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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Everywhere is Local: Live where you want, and work Everywhere

[Also available as a Podcast]
The world continues to shrink day by day. Not physically of course - but practically, in how we conduct business and communicate. Today many take this for granted - but do not truly realize the full implications of the changes over the last couple decades and how this can affect your daily lives - both personal and work.

Today, I "travel" 30,000km or more every day - with a 2 minute commute, plus a few overseas trips every year. I am living where I want to - and working with clients everywhere.

So how did we get here?

Looking back: 1990. My first international work trip away from Canada was to New Zealand. 18 hours, two middle of the night stopovers, and I was finally there. But where was that? A long, long way from home. A beautiful place - but feeling very isolated from anywhere, way down in the South Pacific. 

Some of the reasons it felt so far away in 1990:

- International calls were still very expensive, so we did not phone home much except for work calls
- Cellphones were costly and rare (and literally bricks).
- No video calling - the only way to "see" each other was travelling there in person.
- Data communication from the Canadian office to the customer site was by a single 14.4K modem - slow, and also unreliable at times.
- Email was available but not standardized yet - few systems supported attachments of any kind. 
- Software patches were sent by tape - multiple days by courier.

- We later developed a method of emailing patches by breaking a program into many emails as text in 1000 line chunks - a vast improvement over the courier method, but only feasible for single executable patches - which were often over 47 emails long that had to be combined on the other side.
- No Internet (yet)!

Back then, I could never have imagined working the way I do now.

My, how things have changed!

Today, I live in New Zealand - but work anywhere and everywhere, and feel close to all of my clients on a daily basis. But how is this possible?

In short, and no surprise - the Internet.

Some history: 1993 - Mosaic brought a Web Browser GUI to the fledgeling Internet, which up until then had primarily been text based and low bandwidth as it grew up from its origins in ARPANET. Ever since then, there has been an explosion of capabilities and capacity as networks have grown at an exponential rate, both in reach and in bandwidth. Quite exciting times - as I also worked for a company that contributed one of the first commercial Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) fast packet switching solutions into the global market. With this solution and others, network capacity literally took off - and with capacity came the ability for more and more features to be developed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, of course, the Internet is so ubiquitous it is taken for granted almost everywhere. People make hotel decisions based on the quality and cost of their Broadband connections as much as the quality of the rooms, and choose coffee shops for meetings based on their WiFi availability.

Some of what has changed from 1990 to 2012

- Mobile phones are cheap and everywhere
- International calling costs have plumetted
- Internet provides a huge range of capabilities
  - Emailing of 10-20MB files is normal (good-bye 47 emails for a 384KB EXE!)
  - Phone alternatives abound - VoIP providers, IM services
  - VPN secure connections from site to site - extending your reach
  - Free video conferencing options
  - Online meetings
  - And much more!
- The world is becoming more Local

Our Shrinking World

In many practical ways, this is not the same world anymore, and it will continue to change tomorrow as technology continues to accelerate. If you are communicating with clients, or working in IT - you are truly not very distant from anywhere on the planet with an Internet connection.

The Changing Workscape

In the traditional workscape, the "Live-Work" model that most people continue to live in today has you live close to where you work, or at least close enough that you can commute in to work in the morning, and back home in the evening. Work is centralized around an office, a factory, or a job site. Everyone goes into work, does their job for 8-10 hours, then commutes home, in many cases consuming endless hours in traffic or on public transit.

In this model and in years past, "Remote clients" were anyone in another city, or other countries. And there was plenty of travel in order to meet with clients.

Of course, if you have a job requiring physical interaction (construction, manufacturing, retail, and others requiring daily direct face to face client contact), this is hard to avoid.

But if you are in a job that requires communication and not much direct daily physical interaction, such as IT or many roles that you could potentially do at least some of the time by video or phone - you have other options.

Working another way

In 2001, I changed careers. Still in IT, but from the Telecom domain to another Information System space. Clients were spread across North America and numerous locations around the globe. There was still a high degree of physical interation with new clients - there truly is no replacement for face-to-face time, especially at the beginning of a project. This meant a lot of onsite time for team members, so the Services team was highly mobile.

This also meant that it did not matter where you lived - you were prepared to travel. So much so that people did not ask where you lived, they asked what your home airport was. 

However, although the client facing time was primarily physical, the overal job and its tools were virtual - you were able to work with the client in their office, from your hotel, from home, or from the main office, really - from anywhere. With VPN you could securely connect to and work within a client's network from any location with a broadband connection. And as the projects wound down, support was then provided remotely, with little change to the interaction with the customer systems and the level of support that could be provided. You also had a lot of face-time built up with the client which eased the later remote client communications by phone/video/Webex etc.

In 2006 I shifted from primarily on-site services to a more remote role, at least from the client's perspective - working with hundreds of clients by phone/email and Internet. And on a trip back to NZ in 2007 to visit my wife's side of the family, I came to another realization.

It really does not matter where I am to do the work I do - so why not live where I want to?

By August 2008, we had done just that - and my family and I had moved (back) to New Zealand. But I never really changed clients. I continue to work with the same people, primarily in the US and Canada, but also with clients around the globe. And from here I manage a team who works remotely - but also who do on-site client work when needed.

We are now in a world where we can begin to Think Global - and Be Local.

So - What do we need in order to "Be Local"?

 - Communication transparency (VoIP/Phone/Cellphone/Email)
 - (Tele)presence: “being there” (VPN/VoIP/Phone)

 - Access to/for clients and teams (VPN)
 - Community: Virtual teams are real teams (IM/Chat/VoIP/Phone)
 - Quick access to global team members (IM/Chat/VoIP/Phone)

 - Collaboration, not frustration (Online tools)
 - Location independence – every day! (Phone/VoIP/Cellphone and all the rest!)

Got Laptop? Go Anywhere!

The Acid Test

If they cannot easily tell if you are down the street or across the world – you are, in practical terms, Local

Digital vs Personal Contact

Much of what we do is information exchange (email, text, Instant Messaging). However, the human element is important - Sight and Sound. We need to talk, and to see each other regularly to connect and reinforce relationships. In person is best – when you have the opportunity to do so, take advantage of it.

When you can't be there, fill in the gaps with video and phone calls. The better the relationship you establish at the beginning of the project (preferrably in person, next is video, then phone), the more successful you will be in having effective ongoing remote communication with them.

Talk to me, I'm Human

It is tempting to just use email for everything. It is quick and convenient - however it is very impersonal, and messages can often be misinterpreted (i.e. tone, all caps, etc) and this can cause major upsets. However, a quick phone call can more effectively nip a problem in the bud than another email, which might otherwise stoke the fire instead.

Note that voice communication is technically relatively “inefficient”, based solely on words per minute. And yet - the need for personal contact will never disappear. The personal touch of tone, and the sound of your voice communicates volumes - far more effectively than any email.

And the good news, of course - is that it has never been cheaper to talk!

Keeping the Team Together 

Working with clients is one thing - but you also need to keep your team working effectively together, when you may not see each other in person for months, or even years. Regular weekly calls is a start, and ad-hoc calls as needed. I make things easy for my team and clients by providing a VoIP inbound (real) phone number in the main countries where they are - so it is a local call to reach me, anywhere in the world. I just change forwarding when I travel, and use a VoIP provider as my primary communications hub.

Another tool that I use extensively with my team and the extended teams we work with is an IM chat tool (pick your favourite). Everyone in the extended team uses it, and is generally connected into it when online. It helps us provide fast access to each other, so that questions can be quickly answered, saving time over emails and providing better service to the customer, no matter where we are. 

However, another use is just as important - keeping the social glue in place by a moderate amount of just plain chat while you are addressing the work questions. If you don't have much (or any) face time, a bit of chatting, by IM or by phone helps to keep the team connected and strong. (Too much chat becomes gossip, so you need to strike a balance, but I strongly favour use of an IM tool - and in my experience, very few tend to over-use it).


Today, it is possible to conduct most of your business from anywhere with an Internet connection. You can apply this as much as you want to suit your situation - reduce travel, reduce your commute, work from home a few days a week, or, in extreme cases like mine, pack up and move to wherever in the world you want to live, and continue to work from there with your remote clients, travelling only as needed.

You, too, can Live where you want - and Work Everywhere!

Note: For more details on effective global communications done cheaply and effectively,  including using VoIP as your communications hub, please read Everywhere is Local: Providing seamless local access for clients, and stay connected globally - Cheaply! 

Gary Nelson, PMP
Gazza Consulting Services

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Leadership: Ten Attributes of an Effective Leader

[Also available as a Podcast]

Effective Leadership

No, it is not a myth. Many of us have actually seen this phenomenon, or even been lucky enough to work with an Effective Leader. If you were really lucky, they were also your manager/ team leader/ project manager etc.

Ok, to be fair, Effective Leadership is not quite that rare - but uncommon enough that people definitely appreciate it when they see it - and they wished they had it too.

My experience with an Effective Leader

1989 - Back at the beginning of my first career, straight out of University, I was quite fortunate to be hired by an Effective Leader. Of course, I did not know that at the time, but as time went on this became more and more apparent as teams came and went - and his stayed together. 

We identified with him, the team was loyal to him, even through a multi-year dissolution of the company into fragmented parts - in part, because he was also loyal to us. In the final stages of the corporate sell-off, while other departments in our part of the business saw an attrition rate of 70-90% over a 6 month period, his department lost only 2 people in the same period of time. And those only did so after long soul searching on career direction.

Over a period of 11 years, his team stayed together, until he recognized a strange truth - in order for his team to grow further on their personal development paths, he had to leave the company.

In our case, we not only had an Effective Leader, but an exceptional one.

So what makes an Effective Leader? And does that person need to be "the boss"?

Ten Attributes of an Effective Leader

1. Ethics
An Effective Leader has a firm ethical compass. They stick to what they know is right, even in the tough times, and do not easily bow to social pressure or fads. They also make sure that their team embodies the same ethics - honesty, looking out for the customer, doing the right things - right, etc. And not a "closet ethic" - it shows in how they conduct themselves every day.

2. People Skills
An Effective Leader has good people skills, and can communicate effectively with their peers and their team, as well as up and down the corporate ladder. They don't have to be a gracious public speaker to hundreds or thousands, but they do communicate well within their sphere of influence. And Exceptional Leaders develop a significant sphere of influence.

3. Not the Boss
In those 11 years, except for a few periods while on projects with a different department, I did not have a Boss. I had a Manager, a Coach, and a Leader - not a "Boss". An effective leader works with their team, encourages and supports them. Sure, there are plenty of times the leader needs to have things done a certain way, in a certain time - but the difference lies in how they communicate it. A Boss demands the work be done - a Leader requests it and expects it do be done properly - and those working for them are dedicated to doing just that.

4. Praise in Public - Criticize in Private
We have all heard this mantra - and it certainly makes a difference not being "dressed down" in public. However, an Effective Leader takes this one step further - when discussing issues in private, the Effective Leader rarely brow-beats their team member - even if they want to. They address the issues, the behaviour - whatever was at fault, but in a way that does not rip the team apart. If anything, their expression of caring for the team member while firmly addressing the issues at fault further strengthens the team and engenders loyalty and respect. Yes - you will be held accountable, Yes - you are expected to do things right/on time/etc. No - your Leader is not a push-over, and you cannot "get away" with poor performance or behaviour. But you leave the conversation wanting to improve/fix it - you want to live up to their higher expectations of you.

5. Formal vs Informal Authority
An Effective Leader knows how to get the job done - and how to use their formal authority as well as forms of informal authority (primarily influence). As we know, formal authority is bestowed with a title/job description, and not always respected fully if the person does not behave in accordance to the expectations of the role. You may "have to" do what is asked - that is more "Boss" talking. However, an Influencer gets things done by those around them by earned influence and respect - and people wanting to help. Exceedingly happy to help, even - because they know they can rely on the Effective Leader to help when they need it. A formal title may change - but influence tends not to fade that easily.

6. Loyalty
An Effective Leader both demonstrates and earns loyalty - through consistent interactions with their team members, standing up for them, and expecting the best from them. They are great people to work for (and with), but they are not just an easy-going smile-a-lot, they are firm when needed too. They will stand up for you with the higher-ups and with other departments, but they also expect you to live up to their expectations as well.

7. Consistency
An Effective Leader does not change their stripes according to the day - you can rely on them to be consistent in behaviour. Even when they have a bad day (and we all do), they do not completely change direction, and do not lash out at the team when frustrated. You know what to expect in your dealings with them - on good and bad days too.

8. Encouragement
Effective Leaders help to grow their team - collectively and individually. They support team members trying new things, advancing themselves by learning new skills - and providing opportunites to practice their new skills in the workplace. And it's OK to fail - if you are learning something new, you willl not get it right the first time. An Effective Leader understands this, and helps you to progress to the next level, without knocking you down a peg for failing while trying.

9. Not the Detail Expert
Effective Leaders are not the experts in what you do at the detail level. Maybe they used to know it once, but that is no longer their role - they know their value lies in orchestrating the team of experts to perform at their peak, and deliver the goods - on time, with high quality of results, etc. They become experts in working with people instead.

10. Caring
Finally, an Effective Leader cares. About the team, about the company,  about the customer, about the result - and about You. You can see this whenever you work with a team led by an Effective Leader, there is a whole different nurturing atmosphere. People want to be there, and are happy to do whatever it takes to succeed - because they are making a difference and know they are appreciated.

Nobody is perfect, even Effective Leaders. However they are consistent in what they do, and they do it well, which you can see by looking at the people that surround them. You might also say there are more attributes of Effective Leaders, and I would agree. If pressed, I could also boil it down to two main words - Caring and Consistency. But in truth, there is really so much more to it as you see above. 

Can we all learn to be Effective Leaders? Certainly! Few are born as Effective Leaders, those who have a high natural aptitude for it. Most Effective Leaders start out as good observers of people, and can learn the extra skills along the way. And having a good role model/mentor and exposure to Effective Leaders certainly helps too.

I have had the good fortune to work with (and for) an Effective Leader for a good portion of my career, and when I am uncertain of what to do in some leadership situations, I think back and ask myself "what would he do?". 

Am I an Effective Leader? Honestly, I can say not yet - though I am on the path and still striving to be closer - still wanting to live up to the expectations planted over two decades ago.

To my Mentor, Coach, Manager and Friend (you know who you are) - thanks for being a great example. Your influence continues.