Leading distributed teams – especially if they’re global

Experienced rainmakers know that managing any large team is complicated, but when members are distributed across offices – especially international ones — significant coordination costs arise: projects delayed due to incompatible schedules; cultural or linguistic misunderstandings on cross-border work; technology failures causing missed deadlines.  International matters are particularly challenging because each partner may be working with different assumptions and ways of engaging the client.

A French lawyer working on an international, Paris-headquartered client felt pressure by his co-account leaders in the US and Asia to drive for faster growth.  He countered, “I understand that I need to be very active, but in the French culture one cannot be quite so aggressive as elsewhere.  For Paris clients, you need to be pushy without seeming to be pushy.  It’s a delicate equilibrium that outsiders don’t grasp.”

One of the things that makes working at a distance so complicated is that it affects both the way we feel and think – and any viable solutions have to address both.  A colleague from INSEAD, Prof. Mark Mortensen, is an expert in making virtual collaboration smoother, and we’ve teamed up to publish forthcoming a piece in Harvard Business Review (I’ll tweet the link and post it here when available).

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Focus on commonalities, especially your shared goal of exceptional client service, in order to overcome the “us and them” thinking that is typical of distributed teams.
  • Arrange regular touchpoints – ideally by video, but phone is still much better than email for sharing task-related information. If you only do this on an “as needed” basis, it’ll probably fall through the cracks because we often don’t recognize when distant colleagues need our knowledge. Beyond the obvious benefit of coordinating the actual work, regular communications help keep team members engaged and accountable to the client team.
  • Take time to share the personal updates, even though it feels like a luxury. The resulting trust and familiarity are vital when a true crisis erupts.

What are your best and worst experiences of working in distributed client service teams? What actions have worked especially well (or poorly!) to motivate and align members?  How do you sustain the momentum?  Do you use any of those techniques with clients?  What technology or platforms best support collaboration among far-flung team members?


As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.


2 thoughts on “Leading distributed teams – especially if they’re global

  1. I spent a number of years as worldwide marketing director of an international law firm with offices on three continents: North America, Europe and Asia. On multinational, cross-border (to say nothing of the time zone issues) files, the firm stumbled around a bit until we proposed to the firm that, for such matters, there be one “client managing partner” who would be both the primary contact with the client as well as co-ordinator between lawyers working in the various offices on a specific file.

    As part of making this work, we instituted a pair of weekly video conferences: One between all of the lawyers (partners and associates) and a second involving the key lawyers in each location and the client. Since this was in the days before Skype, arranging the connection was a bit cumbersome as it required special – and costly – audio and video equipment, detailed advance scheduling, booking with a telcom provider, etc. But it ensured that everyone was always informed on what had been accomplished since the previous call, every emerging issue regarding the file, and so on.

    As important, it helped avoid any cultural flare-ups (either those inside the firm or those involving multiple business cultures in the various parts of the world) that could affect the relationship with the client or the satisfactory conclusion to the file. The regular “face-to-face” video meetings also served to make everyone working on a file feel “part of the action” that couldn’t be maintained simply by emails and faxes.

    Once the firm adopted this protocol on multinational files, it never again encountered any coordination or file management issues


  2. I run a major global account team for my firm and this is certainly a challenge I’m very familiar with. The most effective tool I’ve successfully implemented to completely change the cross border dynamic in the team is something we call “The hub”. It’s effectively a secure, ring fenced site my team access via a mobile app to share information or any kind about the client. This is extremely effective as it also allows a discussion to take place around the topic (just like this!). Importantly we share all key actions and intel following client meetings – immediately when we are on the move. Ideas and angles are sparked quickly and momentum is built around a possible opportunity. We all use it and see it as important as email to our work routines. The power of information sharing through a simple tool like this has been fantastic for the team and the client. We are more connected, better informed, richer and more diverse in views and distance doesn’t matter. We feel like one global team.


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