Leading Virtual and Cross-border Teams: An Interview with James Harper

How would you define a high performing team?

The bottom line is a team that’s delivering results but also is self-motivating. I have a global team so I’m not there day in, day out and don’t see people on a regular basis. So the people that are on the team need to feel empowered, self-motivated, and want to go the extra mile to deliver on our commitment. So that for me is a high performing team.

Many people understand leadership as the person responsible for managing and decision making…Could you in a few words describe when you hear the word leadership what it means to you and the impact it has in building a high performing team?

I think a key role of the leader is to set the vision, then help the team get there. Depending on the maturity of the team you get more or less involved. So staying in that direction, then helping the team achieve the steps to make that happen. I always think of Mount Everest, you have your various camps going up that mountain. That for me is an analogy, where are we on that journey? Are we at base camp, have we gotten to camp one yet, advanced base camp? You’re helping the team get to camp one, camp two….

What is your leadership style?

I’m certainly not dictatorial. That puts a lot of people off. But at the same time not purely consensus driven. I try and find a happy medium between the two. Getting all the information required from the team, but then feel comfortable taking the final decision. I don’t want it to be all wishy-washy, people want a leader that listens but is also decisive.

What is the one characteristic that you believe every strong leader should possess?

There’s a few words that spring to my mind like inspiration and charisma when I think of great leaders, it’s someone that I’d follow no matter what. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that they inspire confidence. They know what they’re talking about and they set clear direction. You want a CEO to be charismatic, but not all leaders can be or should be that charismatic.

Do you think someone can learn to be a good leader?

Yes, I do. I think self-confidence is a key natural characteristic, but yes I think you can learn leadership. Obviously I’m speaking from the Roche side of things and there’s a lot of emphasis on leadership development programs here. We identify people early that we think have strong potential and then they put them through the relevant structured leadership programs. I think prioritizing development does have to come from the senior leadership. We have 7 leadership commitments and I think they even have a huge poster within the executive suite where they have these leadership commitments outlined, and it’s as simple as, “I take a genuine interest in people,” etc. In fact, each manager has to have one of these leadership commitments as part of their annual goals.

In today’s globalised economy world many teams are distributed and this is a new challenge for some leaders. What do you feel the three most important factors are for successfully leading virtual teams?

There’s an element of trust there. I interact with my remote teams significantly less. There’s an element of empowerment and trust for this model to work. If there’s a junior person, or a person with some performance challenges, then having a 9 hour time difference makes direct management even more challenging. I’ve been fortunate that the people that aren’t in Basel are self motivated, so performance issues hasn’t become a problem so far. But that would be where the model falls down, depending on the maturity of the individual. So that has to be taken into consideration as well, but as I said you have to trust that person, you have to set up some sort of support network for them or help them to find that support network locally. So I think either through mentoring, or we have a concept of an admin manager locally, so there is support locally as some kind of safety net.

What would you say your biggest ‘lesson’ learned was in your career as a leader?

For me it’s important to get to know people on a personal level. For example, I’m in San Francisco three times a year, this is an opportunity to connect on a personal level with my team. With  such a time difference I really have to make the effort on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to have that one-on-one time. So what I try to do is dedicate 1 hour of my undivided time to that person, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. I think it is important to have that face to face time and make sure they feel part of the team for example we had a three day face-to-face this week. They came from San Francisco and this needs to happen at least once a year. Last year we weren’t able to meet and we immediately got feedback that this was a key component for the team. So dedicating one-on-one time on a regular basis, and bringing the team together face-to-face. There is no substitute for that, it has to be done.

If you compare your role to five years what changes have you experienced or how have you had to adapt?

I’ve been in this role almost three years now, having a global team. I managed a team previously but it was local. If I were to compare the local manager role to the role I have now, it’s hugely different. One of the challenges of today’s global virtual teams is being careful not to easily get pulled into a 24 hour work day. That’s something that I’m conscious of, I mean work-life balance is a challenge in this current set up. There’s a team in San Francisco and a team in Shanghai,  so there’s something happening 24 hours a day. You have to be careful, to manage your time effectively. In my first ever managing job, I was micro-managing essentially. I had a pretty small team, people were sitting very close to me. Since then I’ve really tried to pull back, there’s no way you can operate successfully as micro manager in today’s global teams. You have to give people space and empower them. Here at Roche, there’s an acknowledgment that coaching is a key aspect of your role, and so there’s been a lot of coaching on coaching. It’s very easy that when your team comes to you with a problem to provide the solution but that’s a reflex response – to want to provide the answer. But one skill is also to bring that out of the team. By asking the right questions, get them to provide the answers and not you. That’s something that I’m still learning, it’s not an easy one.

Do you feel most people take enough personal responsibility to develop their Leadership skills?

No, I don’t think they do. I think it’s something that’s being emphasized here at Roche, “You own your own development plan, you own your own career, your manager is there to facilitate that discussion, but ultimately it’s up to you to drive your own development.” I think it’s up to you as a leader to make sure you allow time to have those discussions. Everyone here has a personal development plan with some concrete actions mutually agreed. We try and have some balances, we call it the three E’s, education, exposure and experience. So try and get a blend of those things within your development plan. A lot of people think development is all about taking a training class but there’s exposure, there’s experience. I think it’s easy to sit there and expect your manager to find you the next opportunity or to send you on a course but I’m a strong believer that it’s the other way around. You need to work with your manager to implement your personal development plan but also to work on self-study.

Are there any specific leadership development tools you work with?

We rolled out something across the whole of IT called “IT Experience Map” purely for facilitating that development discussion. There’s core competencies, I think there’s about 6 or 7 and there’s different levels: individual contributor competencies, manager competencies, senior leader competencies. It’s quite a good tool. It helps both the manager and the employee to frame the conversation, otherwise it can be a bit unstructured. As I said, there’s a lot of emphasis on these types of discussions between employees and managers here at Roche.

What do you feel your company does to help managers develop future leaders?

Hopefully I’ve given you a flavour of what being a manager is like at Roche. Like I said, I’ve been very impressed how much emphasis is put on the people side of things. I particularly appreciate that twice a year we come together as a leadership team and we do something called “resource review”. We talk about every single individual on the team. The mid-year discussion is more centered on development, and the end of year discussion is more about performance management. The mid-year one is about what are the development areas for each individual, So then as a management team, we discuss every single person even though they’re not reporting directly to you. It’s a 5 day meeting and we dedicate a day and a half just to employee development. Hopefully that reinforces what I’m saying about Roche’s priorities.

James Harper has been working with in the Pharma industry for over 20 years and has a proven track record of leading teams.

Working within a truly global organization James has had his management skills tested during these times and has successfully run remote teams in the UK, US, Poland and Switzerland.

An affable and unflappable character James uses his relaxed approach to mentor and empower his teams as he believes staff engagement is important to the success of any team.

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