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The Virtual Manager: It’s all about your performance.

It is hard to hide incompetence behind appearance or personality when you are a virtual manager.  In a virtual environment, people measure you mostly by your actions, and remember only the most recent good work you’ve done for them and for the organization.

Today, many companies hire great managerial talent who commute from a remote home location. Often, such senior managers start with a four-days-here, one-day-from-home plan that slowly degrades to two then sometimes three days operating remotely.  And some senior managers are quite successful at driving innovation, vision and excellence from a distance.  Some companies are operated entirely virtually and there is no other way to manage.

I’d suggest that the quality of a senior manager who must control from a distance must be higher than one always on the spot in front of middle management and staff. And I’d think that not every such remote manager is able to rise to the occasion, constantly creating a sense of urgency and a push for excellence in his or her absence.  One thing is for sure. The risk of failure is higher when a manager is often absent from the scene of the problem, no matter how strong the person’s skills at delegation and no matter how competent your employees are, one level down the ladder.

[Email readers, cintinue here…]  If you find yourself having to share your time between a distant location and home base, whether because of constant travel or living in a remote spot, you should redouble your energy – focusing your people at all levels toward being able to make decisions with skill and confidence.  You should hone your skills of delegation with accountability, and practice your communication skills so that short communications count more than ever.

And you should find ways to focus your people upon your vision of excellence without seeming to merely be a cheerleader encouraging from the sidelines.  Some great managers do this by keeping a mental or physical list of several, perhaps three, key performance indicators for each direct report, and quizzing about progress in regular planned or chance meetings.  Others keep a dashboard that alerts them to excursions from expectation and permits more management by exception.

It’s all about your performance, especially when you’re physically absent some or much of the time.  Take a few minutes to think about ways in which you can creatively leave yourself behind when you are absent, encouraging others to feel your sense of urgency directed toward achievement of your vision, even in your absence.

  • Michael O'Daniel

    With all due respect, it isn’t all about the virtual manager’s performance — it’s also about the quality of the people reporting to him/her (especially if changing them is not an option), the culture and political dynamics of the organization, and the backing of those who have placed you in the virtual management position (whether that’s the board, or the next higher level of management).

    Because when the cat’s away, the mice definitely will play. And if they’re truly warped, they will try to undermine you at every opportunity, just because they can. You’d hope that your colleagues are grownups with integrity and a good work ethic, and can and will produce as well with you managing virtually as with you on-site. But taking the temperature frequently is extremely important, as are positive reinforcement (or cheerleading, if you will) and as much face time as you can manage, at least in the early stages.

    I’ve been a virtual manager twice, accomplished great things both times, but the first time I focused too much on just doing the job well and not enough on the political dynamics lurking in the background and the culture of the organization. Got blindsided as a result. A painful lesson, but one for which I take full responsibility and have since managed to avoid repeating. Not long ago I actually walked away from a virtual consulting engagement after a week when it quickly became obvious I was looking at a no-win situation because of the above 2 factors.

  • Dave, as always, I thank you for sharing your “good logic and solid wisdom”. As you say, virtual management is all about “measured” performance and goal achievement for your teams. With that being the focus, a little “face to face cheerleading” (when possible and blended in) helps make for a balanced Virtual Manager…and success for the manager and the company.

  • Great insights on a very relevant topic – especially with the increasing importance of leveraging expertise in a geography agnostic environment.

    Fortunately with the tools available to have “presence” and a focus on results, the options are expanding to be effective in supporting business innovation.

    Ron Thompson

  • Lucien Ruby

    Dave: Great piece. These issues arise in every startup these days as founders/CEO’s try to cut/avoid costs by not requiring new hires to move. And the problem isn’t just for the manager, it is for the managed as well. If you end up reporting to a virtual manager, your life is different and requires extra energy and effort on your part to make thie arrangement work.

    All the best. Lucien

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