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.

The Biggest Power Player...

Originally published 9/17/10

As a follow up to yesterday's blog, I wanted to try something new. I want you to think of the biggest power player in your current organization. Make a list of the political plays he/she uses, and what one's are used particularly well.

For myself, since I don't have an organization, I will use one of my more recent employers.

My Power Player is a man.

He is very good at the following tactics:

  • Scapegoating.
  • Proving to everyone he's the smartest guy in the room.
  • Watching his own back.
  • Managing his boss.
  • Guarding and actively managing his own reputation, especially with his boss.
  • Associating himself with successes.Try this game out yourself, and see if you can distill the tactics of a power player.

I wonder if anyone can guess who my man is!

I wonder if anyone is brave enough to guess with a posted comment.

Try this game out yourself, and see if you can distill the tactics of a power player.


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!

How do Formal and Informal (Political) Power Structures Relate?

Originally published 9/6/10

Just reading that title is a mouthful! And it sounds so intellectual too... But I don't mean it to be. Here's the basic thesis --

There are written formal rules, policies and structure in corporations that are pretty straight forward and pretty clear to everybody involved, and then there is a second informal set of expectations for behavior that take over where the formal stuff leaves off.
For example -- you don't fake your expense reports. Everybody know this. In most companies its written down, along with consequences for violating the policy. The policy usually says who is responsible for reviewing and approving the expenses also. In other words it delegates or confers power to those individuals for the purpose of reviewing expenses. If it wasn't written down, there would still be a prohibition against faking your expense report, it would just be part of the informal power structure.
I consider this entire collection of visible behavior regulating rules & policies as the formal power structure of the corporation. They tend to focus on things like -- spending authorization and approval, personal behaviors (like vacations, tardiness, allowable travel behaviors), organizational structure (who reports to whom), and performance measurement (that damned appraisal process).
Extensive though this collection might be, it falls far short of the informal behavior regulating rules, which I consider the political structure of the corporation. Some people also refer to this or some subset of this structure as the culture of the organization (although culture is one of those overused business-speak terms that, like an overused knife, has lost its edge).
My thesis is that the informal (political) structure, like a gas, fills the gap between the formal power structure and way things actually get done. And it's usually a big gap.
Unlike the formal power structure, the political structure is not necessarily obvious. For example, if there's no formal dress code, you learn that jeans are only acceptable on Friday by observation or asking. Another example -- Naming names during a high pressure meeting (i.e., who screwed up), might be just the right thing to do at Company A, but a political error at Company B. It can get very subtle and confusing, and often needs to be interpreted on the fly.
Politics, is about figuring out what lies within the informal rules or is outside, and managing the perception of your behavior in the context of those rules. Perception is more important than reality because your compliance with the political norms are only important in the eyes of other people. Their perception (correct or incorrect) is their reality, and they will treat you as such.
Playing politics, is about the manipulation of perceptions -- either perceptions about yourself or someone else. This is the part of the political world that most people find objectionable.
All other things being equal, organizations with less formal power structure, tend to have more politics, and often more playing of politics going on. When you hear someone say, we don't want too many rules, as it hinders creativity, what they are really saying is -- we let the political structure take care of that stuff, despite its messiness.

Other viewpoints or opinions?

Politics and Position on the Ladder

Originally published 9/4/10

Here is a second concept surrounding politics -- The higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more important understanding and playing politics is to your success and survival.

Why, you might ask, would that be true? I think there are three primary reasons --

  1. Defining whether an employee is performing gets harder the further up the ladder you go. For an individual contributor, you look at what was their personal output, and how did it stack up against expectations. For a senior manager though, factors like: changes in the market, performance of subordinates, validity of assumptions, and trade-offs between choices, all tend to muddy the waters (I could probably make a much longer list). When you can't easily gage the persons output, there is a tendency to rely on watching what they do -- except you can't take the time to watch it all, so perceptions that are established by what others say. Of course, the little one actually sees become extremely important. That is the stuff of politics. Politics is all about developing and protecting perceptions of how you are doing, and potentially manipulating perceptions about others.
  2. There are more politicians at higher levels in the company, and they tend to have more skill. I'm not sure why that is -- a Darwinian survival characteristic, perhaps? Since a part of politics surrounds manipulation of perceptions about others, you need political skills at higher levels, if for no other reason to protect yourself. An individual contributor who has few enemies can probably get by at most companies by ignoring politics. Senior managers won't survive being a-political, no matter how nice they are. There are just too many sharks in the water up there.
  3. At higher levels you are a bigger target for the political machinations of others. This tends to happen for a couple of reasons -- senior managers are a more useful target of manipulation because they hold formal organizational power, and they have less time available to intimately know others in the organization thus making them more vulnerable to manipulation. For some senior managers, they end up surrounded by yes-men (or yes-women) who give the manager the sense that their perceptions are always correct, while at the same time subtly manipulating those perceptions. This seems to happen to the chief executive fairly frequently.

So kind readers -- what do you think? Do politics get thicker and more ruthless as you climb the corporate ladder? Or do the stakes just get higher? Or, do you totally disagree and think political games are played uniformly across the company?


Does Work Control Your Life?

Originally published 8/9/10

Being on vacation was a little different this summer. In the past, on the last day of the trip, maybe the last two, I would be getting crabby thinking about all the stuff that would hit me when I got back to the office. Usually some stinking presentation that I didn't want to prepare for, and didn't want to give. This year -- I was only worried about how tall the grass would be, and if the mower would be able to get through it without stalling.

Making this observation caused me to notice some other things that were different. I didn't try to sneak a peek at my email ten times a day. I didn't need to get up early to take care of some problem, or work on a deal. There were no conference calls I needed to participate in.

All this caused me to think further about how intrusive my career was on my life in general. It wasn't just on vacation, in fact, it was ever present. Working late or going in early only to be exhausted later. Evenings spent at dinners and other events that I really had no interest in, but had to attend. And on top of all, there were the ever present demands that work made on my mind -- I think it was always taking 50-70% of my bandwidth, even when I wasn't there.

Don't get me wrong -- much of the fault for this was mine. I allowed myself to be ruled by work. It was giving me status, income, and a sense of importance and accomplishment, but in exchange it was demanding a lot, too. Many of the demands were, however, subtle.

It's one thing to devote time to something you're passionate about, and quite another to devote it as an obligation. Somewhere along the line, passion was mostly replaced by obligation. Obligation inspired resentment, and resentment got me to where I am now.

Can work be a passion that doesn't grow into obligation? Can it be prevented from controlling your life? Probably not in a typical large public corporation, especially if your commitment is being overtly measured by your willingness to sacrifice your life to the company. Yes, they provide a lot, but they may ask for everything but your soul.