Building teams we want to be on (regardless of where they're located)

Allison Matlack · 2020-12-17

Building teams we want to be on (regardless of where they're located)

I am a relatively new manager—just two years in, at the time of this writing—but I’ve worked with leadership teams in a support and advisory capacity for much longer. My image of “good” management is a composite of the management attitudes and behaviors that have positively impacted my own career.

In my experience, the formula for a person’s best career includes a partnership between an advocate manager and a highly motivated individual contributor. Both parties should be working together toward shared objectives. This requires managers to shift from a mindset of “you own your success” to one of “we own our success.”

I’ve given talks on this topic a few times, and those talks culminate with my favorite example of this kind of advocacy in action: the time my manager had to find a chair for me so I could join the table and pitch a new program at our department fiscal-year planning session. He not only opened the door to opportunity by inviting me to the meeting, but also reinforced my value by ensuring I had an equal place to sit alongside other leaders—he literally gave me a seat at the table.

I’m sharing all of this so you have a good understanding of my state of mind when I went into people management. I knew exactly what to do to manage according to open values and principles: set proper context, invest time in skill building, open doors, remove blockers, serve as an advocate, and empower my team.

So imagine my surprise when I became a manager and realized that this stuff is not easy to put into practice—especially when you’re managing a distributed team.

If you’re new to open management, new to managing a distributed team, or have some experience but are looking for a refresher, here are some pragmatic steps you can take toward fostering a healthy team that thinks and acts openly, regardless of where they’re physically located.

Step 1: Establish trust through transparency

Not long after I officially became a people manager, I was wondering if I had made a terrible decision. Thankfully, it turned out that I was wrong.

I’d just forgotten the most important step any beginning manager needs to take: establish a solid foundation of trust.

Trust is important in any relationship. But when you’re working on a distributed team, intentionally creating space for activities that build trust is essential. My current team spans geographies, from India to the Czech Republic, Germany, Australia, and the United States. This distribution ensures we have some diversity of thought, but it makes getting to know one another on a personal level much more difficult (we can’t just opportunistically engage in the kinds of activities that create shared experiences, like coffee or lunch breaks, stopping by each other’s desks for informal conversation, attending company meetings together, and so on).

Without intentionally creating space for these types of activities and being explicit about both your values and what you expect from other members of the team, you’re leaving open the door to misperceptions. Here’s an example: When I first became a manager, I was faced with a situation where I thought I had a problem employee. Despite everything I thought I knew, I was failing to identify and repair the disconnect. (I remember once, in an email, when this person even referenced the fact that I’d given talks on this stuff!) I had no idea what to do because the behavior I perceived didn’t align to my expectations or assumptions about this person and their work. Among the advice I got was the suggestion to skip one-on-one meetings if I didn’t feel up to them—preserve my energy for more positive things. But that seemed to make the problem worse, to increase the fear and uncertainty we both felt because without a shared office space, these meetings became some of the only deliberate moments we had for real conversation.

Things didn’t turn around until I gave up fighting. I took off my armor, threw down my defensive weapons, and met this person in the middle.

“You are right,” I said, “I do give talks on this stuff, and I swear I am trying everything I coach everyone else to do. I can’t tell if I’m a horrible manager, if there’s a skills gap somewhere, or if you’re in the wrong role and ready for something else.” I looked this person in the eyes and I said what I honestly felt: “I care about you. And I care about this team.”

And I can tell you that both of us continuing to show up, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and displaying genuine care flipped some switch. We were practicing the best and hardest kind of radical candor, and we cleared up misperceptions on both ends.

Much of the behavior I perceived as troublesome was a natural consequence of our environment, which I just needed to better understand. I learned that this person wasn’t a problem employee, just a person who felt unsafe and unsure. And this person learned they didn’t need to be afraid of being honest, that I wasn’t out to get them—just a new manager genuinely trying her best and still stumbling.

The foundation of trust we built that day has gotten even stronger over time. We both feel safe, respected, and supported. And now this management thing isn’t so hard because I have a partner who is equally as invested in our mutual success. What I learned from this experience was the importance of establishing trust out of the gate. So when I recently began onboarding our newest team member, I shared this story and set the intention of having a clear conversation about what we both expected and needed from each other in this manager/associate relationship. If you haven’t ever had this conversion with the people on your team, or if it’s been a long time since you have, schedule time to check in.

Step 2: Co-create a team charter

I hear many stories from people about how terrible their managers are. But I’m not convinced there’s a cavalcade of heartless, cruel managers out there who spend their days thinking of ways to make their associates’ lives more difficult. On the contrary: When I start digging into the reasons why a manager/associate relationship isn’t healthy, it is almost always because expectations are unclear or misaligned. An associate cannot feel like they are contributing value or be seen as a high performer if they are not meeting expectations, and they cannot meet expectations that are unclear (or worse, unstated).

When forming a new team, stepping in to lead an existing team, combining different functions under one department, or bringing on new team members, the first thing you should do after establishing a foundation of trust is to co-create a team charter. Your charter should answer why your team exists (purpose statement), the ideal end-state you are driving toward (vision statement), how you plan to get to that end state (mission statement), what tactics you will employ to accomplish your mission (objectives, strategies), and how you will know you are successful (key performance indicators [KPIs] or other success measures). In a remote, distributed environment, you and your team can develop all this virtually, using shared documents and slide-sharing tools.

Coordination among remote team members is much easier when those members share a common vision because they can refer to their charter in the absence of more frequent day-to-day reinforcements. Members of teams with a charter can set individual performance and development goals much more easily—and ensure they’re aligned with the team’s higher purpose. People readily know how to accept and prioritize work (i.e., if a project is not aligned to the team objectives, then it’s not something they should take on, unless it’s a passion project outside their core responsibilities). Everyone knows what’s expected of them: Help the team accomplish its mission through the defined objectives.

Don’t forget that as manager, you should have a general idea of what you’d like to see for each of these categories, and providing drafts of each of these statements can also be helpful (sometimes, team members prefer to respond rather than invent—tell you what’s missing, indicate whether it resonates, discuss whether the language makes sense and accurately describes their vision for individual roles, etc.). It’s your job to use your understanding of the larger business context to guide the conversation about how the team fits in the larger organization, but be open to the team’s suggestions—they might surprise you by showing you something you’ve missed!

To give you an idea of what all of these statements look like, I’ve included examples from my own team (internal communications for an enterprise software Products and Technologies division).

Why are you here? (purpose statement)

A team’s purpose statement should answer the questions, “Why are you here? What makes you different from every other team in the organization?” Clarifying your team’s unique role in the organization can help you set bounding lines for responsibilities and define how you partner with other teams.

An exercise that can help you arrive at this statement (especially if you have multiple functions within your team) is to provide a shared document and have every member of the team write up to three sentences that describe what they do. Chances are high that you will see a few words or themes repeated throughout each of the descriptions, and that can help you understand how the team defines their purpose—and you can refer back to these statements to help with your vision and mission statements, too.

My team’s current purpose statement:

Creating the context associates need to do their best work.

What are you driving toward? (vision statement)

A vision statement should describe the ideal end-state your team is driving toward. In other words, what would it take for your team to be ultimately so successful that your job would be considered done and your team would no longer be needed? What do you want to achieve?

My team’s current vision statement:

Achieve a sense of community within our division and a deep understanding of how the product strategy is relevant to each of us.

How are you going to get there? (mission statement)

Now that you understand why you are here and where you are going, you need to define how you are going to get there. A mission statement describes how you are going to achieve your vision. What kinds of things will your team do to ensure your vision becomes a reality?

My team’s current mission statement:

Create and curate meaningful content, events, and experiences that connect our division’s leadership and associates to our open culture, shared mission, and each other.

What are your tactics? (objectives, strategies)

Now we’re into the nitty-gritty. What does your team hope to accomplish (objectives) in support of your mission, and how do you plan to meet those objectives (strategies)?

When team members begin creating their own individual performance and development plans, and when they’re deciding what projects to take on, they will look to the objectives for guidance. If a project or task is not aligned to the team objectives, then it’s not something they should be focusing on as part of their core responsibilities. And if the objectives are clear, you can avoid the problem of misaligned expectations.

It’s a good idea to keep the number of objectives small (no more than three or four), then the team can come up with three or four strategies that define ways you’ll accomplish each of those objectives.

My team currently has three objectives. As an example, here is one:

Partner with division executives to better connect with the division globally so every associate understands our strategy and how their work aligns and matters.

And that objective’s accompanying strategies:

  • Empower division associates with the information and resources they need to understand how their roles fit into the overall strategy,
  • Create opportunities for division associates and executives to interact, and
  • Provide a platform for division leaders to share their perspectives and demonstrate expertise.

How will you know if you’re successful? (success measures)

To help define key performance indicators (KPIs), I like to ask the team the question, “What data, if we had it, would change our behavior?” But be warned that you might not always find a clear answer to that question. For example, we’re an internal communications team, so we can try to measure things like publication subscriber numbers and click-through rates—but trends in those numbers are only useful within a larger context (e.g., did more people access content because they were curious about something important going on in the organization, or did we do more promotion than usual?).

Rather than share an example of some KPIs here, I’ll just note that sometimes the conversation is more important than the numbers themselves. My team decided to implement a quarterly review process where we’d review our metrics, but after our first trial run, we moved the KPIs to the very end and spent the majority of our time discussing what goals we’d set for the previous quarter, what we actually accomplished, what challenges we encountered, and what we wanted to focus on for the upcoming quarter.

Step 3: Keep each other in the loop

Scrum teams have daily standup meetings, but the rest of us can have difficulty finding ways to keep each other informed of what we’re working on and where we might need some help—especially if the team is distributed. Having team meetings on a regular, reliable cadence is critical, and it’s equally as important to find an asynchronous way to provide updates so you can use those team meetings for discussions about issues that need attention, rather than sharing status.

One of my favorite things that my team has suggested implementing so far has been a weekly high-level update. We use a Trello board on which everyone has an individual card, but the tool you use here doesn’t matter; I’ve heard others use tools like Slack, Google Docs, or email for these updates, so go with whatever makes your team most comfortable with rather than trying to introduce a new tool. I follow our Trello board, so I get the updates straight to my inbox.

Once a week, each person makes a list of “things I’m happy with” and “things that could have gone better,” in order to share highlights and lowlights (rather than comprehensive weekly task lists) with each other. These updates serve several purposes. First, everyone on my team has slightly different responsibilities and works on different things, so these updates provide a way for us to keep each other informed about what we’re doing (“Met with the intranet team to clarify navigation structure”), seek help removing blockers (“Had trouble figuring out how to format the newsletter”), and identify areas for collaboration (“Started work on our team intranet space”)—all outside of the hour-long weekly team meeting.

These updates also provide a vehicle for us to share accomplishments and things we’re proud of (“Proud of the team for being recognized in the department meeting”), as well as frustrations on both personal and professional levels—I have found that the more open I am in my updates about what’s happening in my life (“Had trouble focusing this week due to the US presidential election”), the more open my team is. And if anything stands out (positive or negative), I can bring it up in our one-on-one meetings to offer congratulations or support.

And finally, these updates provide a historical record of selected accomplishments on which we can all reflect. I’ve found that we all refer to the updates to help build our quarterly reviews, as well as individual performance and development plans.

Inspired by my team’s suggestion to provide individual updates, I created Trello cards to share notes from each of my standing meetings (extended leadership meetings, working groups, cross functional groups, etc.) so that I can be more transparent and make information available to my team as they want it, without clogging their inboxes or overloading them with information that doesn’t interest them.

And while on the subject of team meetings, I must say I cannot understate the importance of regular one-on-one meetings with all of your team members, especially when they’re remote. The people on your team need to know you are there for them, and a regular touch-base is essential. These meetings are your opportunity to check in with your team on a human level. Let them direct the conversation—sometimes you’ll end up talking about anything other than work, and that’s okay—and don’t forget to ask, “How are you doing, really?” (and mean it).

If you have too many direct reports to manage weekly or bi-weekly meetings with all of them, then start a conversation with your own management chain about how to work toward a more sustainable and supportive organizational structure.


Just two years into my career managing a distributed team, I can already say that my favorite part of management is helping create a team I want to be on. What I’ve learned is that once you’ve established trust, co-created a team charter, and found a way to keep each other in the loop, something magical happens. I hope you will try it and see.