Leading Distributed Teams

How should your leadership style change?

A lot has been written on how geographically distributed teams should work together - but what if you’re leading the teams? How should your leadership style change?

While many behaviours of a good leader remain the same, there are certain nuances that should be considered. We’ll group these into three areas: Authority to lead, communication and staff development.

Authority to Lead

Distance introduces challenges to the expression of authority. Bad behaviours such as micromanagement and silo’d work will completely fail in this context - and shortly thereafter, so will the teams. Authority behaviours to be encouraged include:

  • Delegating outcomes, not actions
  • Creating a clear line of sight between the work delivered by the team and the business consequence.
  • Celebrate success - don’t overlook just because of the distance.
  • Identify unspoken conflict and resolve it very quickly. It will be harder to identify without non-verbal cues, but this can destroy a team very quickly.
  • Understand and be respectful of cultural differences. You may need to reframe your communication style - eg. “What questions do you have?” rather than “Does anyone have any questions?”

These behaviours ensure a sense of “teamness” despite the challenges.


The most obvious challenge when leading distributed teams is communication. You can’t hold impromptu meetings and your staff can’t just drop into your office anymore. In the worst instance, there won’t even be common working hours. So how do you lead?

  • This blog is called The Agile Director - so some agile has to come in. Introduce a daily stand-up where possible. Find a common working time to hold it in or use a rolling recorded stand-up model.
  • Use a variety of communication technologies when needed. Voice and video should be used for complex conversations whereas email and chat can still be effective for simpler conversations.
  • You also need to commit to responding promptly. Your open door policy should include non-physical “doors.”
  • Make sure you are transparent about decisions and instructions - not just what, but why. Your teams may not have the luxury of asking later.
  • Teleconferences can be valuable, but make sure you find a convenient time for all the parties. Just because you are the boss doesn’t mean they should align themselves to your calendar. Otherwise, standard teleconference etiquette applies.

Staff development

Assuming your remote teams are employees (and not a vendor team), you have a responsibility for staff development. There is a tendency to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. However, given that ad-hoc coaching is nearly impossible for distributed teams, you need to dedicate the necessary time to your staff’s formal professional development needs.

I hope this gives you a sense of what is involved in being a good leader for distributed teams. If you have any further ideas - leave it in the comments below.