How to Start Managing from 2,000 Kilometers

So, how do you assume management responsibility for a group of 40 people in a foreign country, most of whom you’ve never met before? That was my question when I traveled from The Netherlands to our office in Ukraine.

Well, here’s a summary of what I did…

Sit between them
I was pleased to see that the desk our people in Ukraine had prepared for me was exactly in the middle of the biggest room. I didn’t mind that the desk was falling apart on all sides. The important thing was that it was the best place to experience the dynamics of the projects they were doing, and all the actions required to produce great software (which, for unknown reasons, included unidentified objects flying over my head).

Attend meetings
I attended a few planning and demo meetings, and other types of gatherings. It told me how people work, how they behave, and how they communicate. I didn’t have to attend a stand-up meeting, as they were doing some of those right in front of me, while practically standing on my desk. I only had to listen while pretending to do some real work.

Present myself
I got everyone together and told them what my role is, and why I was now assuming responsibility for their results. I also told them how important our business unit is for the entire organization (which is true), and that we’re obviously the best looking business unit of all (which is perhaps not really true, but nobody corrected me).

Interview everyone
I set out to personally interview every individual in my unit. I asked everybody (more or less) the same questions. They were just 10 or 12 open questions, like “What do you like about your job?”, “What would you change if you were a manager?”, “Why did you come and work in our organization?”, “Who do you go to when you have a problem?” and “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Some people might have thought I was insane, interviewing almost 40 people in one week. But I think it is the most effective way to 1) get to know the people a little; 2) understand the organization; and 3) convey the message that I care about what they think.

Appoint managers
You cannot directly manage a group of that size from a distance of 2,000 kilometers. That’s what you need local managers for. In this case, my need for good managers did not require any significant changes. They were already there waiting for me, and doing a splendid job of making me feel welcome. But I can imagine that, in other organizations, this step might be the riskiest and most difficult part of such an organizational transition.

Socialize with people
We all have our weaknesses. And I admit that socializing is not my strongest trait. I prefer a good book over bars and discos, and when it comes to alcohol I’m one of the most boring people on the planet. Nevertheless, our Ukrainian colleagues were very good at entertaining me, despite my shortcomings. I have dined, bowled, skated, played pool, shopped, and cooked. And I’m glad we had plenty of time to talk about non-work related stuff with each other.

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I even joined a few people to visit a banya (Russian sauna). However, I felt I had to politely decline one of the local customs, after seeing my project managers being beaten senseless with half of an oak tree. Though the oak leaves flying around my head did add something to the atmosphere in the sauna.

Keep contact
The biggest challenge will come when I’m back in The Netherlands. It is all too easy to concern yourself more with the people directly around you, instead of those at the other side of Europe. I am sure that Skype, Jabber, possibly Twitter, and several other tools will become indispensable to me.

But I will be sure to let you know how that is going to work out…

Note: somebody told me once that Ukrainian humor is different from Dutch humor. But I never noticed such a thing. I understood all their jokes, as they understand mine. (It can also mean that my parents are Ukrainian.)

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  • http://blog.brodzinski.com Pawel Brodzinski

    One of trickiest things when you land as a parachute manager in a team is not to change anything an the beginning. Last time I was in similar situation I did more or less the same things you count. Then for a couple of months I was active only when there were some problems and my attention was needed (it was taking me about 10 hours per day). After a few months I had a nice and real picture of the team. I learned who I can count on and who can bring some problems.
    I see you’ve enjoyed your trip.

  • http://www.betterprojects.net Craig

    I remember when I firtstarted managing a team split over 2 cities 1000km apart.
    I made a commitment to go see them every second month for a few days. I also used to phone up for regular off the record chats. (There were only 5 of the distant ones.)
    Definitely the building trust and loyalty through pesonal relationships is the way to get things done.

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