A typical trip for me at the moment involves leaving Sydney and spending three working days on the ground in Toronto, then three working days in London before returning home. Achieving any sort of productivity involves completely ignoring (or embracing) jet lag and maximising the benefit associated with time on aeroplanes.
As a CEO, I have learned that it’s important to be able to focus time thinking “about” the business, rather than just being submersed “in” the business and all the day to day challenges associated with it. In this vein, plane rides are now focused on strategic thinking (“about”) and sleep.
To unlock strategic thoughts, my flight routine typically involves watching five or six TED talks on varied subjects – whether business, art, music, leadership, human endurance, sport or the planet.
I’ve just watched a short talk by Yves Morieux entitled “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify”. Yves’ points resonated with me because of the continual focus I have on reducing the “tyranny of distance” in our business. I define this as the need to communicate better to avoid misunderstanding and detachment from the whole, which can happen when large amounts of time are spent out of the office.
>See also: Year of the plane part 2: Three promises
Yves espouses a challenge to the two pillars businesses aim to manage complexity. The first is the “hard” stuff: structure, processes and systems. The second is the touchy-feely, soft stuff: feelings, interpersonal relationships and culture. It’s well known that “hard stuff” without adequately considering people and the “soft” stuff is dangerous. However, he points out that if they worked, productivity and engagement across most businesses would not be so terrifyingly low. The key in his view is collaboration and cooperation.
How do you remove the structure and focus everyone on collaboration in a way that ensures cross-functional and international cooperation while also eliminating the tyranny of distance? I have some tips to share:
Invest in 1:1 meetings with people: Don’t solely rely on scheduled meetings; call out of the blue once and awhile just to say hi and see how someone is doing. Take an interest in your employees’ lives and show people you care about them, not just their role.
Empower integrators and/or connectors: Identify the people within your business that are “integrators and/or connectors”, meaning they naturally engage with others and are curious about how aspects of the business interact. Empower them to work across teams to communicate and cross-pollinate.
Use technology to speak face to face: The ability to see someone’s face achieves a deeper connection, builds relationships and encourages recognition that work has a very human element.
Achieve balance and demonstrate it to others: It’s important in our own lives to get comfortable with balance. I believe in living a full life (i.e. do lots of work but have lots of life too). I now go for evening walks with my phone and can talk to our teams whilst walking. This achieves a good communication outcome whilst also demonstrating that I am choosing to work whilst I take care of myself and being healthy.
>Related: Year of the plane part 1: Five entrepreneurship lessons from The Simpsons
Take time to perfect emails: Achieving the right email cadence and tone can be challenging but it’s extremely important for the morale of your employees and to your success as a leader. Try to avoid sending lots of emails because that can be overwhelming for employees. Tone can also be hard to discern so be sure to read through yours more than once. Short emails can also be seen as angry and uncollaborative However long emails should be avoided too as people rarely read them.
Simplify and share resources: When groups are working on something together, have frequent but short meetings. Use shared resources (such as a wiki) to collaborate on projects and don’t rely on email alone. Empower the people on your team to decide and act without your approval to increase productivity.
Ask for help when needed: Create a culture where the only failure that matters is a failure to ask for help. To do this it’s important to regularly recognise things that go well and those that don’t. Take a lesson publicly from everything, celebrate the winners, but also congratulate those involved in every initiative.
While it may be overwhelming to you and your employees to change several aspects of business operations at once, it is very easy to modify one thing at a time and monitor how employees react. Reducing the tyranny of distance in order to enhance communication and collaboration can have huge benefits to the success of your business and will be worth the effort in the long run.