On the 1st of June this year, I took on my new role as SAP’s HR director for Central & Eastern Europe. More importantly, I became the manager of a team of senior HR professionals spread across 15 countries. I had met only one of them before and interacted with the rest only a handful of times.
It became clear very quickly that I would not be able to meet all of them personally in the first few weeks. At the same time, I knew that I had to get to know them quickly in order to work most effectively with them, especially since we were a virtual team. In a virtual world, trust becomes invaluable. If I don’t see my team face-to-face day-to-day, how can I work to build a trusting relationship? How can we understand each other and our opinions without having the opportunity to meet in person?
My instinct told me that we needed to get to know each other; only then would we understand how and why we make decisions, why we react to situations in certain ways, and what the team would expect from (me) their colleague and a leader.
As the newest member of the team, I felt I should start the process; after all, they would all have to work with me and deserved to know me. Being a manager is only one part of who I am, so I decided to share more about me, including how important work-life balance is for me, that I only recently realized this, what I do to achieve this balance, and how it helps me to be my best at work.
I was nervous. This could fail if my colleagues felt intimidated by this approach or even thought that I wanted to impose my way of life onto them. In previous conversations with each of them, I explained that I had no expectations from them, that I simply wanted to share more about myself. In a virtual working environment, many of my colleagues do not see me at work, hear about what we all did during the weekend, or gain the same benefits as my colleagues working in the same office.
Those early conversations also generated interest in how I organize my day and time, how I maintain my positive energy when things get hectic. This gave me the idea to write “Food for Thought” emails. Every a Friday, to bring a busy week to a close, I send an email about a TED Talk I’ve seen or an article I’ve read, or simply just write about the weekend ahead. Those weekly outreaches are an invitation to reflect, nothing more: read it, ignore it, or tell me that it is of no interest – it’s all OK.
I am relieved to say that, three months on, the emails have become a habitual talking point. They trigger discussions via email, on our calls with the team, or among individuals. The openness of the team in sharing feedback has helped us grow; trust has grown through conversations and the sharing of ideas, and the team is free to take over the “Food for Thought” messages on any Friday.
Without realizing it, I started something bigger than just getting to know the team. We are now on a journey together; as we get to know each other, we work better together.
If this is something that appeals to you, here are my top five tips:
- Regardless of whether you are managing a new team or working with new clients, know that people work with people. Make it a priority to get to know the personality behind the name, as this will make your work life easier.
- Start with yourself to make sharing safe. Select aspects of your outside life that may interest or inspire your colleagues and start sharing. Be open, and you will soon see people join in and do the same.
- It’s essential to ensure that everyone is at ease with this approach, that they feel comfortable, and know this is entirely voluntary, not an obligation.
- Use your regular calls with the team or clients to check how it’s going, to share and see how receptive everyone is. Separate the “getting to know each other” calls from the “work topic” calls. Work will get done much faster.
- Be yourself and have fun! This approach will only work if you stay true to yourself and act authentically towards others. If people feel you are not prepared to be open and share the real you, it will be hard for them to do the same; trust becomes difficult to achieve.
Enjoy the ride!
If you’ve been in business for a while, most likely Everything You Know About Leadership Is Wrong.