Marcus Wermuth: How to be an Effective Remote Manager

Leading teams across multiple time zones with structure, compassion, and asynchronous principles with Marcus Wermuth.

Marcus Wermuth is an Engineering Manager at Remote and an avid advocate for remote work. When Marcus isn’t leading teams at Remote, previously Buffer, he is teaching managers how to build effective, distributed teams.

Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn how Marcus navigates a remote team that is distributed all around the world.

1 Why has been your favorite or most memorable boss?

One great example would be Katie, my manager at Buffer. Katie is the VP of Engineering and I’ve learned a ton about humans and managing humans from her. She has probably been one of the most influential people for me when it comes to learning about managing people from a remote perspective.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned from her is the importance of being empathetic and learning to manage different cultures and mindsets and really being able to embrace diversity and working with distributed teams.

2 How many time zones were there on your team?

My team at Buffer consisted of six people including myself and we are spread across six different time zones and five different countries including Taiwan, India, Germany, the UK and two different time zones within the U.S. There are a lot of difficulties that come with being a dispersed team and it’s really important to me as a manager that I be accommodating and flexible. I don’t want anyone to be waking up at 2:00am for a meeting or to miss out on time with their kids to accommodate someone else’s time zone.

3 Do you have no overlap time between the teammates in different time zones?

We do have overlap on our team and I’m actually located in central Europe, so I get to chat with everyone but our teammate in India rarely gets to meet with the teammates in San Francisco. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to one time zone when hiring because we wanted to hire the best person for the job and realistically time zones are tricky, but they aren’t the most difficult problem you will have to overcome in business.

4 How do meetings work amongst teammates in different time zones?

We wanted everyone to feel included and have the same experience so we decided to not have weekly team meetings because ultimately someone wouldn’t have been able to make it and they would have had to watch a recording of the rest of the team. Our solution to this was to instead hold one on ones so I see everyone on a one-on-one call once a week. Our team also gets together in an async way by holding weekly written meetings where we basically go over what everyone’s working on and learn about the more important projects someone might be contributing to. We typically write the thread on Thursdays and have everyone answer on Fridays so we can all get a high-level idea of what’s going on. We also throw in some personal questions because it helps us get to know each other a little better when we can’t physically see each other or be in the same location.

5 Are all meetings at Buffer public?

It depends on how they are shared and there has to be an intentional action behind it. In our threads, we have various channels and, in our channel, everyone in the channel can see our meeting notes. We try to make transparency a priority and make meetings accessible. For example, when our engineering managers get together and meet every week, we make those notes available by sharing a summary. It all depends on the meeting and intended outcome. Product or engineering meetings are usually very transparent because it helps with alignment across all of our teams.

6 Can you tell us about your book, Making Virtual Leadership Human?

It’s not done yet but hopefully, the first draft will be finished this year. It’s actually going to be called Beyond Avatars and the title you mentioned will be the subtitle and the entire book is based on the premise of not forgetting that we are working with people behind the screens which is how I approach management. Approaching management in this way has helped me grow and be able to look inside and work on myself so I could become a better manager. It’s really important to learn about yourself because it teaches you a lot about how your strengths and weaknesses may trigger a response and it may help provide insights into how you can be more empathetic. We’re currently in a fully distributed remote world and we can easily lose track of the people we are working with if it isn’t top of mind or made to be a priority.

7 Do you have an example of when a miscommunication may have occurred as a result of two people having a different upbringing?

I have an example that occurred with my team and another engineer because it’s really important for engineering and design to work together and there ended up being a major communication issue. Our engineer was generally a very productive person that had tons of insights and always shared tons of great ideas and thoughts on how we could improve the design and the designer, coming from Taiwan, viewed leadership differently in the sense that you don’t question anyone and just do what you’re told and when they ended up coming together, the designer felt like our engineer was always telling him what to do when in reality he was just trying to collaborate and it was all coming from a very honest place.

I eventually had to step in and I initially thought it was a communication problem but then I realized it was much more than that. If you understood each one of their cultures it was obvious that there were just massive differences and we ended up putting it on the table and talking about it as a group and the communication became much easier because each person could understand the other’s perspective.

8 What is your approach when someone comes to you with a problem?

I actually did training to become a leadership coach and coaching really helped me bring my approach to another level. The first thing I do is paraphrasing so if someone comes to you with a problem you essentially take their word and paraphrase them with your own words and mirror it back to them and then you tend to get feedback that helps you clarify the situation and get closer to the root of the problem. Paraphrasing helps you gain a shared understanding of the situation because it helps you both get on the same level. Secondly, I follow up with a powerful question. So sometimes it’s really powerful to just ask the person what is important to them in reference to the issue that they’ve brought to you. Asking open-ended questions also welcomes deeper answers that may help you dig into the problem even more.  

9 Can you expand on leadership coaching?

I actually decided to do some leadership coaching when I became a manager and that’s why I’m also currently writing a book about the importance of doing the inner work. Leadership coaching helped me become a better manager and leader while simultaneously teaching me a lot about myself. I would recommend that a lot of managers find a coach and give it a try.

10 Do you have any words of advice, tips, or resources you would like to share for managers that are looking to get better at their craft?

The first thing I would recommend is to find a coach or even to consider going to therapy and talk about the issues or roadblocks you may have stumbled upon openly because it can be really helpful to work on yourself. Secondly, I would say to always remain curious and continue to learn. It can be anything from reading books and articles or really just reading anything you can get your hands on to help you broaden your horizons. Lastly, I believe that everyone should make connecting with others a priority. You can find Slack groups or reach out to people on LinkedIn, or schedule video calls and all of these practices will help you build out your network.

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