually, I found myself the subject of criticism for not doing so.  (Note, he did little to nothing to facilitate communication – apparently, he didn’t think of it as his responsibility.)  It became so bad that the lack of understanding became a serious threat to my career.

So I changed things.  Physically.  I took a second office in the same building where he worked and spent one day a week working from that location.  It gave me enough opportunity for casual interaction that I was (temporarily) able to break my own bad habit.


Distance is a challenging factor in building and maintaining business relationships, and no place is it a bigger problem that between bosses and their subordinates.  When faced with physical separation, take the lead to increase contact no matter which end of relationship you occupy.  Only by intentionally offsetting the detrimental effects of distance can you insure your relationship stays on track.  30.4

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.



 To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

 My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.

Do Power Players Beget more Power Players?

originally published 9/16/10

Here is another observation about politics in Corporations -- the more people playing politics in the organization, the more politicized it becomes. That is particularly true if the people playing are at a high level in the company.

Why would that be the case?

High level political players raise the ante for everyone in the organization. And Power Players (a term I'll better define in a later post), those people who manipulate the perceptions of others in the organization using politics, raise the ante a lot.

They do this by taking aim at other people either overtly or covertly, and causing them problems -- like damaging their credibility, maneuvering them onto bad projects, or getting them fired. The higher the power player is up the ladder, and the more skilled, the more likely it is that person will be able to successfully accomplish these manipulations. That's how they raise the stakes.

So what are the possible responses to the power player? People can either avoid them, or take them on. When employees develop their political skills in order to take on a power player, it raises the political intensity for everyone.

Kind of a "one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel" situation.

How does Company History Impact Politics?

Originally published 9/8/10

Old habits die hard. At least in corporations they do.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation, you've probably experienced the inertia that exists there. Yes, the chief executive (and to a lesser degree, other high level executives) does influence the company -- he/she sets strategy, maybe refines the mission and values, and over enough time, may even change the direction of that inertia.

Sometimes that inertia is called Culture. I personally hate the Culture name, because it is overused and fuzzy in meaning.

Suppose the last Chief Executive (who was in place for 25 years, for argument sake), was a detached high flying strategist who allowed freewheeling politics to rule the organization. Now suppose the Chief Executive retires and is replaced by a hands-on CEO who hates politics. How long does it take to change the underlying environment?

The answer is -- a long time. And it will be a very painful period. Why? Because old habits die hard! The existing organization is filled with people who grew up in and flourished in a highly politicized environment. In their world, certain tactics and political maneuvering became a part of their management style and part of their survival tools. That is hard for people to let go of, particularly since it continues to work, despite what the new CEO is demanding.

Unfortunately, for the current team, the quickest way to change the highly politicized environment would be to change out the people. Since it isn't practical to fire everybody, what actually happens is a few people are sacrificed in the transition, and change plods along very slowly.

So is company history important to understanding the politics of the organization? Absolutely!

Is There Anything Good About 'em?

Originally published 8/28/10

I've spent lots of space detailing the frustrations I've had with upper levels of management in the large corporations where I've worked. One might be tempted to think I don't find any value in them at all -- but that would be wrong. Let me list a few of the pluses of the large corporation.

They provide more career progression opportunities than smaller companies.

They are under more scrutiny, and hence, generally have to be more fair than most other entities (not counting government). Their actions will always be potentially subject to the public eye.

They tend to attract talented people. In many smaller companies I've observed, there are only a trusted few who are really the thinkers and leaders. Larger companies have more smart people sprinkled through the ranks.

Let's face it, they're more efficient. At least up to the point where the synergies of combining operations outweigh the anergies (a term one of my former bosses used to use). Anergies could include -- unnecessary corporate overhead, inefficient communication, being the target of lawsuits simply because of size, etc.

They probably have more staying power, on average, than smaller private firms, although that point might be debatable.

In general, I'm not so much down on the concept of the large public corporation, just the odd way the interaction between shareholders, board, CEO and senior team has evolved. The lack of trust, respect and loyalty. The rampant scapegoating. The quickness with which we fire, rather than work with people. The measurement of expended hours and personal sacrifice, instead of commitment and contribution. The intolerance toward making errors, confessing errors or learning from errors.

Of course, examining the negatives tends to be more entertaining and more controversial, so I probably won't stop doing it, but just this once I felt the tug of my conscience telling me I needed to be more evenhanded.

Using Fear to Manage Others

Originally published 7/22/10

I received an interesting email this week from a former colleague who asked me if I thought managers who ruled by fear, did so because they were fearful themselves. The implication being that we pull our style from our own dark corners.

Interesting question. I've certainly been fearful in the work environment myself (you can see earlier posts for more on that), I've worked for bosses who exploit fear, and I've occasionally used fear as a tool myself. The dynamics of all this are complicated, however.

To start with, most deeply seated fear -- the kind that borders on irrational -- is in us, not imposed on us (at least in the work environment, a kidnap victim's fear is undoubtedly imposed). If we aren't afraid of being embarrassed, of failing, or of being labeled, then it would be pretty hard for a manager or executive to make us afraid on that account.

Most of us, though, have some deeply held fears. If you're in management or a professional, and have been driving to achieve , the chances are good there is some deep seated fear in you. It can be a huge personal motivator.

Managers know about these fears (probably in most cases because they have them too, like my colleague said), and they sometimes exploit them. Some a little, and some a lot. No manager I ever recall meeting completely eschewed fear as a tool. The degree to which they do so depends on several factors -- their own personal style (some people are just natural terrors), their belief in the power of fear as a motivating tool, and the expectations of the organization, to name a few. There are undoubtedly other factors as well.

I don't think that most senior executives are Machiavellian by nature -- it just takes too much effort to operate that way (although I personally know of two exceptions to this generalization, for certain). Their use of fear, and mine too, was primarily instinctive and opportunistic. And in every organization I ever worked, there were structural expectations that management would use fear as well. For example, it wasn't uncommon to rely on the fear of public embarrassment to get people to work harder. Monthly and quarterly update meetings are structured specifically to do that. Another example would be the use of "stretch" goals, where management sets such impossibly high targets for people that they have little hope of actually achieving them, yet fear of a bad performance appraisal (formal or informal) is used to drive the employees to try just the same.

The unfortunately point is that fear is a powerful motivator, using it works, most people respond to it, and it is a cruel tool. And so it gets used a lot.

Kind of a perverse world we live in at times, isn't it?

Is What We Say We Want, Really What We Want?

Originally published 6/9/10

Not meaning to be too philosophical, or anything, but do our words accurately reflect how we feel, or do we say what we think others want us to feel, and our actions point to our true interests and intentions?

When I decided all those years ago (when I was 15, I think), that I wanted to be a "captain of industry", I was absolutely certain that it was my dream. I had just read Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" and was inspired. I wanted to be Hank Reardon or Francisco d'Anconia (I hope I remembered the names correctly -- its been a few years) -- a hero of the modern economy, who would, through my own sweat and intellect, make the world a better place.

I told everybody that was what I wanted to do, and I did take positive actions to make it happen. I studied Engineering. My original idea was to get into alternative energy, but I decided that it wasn't practical (Compromise!), and instead headed toward the convenience of the automotive field. I went to business school, and moved employers, but when I made my decisions, I stuck with safe, big, public companies. I moved along the career ladder, but started to doubt that the top spot really would fulfill my dream. I became too conservative (or chicken) to take the plunge into my own business.

But was the dream really what I wanted, or was all the compromises and shifts in perspective an indication that the dream wasn't really a legit dream at all? Did I reach for a dream and have it evaporate like a mirage?

One way to explore that is to look at what I spent my time on, when not working or otherwise obligated. I wrote -- figured that one out already. I loved to read. Escapist fiction is one thing, but I also loved true stories of survival and discovery. I also would read semi-technical stuff, like in Scientific American, because I like to understand how things work, but am not terribly interested in the detailed math behind it. I love to travel, meet new people, experience different cultures and see sights. I enjoy physical challenge -- running, hiking, mountain climbing, rafting -- but maybe in a weird way -- I like the personal challenge of testing myself, but not the risk/danger that seems to drive some other people to some of these same activities.

I also discovered a few things I like okay, but didn't have staying power with me. Golf for example -- like it but I don't actually do it much. Scuba diving, fishing, hunting. A lot of these activities are fun for me because of the companionship, and the act itself is less interesting. Once the novelty wears off....

So, do we really know what we want, and can we articulate it? I'm spending more and more time, trying to watch what draws me, what gets me excited, what is interesting. I hope to set myself on a truer path using those observations.

Fear - Part 2

Originally posted 3/26/10

I thought I was pretty clever in the first part of this post. I prattled on about how fear was used in the work environment, and its necessity or its 'unnecessity' (my apologies to Shakespeare for that one!). Did anyone notice that I didn't really address what I'm afraid of?

Sure, there are some hints of it in some of the blogs I have already written, but there is nothing like stating things openly to clarify and put a fine point on them. So here goes -- my biggest fears, at least the ones I know about so far....
* Confrontation. Especially where I don't feel prepared to defend myself. Especially with those in positions of authority. Am I the only one who replays confrontations over and over again in my mind thinking about what I should have said/done?
* Disappointing others. Especially those whose opinions I value. The usual initial response here is to blame someone else or external circumstances.
* Ridicule. I even dislike seeing someone ridicule a third party, because I can picture myself in the same position. This is normally done behind people's backs and can't be easily defended against.
* Isolation. I need affiliation and friendships, and fear not having them or losing them.
* Losing. I've caught myself over the years deselecting activities or goals because I'm afraid I will lose if I play. It certainly seems self-defeating, and this one I'm able to manage better than the other ones, when I recognize it.
* Getting older. Seeing possibilities close off unexplored (I will never be a rock star now!) because of age, reduced faculties, or just plain running out of time.

Looking over the list, much of it deals with my life in the context of the approval or lack of approval of others. That is my green eyed monster. So knowing it is out there what do I do? Confront it (Ha, like that is going to happen -- see bullet point number one. I don't do confrontation, at least not readily)? Make peace with it and accommodate it in my choices? Understand where it comes from -- is it in the foundation of who I am, or is it the result of some baggage I picked up along the way? Something else?

Hey, I'm taking suggestions, if anybody has any....

Fear - Part 1

Originally posted 3/21/10

How much of our behavior is motivated by fear? This is a question that I've been contemplating quite a bit over the past few weeks. I certainly see it in my own actions. If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say that 60% of what I did at work was motivated by fear -- most of it an avoidance reaction. I was working through BS tasks and reporting on them, not because I saw them as important or worthwhile, but instead simply because I was avoiding criticism, complaint, public humiliation or some other negative consequence.

The ugly part of it is -- it works! Fear definitely generates energy and action. People will go to great lengths to prevent being exposed to those situations where they experience fear. I've wondered if the most successful leaders need to tap into fear in order to drive action. It certainly seems commonplace.

I've been reasonably close to three successful corporate leaders. Based on the normal judgment of the world, the most 'fear inspiring' of the three was the most successful. The least 'fear inspiring' was second most successful, with the mid-range utilizer of fear as a motivational tool being the least successful. A sample size of three, however, doesn't prove much, and all three of these men went to the 'fear well' at least on occasion.

When I further reflect on the great bosses I've had, and those that allowed me to experience the greatest level of satisfaction with my work, the number one top boss never used fear. In fact, this individual created an environment where I was his partner in trying to accomplish the company goals, rather than a subordinate who should be worried about how every expression of thought would play to him. I wanted to come in to work each day because as a team, we were engaged in fighting battles together.

I contrast that with my last position, where I felt the boss had designed a monthly 'arena event' (too much Spartacus recently, I guess), where someone was ritualistically slaughtered. The trick was to try to be uber-prepared, so that it wasn't you! Despite the fact that I didn't have to be at the company, and hence had a lot less on the line, I trembled at the onset of every one of these meetings. And I could feel the fear (and testosterone) in the air each time as well.

Most of the people in the room hated it. If anyone didn't it was because they were not really in the arena (yes, corporate staffers, I'm talking about you!). My question, after seeing so much of this in Corporate America is -- is it necessary? Is it somehow an essential element of success? In the absence of fear as a motivator, do people slack off to a degree that they are easily taken down by a hungrier competitor?

My gut says no -- it isn't a key element of success. But then why is it so common?