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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 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.

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?

Actors Playing Roles or Reality?

Originally posted 4/5/10

One question that has occurred to me recently is -- Is 'Corporate Life' reality, or is it a stage play performed for a limited audience of interested spectators? And does it become so real to the actors, that they truly believe it is real life?

I realize that this isn't very clear, but I'm not sure I can make the concept completely clear. So let me illustrate what I mean: When you are IN 'Corporate Life', every aspect of it seems sooo important. Do I really need to go to dinner that night -- of course, it's expected! What an incompetent 'that person' is, because they didn't know the answer to 'that question'. How we dress ourselves each day, according to the norms of the organization. Even the language we speak (Dilbert certainly has a field day with this one) can be seen as a joke - "incentivizing associates through EVA for the benefit of all stakeholders."  Yuck.

Looking at it from the outside, it sometimes appears to be an elaborate farce. We all are hammered into roles -- the mentor, the technician, the young ladder climber, the celebrity CEO, etc. There are real people underneath the surface, below the role, but we steadfastly insist on characterizing the people by the parts they appear to play rather then what they really are beneath the veneer.

What is worse, the better we, as the actors themselves, understand the roles that are available, the more we try to hammer and squeeze ourselves into them. Of course, there are parts that no one willingly takes -- the incompetent, the shirker. These parts are foisted upon unwilling actors by the other players, and usually only for a brief time before they are written out of the production.

And there are an infinite variety of these productions going on at different companies across the US (and probably the world). While there are strong similarities, each one seems to have its own nuances and twists of plot.

But I digress. The entire point of this post is to illustrate the difficulty I'm having in thinking of 'Corporate Life' as real. Reality seems so much - Bigger (for lack of a better term) than the narrow interests of 'Corporate Life'. When you buy into it to the degree that I did, you lose track of real life because 'Corporate Life' hijacks so much of your energy.

So maybe getting something 'accomplished' today is over-rated. Achievement, especially career achievement, perhaps isn't all that critical. Maybe catching a 3 pound Bass, or tickling a 5 year old, or spirituality should be elevated to a greater standing in a rebalanced world.