With Martin G. Moore

Episode #60

Leading Remote Teams: Outcomes, not inputs

Leading when you don’t have physical proximity to your people can be tricky. The good news is that doing this well, is no different from leading any team well. However, any cracks in your leadership will be more obvious in this scenario.

In this episode I explore the nuances of leading remote teams (or remote employees, as flexible working arrangements become more prevalent).

I’ll talk about why world leading safety organisation, DuPont, always put one of their own leaders into a newly acquired operation, and will cover how making your expectations clear can prevent little fiefdoms from springing up.

As Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify”.

I’ve also created a free downloadable cheatsheet ‘10 Way to Improve Outcomes with Remote Teams’ which you can download below. This is a great resource to share with anyone in your organisation who leads a remote team!


Get yours delivered straight to your inbox by filling out the form below 👇

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Episode #60 Leading Remote Teams: Outcomes, not inputs

Hey there and welcome to Episode 60 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: Leading Remote Teams: Outcomes, not inputs. We get a range of listener questions that have variations on a theme. How do we manage a remote team? This week we’re going to take on a question from our listener, Adrian, who asked for some hints on running effective meetings with remote teams. I’m just going to broaden this out a little to take a more holistic view of leading when you don’t have physical proximity to your people because this can be tricky. So we’ll talk about how the world of work is changing. Then I’ll move on to the importance of local leadership and we’ll finish by getting specific about what you can do to ensure each location delivers. So let’s get into it!

I want to give you the punchline early. Leading remote teams is absolutely no different from leading any other type of team. Just the same way as we heard in a previous episode. Leading millennials is no different from leading Gen Xers or Baby boomers. It’s just that you will get away with a lot less. There’s a little bit more risk with remote teams and great leadership will enable you to overcome any of these issues. So let’s take a look at how the world of work is changing. Shifts in geographical location have been going on for a really long time through globalisation and the rise of multinational businesses, but these days, even much smaller businesses can expand rapidly into different geographical locations. It’s not just the big multinationals anymore. Rapid expansion for smaller business has its pros and cons. There is a cost impost through the setup and running of a new location, but the value is proximity to your markets.

I’ve seen many fast growth businesses overextend, and run into cashflow problems when they expand too quickly. So for listeners in high growth businesses be careful about expanding too quickly into new markets, we always tend to underestimate the degree of difficulty of doing so. Having said that, local knowledge has real advantages. So you can’t even contemplate running a business in China remotely. You can’t even run it with an expat that your parachute in. You need a local who knows the lay of the land, has deep relationships and can navigate the unique issues of operating in that economy. It’s completely different. But geographical dislocation of the workforce is becoming a much more common problem. It’s not just for multinationals, it’s not just businesses growing into new locations, either. The local workforce is being dispersed through flexible working arrangements. So now we have individuals working remotely, working from home, for example.

Technology’s there to support it. But there are also many issues that arise because of it. So for example, arguably there’s an obligation on the employer to provide a safe working environment. Now you’ve got control over that, as long as people are coming to your office. What happens when people are working from home in their home office? Communication protocols and opportunities are quite different because when someone’s not there, you can’t just stick your head over the partition to ask a question or give a direction. And of course it’s harder to work out what’s going on in terms of monitoring progress. Now this is at the heart of Adrian’s question. The technology exists to do this, but what do we lose when we don’t have the face to face interaction and how do we overcome that? We know that observation and measuring of inputs, so for example, time spent at the desk, is not a useful measure of progress and performance.

That’s why leadership has to shift from a command and control model to an influence model and progress moves from observed activity to delivery of value, so it moves from inputs to outcomes.

Let’s move on and have a think about the importance of local leadership. Now in this piece I’m going to specifically address the distributed business office scenario rather than the case of an individual working from home and I want to use an example to talk about the criticality of local leadership. Now some of you may be familiar with the DuPont company. If not, you’ll certainly know some of the things that they’ve produced. They’re a global multinational over 200 years old and they are fundamentally a science and innovation company. They have lots of manufacturing of high risk products that, is dangerous chemicals under heat and pressure. The company started manufacturing gun powder in Wilmington, Delaware in the early 19th century and interesting fact, over half the gun powder used in the U S civil war was manufactured and delivered by DuPont. Over the years to DuPont has, invented many wondrous materials that are in widespread use throughout society today.

So in the 30s they invented nylon in all its forms from ladies stockings to high end automotive parts. They invented Teflon, the stuff that stops the eggs from sticking to the fry pan. They invented Kevlar, which stops bullets from penetrating the skin and they invented Lycra without which of course gymnasiums would be very much different places, and the packs of middle-aged men cycling through the suburbs would be nowhere near as offensive! But interestingly, DuPont was also the firm credited with the first attempt at reporting on ROI, return on investment. As the story goes, one of their sales people came up with the calculation for the first time in 1912 because he thought it was a better measure of performance than the rudimentary revenue and cost metrics. But I digress. A couple of years ago, DuPont was part of a mega merger with Dow Chemical and is now known as Dow DuPont. DuPont was one of the first companies to really take industrial safety seriously.

They killed hundreds of workers in the early days of their gun powder manufacturing, which they worked tirelessly to improve. I came across them over 10 years ago when they were engaged to do safety consulting work inside Aurizon. And I spent time in the US with DuPont touring their operations and learning what world class safety performance looks and feels like. Now what does this have to do with remote teams? Well, there was a time when DuPont was quite inquisitive, taking over lots of smaller manufacturing operations and consolidating them into the DuPont family. But I remember conversation I had with one of their senior execs very clearly, a number of years ago, about how they handled the risk of bringing businesses into the DuPont fold that may not have had the same standards for safety performance. What he told me was very telling. Whenever they bought a new company or operation, the very first thing they did was to replace the General Manager of that site with a DuPont person.

Now, it wasn’t to say that the incumbent General Manager wasn’t an excellent person or wasn’t doing a great job. They simply didn’t want to take the risk of having a leader in one of their sites who didn’t do things “The DuPont Way”. They mitigated this risk by putting a known, trusted leader in to run the operation. That way they could be sure that things would be done the DuPont way, so that their values and culture would be observed, that the standards for behaviour and performance would be implemented, that their accumulated knowledge of industrial risk would be brought to bear and that the relationships required to navigate the mothership or the head office, were actually going to be in place. Now under those circumstances, running a remote work site is much easier because you’ve de-risked the major elements. You’ve got someone in there who you trust to do the job the same way you would if you could be there yourself.

So even if you don’t have a machine like DuPont, the golden rule is that you need to have a leader in every remote location that you trust to do their job according to your values, mindful of your delivery imperatives, and you have to be confident they’re not going to go rogue. But beware, physical separation builds independence, sometimes a little too much. And the out of sight, out of mind principle is alive and well. So we’re in our own little microcosm and this often heralds the rise of the rugged individualist. They pay lip service to their obligations to the broader corporation and they do what they want. They create their own little fiefdom.

So if you’re managing remote sites, what can you do to ensure that each location delivers what you need? Well start by making sure you have the right person in place. For me, this will be the biggest predictor of likely success, and it will also determine how much time and energy you have to put into that location to make it function. This is just like any other appointment, but it’s more critical when you don’t have visibility of the day to day. It’s also akin to my view that the most important thing a board ever does is to appoint the right CEO to lead the business because the board has limited visibility of what the CEO and management team actually does. I’m going to take you through nine points that are going to help you understand how to manage remote teams.

Number one, understand the unique differences in the remote operation. So you’ve got to start with the basics. For example, if you have operations in different countries, you’ve got to be cognisant of the time zones and technological constraints they might have. There’s no point in expecting to have the same level of communication with a remote mine site in Ghana as you would have with a capital city head office. And be respectful of people around time zones so that when you’re setting meetings ,you actually know if it’s 4:30am in their location. You’ve got to understand the local culture too if you’re dealing with an international operation. So be aware of the differences in the regulatory environment, for example. You don’t need to be an expert, you just need to have a basic awareness and know how and when to rely on the local team to give you the goods.

Number two, have a communication strategy. Now, technology is wonderful. It’s great that we can all use Zoom and Skype and these wonderful things to give us instant access face to face. But we should use it as part of the comms strategy, not the entirety of it. And if you’re using technology, don’t nickel and dime it. It’s got to be reliable. So find a way to give yourself reliable comms with these remote locations. Having said that, there’s no substitute for being there. So make sure you have a schedule of visits to all the sites for which you are directly accountable and set that expectation for any regional or area managers you might have below you. So you need to spend loads of face time with your direct reports. Much of this should be one-on-one, so you need to go out to their location and make sure you meet with them there, and whenever they come to the central office, make a point of putting time aside for them. But you need to ask loads of open ended questions, have them explain to you what they’re doing and focusing on and listen for echoes.

It’s also appropriate to have group sessions, and at CS Energy, I had a forum called The CEO Forum, which I ran every quarter. And what I would do is bring the top leaders in from all the sites and we’d sit down for a couple of days and go through things like strategy or corporate wide initiatives or operational planning or whatever the case may be because each one had a different theme. But I would go down to CEO minus three level in our operations for those forums. So they’d be below me, an executive general manager, a site general manager, and then below that the managers who had their hands closest to the levers that we were pulling out there, to get the results. And when we brought them in, I could tell very, very quickly who was on the same page and who wasn’t. So not only did it give them an opportunity to get messages from the mothership, it also gave me the opportunity to see who’s who in the zoo and who I thought was performing and who wasn’t based on how they participated in those forums. But there’s no substitute for touching, smelling, and tasting the distributed team’s environment.

You’ve got to visit their location and talk to people at least occasionally. It doesn’t have to be every week, but make a point of doing it. Otherwise you’re only going to know what the leader tells you and that sometimes is sugarcoated, even if you have got a reliable trusted leader in there. Now there are two other quite important serendipities that you’ll get from spending time on the ground. The first, is that you should never underestimate the impact that you can have just by going out and visiting the operation and talking to people and letting them know that you care. The other part is building relationships throughout the layers in the organisation so that those people feel as though they can talk to you if they need to and it’s very important that you don’t just operate through the organisational hierarchy, that people have other methods of getting to you.

In CS Energy there was more than one occasion where I had a front line supervisor call me to tell me something. Now obviously they need to go back through the normal management line, but it’s just really good to have that proximity, the information coming from the ground.

Number three, be really clear about defining the outcomes that you need. Now because you can’t measure inputs, you’re not there, you need to be able to measure the outcomes really, really clearly. So clear metrics and delivery targets have to be put in place and they need to be both qualitative and quantitative. So if you just go all results focused, then you’ll miss out on the ‘how’, and this is where a lot of cultural problems stem from in organisations that are widely distributed. But make sure you can see from a distance what’s going on and that you can track it.

It’s the milestones that will tell you whether or not things are on track that really count and you need to develop a really finely tuned bullsh!t detector to know when things aren’t on track. Now an old podcast episode that might help you is Episode 19 which was called ‘Execution For Results‘. So if you get a chance, go back and have a listen to that.

Number four, if there’s someone in between you and a remote site, make sure you push for clarity. How well do you really know what’s going on? You can’t just rely on what the person next to you tells you. You’ve got to seek to calibrate that with your own experiences. So we come back to the issue of going out there and making sure you can touch and feel the operation. But make sure you drill into any reports that are mission critical to see if the outcomes are really being delivered. Now in a past life I had an operating site that just kept missing its targets and I’m talking about everything. Safety, plant reliability, any culture measure we put in place, and of course all its financial targets. It was just a really poorly run operation. But my EGM always had a reason why something had gone wrong. And let’s face it, all of those reasons are just ‘dog ate my homework’ variations. So I jumped in below and started spending time with the general manager to find out the extent to which he may have been the problem. And the answer to that was, a lot. He was a lot of the problem. And then I had to think about the next level down. So once I started replacing the leaders between me and the people doing the work, the site started to get back on track and it actually became the model of turnaround performance. So just make sure that you don’t believe what you’re getting locally, that you go and test it yourself.

Number five, make sure you have good visibility of the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’. Culture is really important. And much of the risk lies around local deviations from central standards. So you need to measure culture. You need to carry out 360 degree surveys on your leaders. You need to run talent mapping processes, all of the stuff that shows that you’re paying attention to what’s going on in a different location. I love the story of Korean Air as told by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which by the way is one of my favourite books. Korean Air was one of the least safe airlines in the world and was almost deregistered. Not because of any problem with its processes or its maintenance procedures or anything else, but because of the individual power hierarchy that led to dysfunctional behaviour from the people in the cockpit.

This is what led it to being one of the least safe airlines in the world, but now it’s one of the safest. They brought in an outsider of the fix the cultural differences that led to sub optimal crew performance. So for example, back in the day, the first officer wouldn’t challenge the captain directly, even when the captain was clearly in the wrong. Knowing this, being sensitive to it and understanding these cultural differences is going to help you to avert a disaster.

Number six, work at the right level. This is a no brainer. Now I’m not going to go into this too deeply. We’ve got Episode 7 of the podcast out there about working at the right level and we do dedicate a whole module of Leadership Beyond the Theory to this because it’s a key competence for a leader. But work get how to get outcomes without dipping down, without micromanaging or without having to have an inappropriate level of view of the detail.

Number seven, develop your skills in challenging coaching and confronting. Now the reason you have to do this is because your touch points are fewer with remote teams, so you have to make them count. There’s less time and opportunity to do it, so your skills have to be finely honed and you have to be really confident and comfortable that when you have these interactions, you can step seamlessly into the phase you’re in, challenging coaching or confronting.

Number eight, draw people into the conversation directly. So when Adrian asked this question of me initially, he said that “Teleconferences are really hard when you have people on the other end of a voice line because you can’t see what they’re doing. They can’t see you, and sometimes you ask a question and what you get is tumbleweeds in response”, and so it’s really important that if you’re asking questions, don’t just put them out there generally, just say things like, “Natalie, what do you think about that?” Draw people in individually and don’t be afraid to leave a pregnant pause while people work up the courage to contribute. So sometimes if I’m running a workshop and I ask a question and I get a look of blank faces, I say, “Guys, I’m here until five o’clock today so I can afford to wait for an answer.” This is a great technique for harnessing diversity too because you’re drawing out people’s unique views.

Finally, number nine. Ask, don’t tell. You’ll get a much better idea of what’s going on. If you have leaders in remote operations explain to you, what they’re delivering, what’s important and what they’re focusing on. If you’re constantly telling them, they will nod and smile and then go off and do exactly what they were going to do before you opened your mouth.

Now I know there are a thousand different flavours of remote location scenarios. What constitutes good leadership is the same for any team regardless of location, but problems and issues will be magnified with teams that you don’t have constant contact with.

If you don’t have the right leaders between you and them, you have a problem, but if you don’t know how to get around that and interrogate below the leaders doing it without micromanaging, you’ll also be in trouble. Take this seriously as it’s going to drive your results to great extent.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 60 thanks so much for joining us and remember Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so please share it with your network as this is how we improve the world of work. I look forward to next week’s episode, Learning to Say No.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.

Download the ‘10 Way to Improve Outcomes with Remote Teams’ here.


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership