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Leaders are at home in office

Leaders are at home in office
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First Published: Mon, Apr 09 2007. 03 15 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Apr 09 2007. 03 15 AM IST
What do you think of telecommuting? —Jennifer Heizer, Waltham, Mass.
We love it. Telecommuting allows us to write this column from Boston or Buenos Aires, or wherever our life happens to land us any given week. Our editors are a phone call or email away and we communicate with them as easily as if we were stationed in a cubicle down the hall from them in New York. So, all in all, telecommuting is a perfect deal—for us.
For you, telecommuting may also be ideal or it could be a total disaster—that is, if you desire to climb the corporate ­ladder.
Because the fact is, even in this day of ubiquitous technology and open-mindedness toward flexible work arrangements, telecommuting still comes with a cost: diminished face time. Sure, that won’t kill you in your early career. As long as you’re an individual contributor with enough talent, you can do almost any job from home: write code, analyse legal documents, design marketing materials or sell financial services ... the list goes on and on. Indeed, it gets longer every day with the expansion of the ­intellectual economy and e-commerce.
But what you can’t do very well from home is lead.
To lead, you can’t just show up for important meetings and strategic retreats. You have to muddle in the muck in between. People have to know how calm you stay in a public-relations crisis, how decent you act toward new employees who haven’t got the hang of it, how much you sweat during a tough deal and how hard you work without complaining about an unexpected deadline. Or not—to all of the above.
Which brings us back to face time. Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been seen and felt. It’s a familiarity thing and it’s a trust thing.
We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office. But at least they’re in the office. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company, I want to lead, and I can.
Telecommuting sends another message, one that says you value lifestyle flexibility over career growth. Again, that can be just fine. We recently met a lawyer who has worked for her corporate headquarters in Illinois for 12 years from her home in New Jersey. “My husband has a great job in Manhattan and my kids love their school. I enjoy working with my colleagues, even if it is on the phone,” she said. “Who needs to be CEO?”
Well, obviously not her, and maybe not you either. (And clearly, not us!) But for anyone who has dreams of leadership in any meaningful way, telecommuting can only get you so far. The road to the top is paved with being there.
My company places great emphasis on colleague feedback in conjunction with the annual performance review, sometimes eliciting anonymous comments from as many as 30 people for an assessment. The whole process is so time-consuming. Is it worth it? — Name withheld, St Louis.
You’re referring, we assume, to the cottage industry known as 360 Feedback, which first popped up about 20 years ago, and has since spread across the business terrain.
And for good reason: 360 Feedback is an unvarnished way for people to receive a wake-up call about behaviour that distresses their peers and subordinates.
One of us (Suzy) once attended a leadership-training programme where she saw another participant, a middle manager from a technology company, practically go into shock over his 360 results, which were a veritable Greek chorus of negativity.
“Impossible—my people love me!” was the manager’s reaction. “They must have mixed up the paperwork!”
They hadn’t.
But the problem with 360 Feedback—and it’s a big one—is that invariably, after about the second time around, it gets gamed. The system devolves into a highly negotiated affair. Colleagues work out nuclear deterrence treaties with each other and all the “feedback” shooting back and forth starts sounding the same—i.e. positive.
Perhaps such behaviour is all-too-human, but it just renders the process useless.
Now, we know that 360’s proponents—and they are a legion— claim the system has safeguards, and surely it has some. But your question asks about whether the whole long process is worth it.
And to that, we’d have to say traditional appraisals—boss to subordinate—still win hands- down. They generally work, save everyone time and are very hard to rig. We’d suggest your company, then, not eliminate 360 Feedback, but use it only every few years. Its main value is to “out” the unspoken. After that, almost everyone’s in on the game.
Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best seller, ‘Winning’. They are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. You can email them at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 09 2007. 03 15 AM IST
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