Motivating your remote team can start (or stop) with a blogging habit

As a fan of the late John W. Gardner’s work on “renewal,” I am also a fan of his work on “excellence.” I know that word “excellence” makes some people feel either icky or excited, but his treatise of the topic is fair and sufficiently sublime that I come back to his book on the topic at least once every two months.

It’s not easy to summarize in a few sentences, but at its essence Gardner points out that we love excellence and we love equality. But the two concepts fundamentally contradict each other. And that makes leadership a challenging task because there is always a need to balance excellence AND equality. And because excellence will always mean something different to each team member, the leader needs to first determine each team member’s zone of excellence as a starting point — otherwise equality becomes the prevailing topic over excellence. Meanwhile they must ensure that there is an equal and fair playing field to the stage for any unexpected excellence to emerge. It is a complex balance to manage as a whole, but it is this challenge as set within a fully distributed company that I have found to be a satisfying opportunity for new learnings.

Gardner writes on pages 145-6 on the topic of Motives, Values, Vision:

Leaders don’t invent motivation in their followers, they unlock it. They work with what is there. Of course, “what is there” is generally a great tangle of motives. Leaders tap those that serve the purposes of group action in pursuit of shared goals.

One could argue that such capacity to motivate others is a quality to be expected of only the most exceptional human beings. Nonsense. Anyone with a reasonably broaf acquaintance can point to an athlete coach or Elementary School teacher or head of a Salesforce who is an excellent natural motivator. The gift is rare but not exceedingly so, and in fields such as those mentioned it is pulled to the surface quickly because the returns from high motivation are so promptly apparent. In other fields the effect of high or low motivation may be masked and leaders in those fields May ignore it — to their loss. In addition, we have all become so sophisticated that the task of motivating may seem so much juvenile anyway. You’re asking me in my pin-stripe suit to act like that like an athletic coach?

So organizations die of sophistication and more vibrant organizations replace them. Someone must see to maintenance of the morale necessary to undertake arduous endeavors. Someone has to call for the kind of effort and restraint, drive and discipline to make for great performance. Someone has to nurture a workable level of unity.

Such leaders must understand the wants and purposes and values of their people, and they must know how to overcome the inertia that afflicts most people most of the time. In this process, shared values are crucial.

I took from this passage above how it isn’t really about motivating individuals, but knowing the individuals first. In a remote working environment that is an extremely difficult thing to do. Although it is trivial to communicate with anyone in an all-distributed company, it is difficult to get to know them.

So a little over a year ago, I caused some waves within my design team around an idea of having them all blog regularly. I didn’t roll this idea out with any premeditated plan — it just felt like the right thing to get going because as a company we believe in the power of blogging. It almost failed for a variety of reasons that were mostly due to my being unaware of the many different factors at play within the existing managerial structures of our organization, but it also helped me find the various seismic lines within the company, too. All-distributed companies don’t reside within a physical building or campus, and so the politics that one can usually read from a perspective of geography (ie proximity to the CEO’s office) aren’t immediately obvious.

As someone who cares as much as they do about process as they care about results, the net result is Automattic.design as one central site where my entire design team is now blogging on a quarterly basis.

It has been a journey that has helped me to get to know their individual strengths, motivations, and curiosity levels as one step away from their daily work. And it has motivated ME to serve them better as a leader as I have gotten to know what their passions are for where design can head in the future with the 4 new design principles we have co-created.

Now, to be absolutely clear, the idea of making your whole team blog is not going to motivate them. It will likely be demotivating, at first. But for me as a leader, especially for an all remote team at the v large scale that we operate, it’s been helpful as one of my initial activities to learn how to best serve those who might choose to give me their trust. It’s frankly motivated me to do the work that I know that I need to lead them all, and now its my job to share that collective motivation back — through whatever means an all-remote jolt of team motivation can be delivered.

Exciting times! Now back to work for me … —JM