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“Managing a Remote Team.” With Fotis Georgiadis & Sunil Prashara

In today’s business environment people are moving so quickly — it’s easy to shoot off an email without taking the time to think about how it will be interpreted on the other end. I would actually say that effective leaders should always offer to connect via phone or video chat to talk through feedback. In […]

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In today’s business environment people are moving so quickly — it’s easy to shoot off an email without taking the time to think about how it will be interpreted on the other end. I would actually say that effective leaders should always offer to connect via phone or video chat to talk through feedback. In my experience, constructive feedback should really always be a conversation rather than handled over email if it involves potentially sensitive issues. Email may be the beginning of the conversation, but be sure to follow through with a real conversation.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sunil Prashara, President & CEO, Project Management Institute.

As President & Chief Executive Officer of the Project Management Institute (PMI), Sunil Prashara is the lead advocate for PMI’s global organization, serving more than three million professionals working in nearly every country of the world. His primary responsibility is to implement PMI’s global strategic plan with a priority on strategic focus, customer centricity and organizational agility. This includes expanding the PMI footprint globally, as well as digitizing PMI’s offerings and platforms to benefit its members and a variety of other stakeholders. The plan will also continue to enhance and advocate for the profession of project management.

Sunil was named CEO of PMI in March of 2019. He brings more than three decades of valuable global leadership to PMI, with a solid track record of setting and delivering strategy, managing large scale transformation agendas, and meeting growth targets for international organizations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

My backstory isn’t exactly traditional. While I have always worked in the corporate world for large, global organizations, I didn’t have just one clear path or role. Within my 30 years of experience, I’ve worn a variety of different hats from finance to sales to operations.

I started off earning a degree in medical biochemistry. I then began as a rookie salesperson and ended up as the Global Head of Sales for Nokia. I started in finance and worked my way up to CFO for an IT services company. And within operations, I ran multi-billion-dollar transformation programs for Vodafone.

And since my global roles have taken me all over the world, I have a strong appreciation of different cultures and the way business is conducted in different parts of the world.

I believe it’s this variety of experience that has prepared me to work as a CEO. I understand the different challenges, needs, thought processes and working styles across functions and borders.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

What has been most interesting to me overall has been that opportunity, right from an early start in my career, to pivot from one functional area to another — multiple times. What has ultimately been most interesting has been the opportunity to build on each of these experiences. As I look at my role now as a CEO, all of these experiences as fundamentally a “sales guy” helped bear a lot of fruit to help me do the job today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Some consistent mistakes that I’ve seen time and again have been the consequences of miscommunication resulting in a lack of alignment. Problems can easily emerge that shouldn’t have ever arisen — and they all stem from poor communications.

That can happen all the time at both tactical and strategic levels, especially when you’re communicating across countries and languages. I can remember times seeing someone present information to senior leaders after working diligently on a deliverable, only to discover that they had totally misunderstood the request. It can be funny — but it can also be embarrassing and cost lots of money!

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

The first thing is to be conscious that the productivity levels of staff have gone through the roof. Employees are working from home, which often results in them being much more focused on work with few distractions. In this environment, work-life balance is more important than ever, but more difficult to gauge working from home.

This burst of productivity can be good in the short term, but it can also hurt over time. Leaders need to be cognizant of this reality and give their teams sufficient time for their work. You may need to revisit some deadlines; some deadlines are obviously critical for the business, but not deadlines for the sake of deadlines. Cut people some slack and build that into the project plan.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I’ve been managing remote teams for 25 years. At Nokia, I ran sales globally and had 11 regions all virtually reporting to me. All of our meetings were virtual.

Today all of PMI’s staff have gone virtual for the moment. I’ve learned that the way people communicate in these teams can be very different. You have to keep in mind geographic differences, for instance, people in Japan will communicate very differently from the Netherlands or the US. It’s important to maintain an awareness of those team dynamics.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

When transitioning to remote teams, there will be an adjustment period. Many remote teams will face the following challenges:

  • Adapting to virtual meetings: When it comes to virtual meetings, remote teams must get into a rhythm. When you aren’t in person in an office or conference room, it’s easier to get distracted, people might talk over one another unintentionally while others may not be as engaged. The biggest mistake managers make is operating like it’s business as usual. Different skills, behaviors and connection points are needed to make virtual meetings successful and productive. On the positive side here, you don’t have half of the team in person and half on the phone. Everyone joins calls virtually today, which puts them on an equal footing. That’s a practice most will want to continue going forward. When one person is virtual, they all should be.
  • Misunderstandings and miscommunication: When you lose the face-to-face connection, things can get lost in translation more easily and result in misunderstandings or miscommunication. If unaddressed, in time can fester into resentment or anger. Tone is very important here. Managers need to periodically bring together disparate team members to discuss ongoing challenges and align on next steps.
  • Adjusting leadership style: In our new environment of home offices and webinars, leaders must use the tools at their disposal to connect meaningfully with team members. This style of collaborative leadership calls on leaders to not simply issue directives; they need to motivate and convey a shared purpose. In a time when talent can go anywhere in the world, the “command and control” style of leadership is a relic of the past — we can have no patience today for “check the box” style management.
  • Embracing new “power skills”: Working in a virtual environment requires a different set of “power skills” — like greater communication, more emotional intelligence and empathy. COVID-19 has shown us the value of emotional intelligence when managing teams and handling conflict from afar. Technology can only do so much; the ability to be human and show empathy and cultural awareness when you lose face-to-face contact will help draw teams together virtually.
  • Combining teams with different skills, experiences, thinking and cultures: When managing a globally dispersed team, it can be challenging to navigate different time zones, local holidays, any language barriers and more. But once you bring everyone together, the benefits outweigh the challenges. Bringing together talent regardless of where they are based allows businesses to bring together the right talent for the right project. Companies can harness a greater diversity of thought and reduce cultural bias. The trick here is to create enough team cohesion that each person sees the value in others.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

To address challenges around productivity, it’s important to build comradery around a shared vision or goal despite physical distance. Make sure everyone on the team is clear on their specific role and knows that they have a voice and place on the team. This also applies to virtual team meetings — ensuring that everyone knows their role will lead to greater transparency and participation across the team. People need to see their work within the context of the bigger team goals. It gives them a sense of place and worth — focusing their actions, as they understand how they fit into the bigger picture.

But transparency extends beyond defining goals, roles and responsibilities. It’s also important to create a shared virtual work environment — much like you would have in the office — to make work more visible. This helps ensure that your teams aren’t questioning each other’s productivity and prevents micro-management.

There are several tools that can help accomplish this be it Microsoft Teams, Trello, etc. And these tools often allow you to capture all interactions in one space. By standardizing tools, your teams will have greater insight into where certain items are in the work stream and know where to engage their coworkers beyond official calls and meetings. Establishing a virtual workspace helps create greater autonomy while simultaneously enhancing transparency.

It may seem like a no-brainer, but geographically dispersed teams require a heightened approach to communications, and now more than ever, leaders must keep teams driving toward results. If you just sit back and don’t bring your virtual teams together regularly, work streams will fall apart. It’s important to communicate with team members frequently and get a pulse check on how projects are progressing, identify where there are challenges and work together to find solutions. Communicating often via phone and video chat should help mitigate misunderstandings and miscommunications that come with losing face-to-face contact.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Emotional intelligence is especially important when delivering tough news or feedback virtually, which will become increasingly common as companies embrace more virtual work in the aftermath of COVID-19.

When giving feedback virtually, you can usually tell you’ve done a good job of offering constructive criticism by the level and quality of the interaction that follows.

  • Try to do it over video so that you can judge reactions.
  • Make sure it’s one on one. No public/group criticism.
  • Keep the opening short and make it a discussion.
  • Begin with the end in mind and work together toward a clearly stated outcome.
  • Be “in it” with the person you are helping do better.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

In today’s business environment people are moving so quickly — it’s easy to shoot off an email without taking the time to think about how it will be interpreted on the other end. I would actually say that effective leaders should always offer to connect via phone or video chat to talk through feedback. In my experience, constructive feedback should really always be a conversation rather than handled over email if it involves potentially sensitive issues. Email may be the beginning of the conversation, but be sure to follow through with a real conversation.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

It’s important that there’s a level of patience and empathy as teams adapt to working remotely. In the pandemic environment specifically, many are juggling work with childcare, so it’s inevitable that there will be some adjustment period. I can’t stress enough the importance of leading with emotional intelligence during this transition, as well as frequent communication with team members. You also need to understand that many on your team will need to learn or improve a new set of skills in a virtual work environment. Offering your team the tools, resources and support to help build these new muscles will be key to overall success.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

In the COVID-19 environment, we’ve seen many companies use different tactics to create a positive remote culture that goes beyond just work. From virtual happy hours to virtual yoga, trivia and more — organizations are embracing new ways of keeping up the human connection so it doesn’t get lost as teams adapt to working remotely.

One way that we do this at PMI is each morning, I host a 15–20 minute virtual meeting with the whole organization discussing topics not related to ongoing projects. We keep these meetings very positive, sharing everything from best practices for working virtually to showing off new colleagues — a.k.a, employees’ kids, pets and plants. It’s been an effective and lighthearted way to keep employees connected, and we’ve been seeing conversations that started during the morning meeting continue to evolve on our internal collaboration tool, Yammer, throughout the day. In some ways, I’ve never been as involved in “water cooler talk” as I am today. It’s a different, in some ways richer, way to foster connection and teamwork.

Frequent communication from leadership is a must to empower work culture. Be it spotlighting great work across the business, acknowledging the challenges of our new working world, or sharing general updates, having open and authentic lines of communication is key to fostering a positive work culture across geographically dispersed teams

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We’re in a situation now in which people are very concerned about giving back. As organizations build their way back from this crisis, they’re going to be striving to build a better future with a better understanding of their environment.

Corporate social responsibility will increasingly be critical to attract talent and create a good brand name. People are taking a long look at how they value their companies not just from a monetary perspective, but from a social perspective. This will accelerate as company valuations evolve to not just focus on the commercial bottom-line.

One reason why I joined PMI is because of the social impact that our community has through initiatives like last year’s Global Celebration of Service, in which PMI chapters pledged to contribute more than 150,000 hours to tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. One of the reasons that I joined PMI to begin with was that we weren’t for profit, but “for purpose.” I like that we are a beacon of hope and lead through our values.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I suppose my favorite quote would be from my dad, who told me, “You better make sure you’re doing what you love doing, but stick to your principles.”

When you do what you love doing, you bounce out of bed. You don’t get tired. It took me a long time to find it, but I needed all of my sales and operational roles to gain the confidence to become an effective CEO.

So, my life lesson is to make sure you know a little about everything; organizations increasingly tell people today that they need to be lifelong learners and I’ve strived to be that since I left university. Across different industries and technology areas, from consulting to even starting my own company, I’ve amassed a lot of different experiences. I’ve worked in the for-profit and non-profit worlds, across finance, HR, and sales. I’ve lived and worked in Singapore, India, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France…and what all of these experiences teach you is that you don’t know everything!

There is always so much to learn. What’s the latest thinking in data science and AI? What’s it like to work in Russia, or Mongolia, or China? The keys to unlocking new opportunities are curiosity and lifelong learnings.

Thank you for these great insights!

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