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Distributed Leadership Before It Was Cool


30 December, 2020

Daniel Burke
Daniel Burke

Engineering Manager at Square

Daniel Burke, Engineering Manager at Square, recalls how he managed to convince his manager and HR people to have him lead his team remotely in pre-Covid-19 times.


I moved to Silicon Valley in 2016 to pursue my career goals but after two and a half years it became too taxing to be away from my children who were on the East Coast. It became more difficult for me to justify my stay in San Francisco and by that time, I was almost certain that I could lead my team remotely. However, I knew that the leadership team army company wouldn't be comfortable with it initially.

Actions taken

To be on the safe side, before I went public with my bold proposal I started doing interviews, got several job offers, put them in my back pocket just for the sake of confidence, and then headed to the management. I’ve never used these as leverage because that dynamic rarely works. I explained my situation acknowledging that we didn’t have distributed leadership before but asking them to consider it. My manager and the people team had three main concerns: how I would maintain my presence, how I would handle time zones, and how I would hire local talent.

Initially, they asked me to step back and be an IC again and they would hire another manager to replace me. But, my team didn’t want that. The company advertised an open role and they interviewed a couple of candidates, but they didn’t find a candidate the team would be excited about.

In the meantime, I moved back to the East Coast. My team, without my explicit knowledge, communicated with the leadership re-emphasizing that they wanted me to stay on the team as their manager. After a while and looking at the productivity and engagement scores -- that either stayed the same or went up -- they gave in.

Nevertheless, I had to address three of their main concerns:

Staying connected

To stay connected I would fly monthly to San Francisco for a full week. I would have offsites with the team or hang out with other leaders making the most of the week. We also regularly had video calls; it felt a bit awkward to be the only person on the video call, so we went to fully distributed meetings though the rest of the team was colocated. I also encouraged people to work from home more often if they wanted to. Six months in and we would have two to three engineers working from home every day. I also became even more active on Slack and did a lot of pair programming to compensate for the lack of meeting people in the hallway.

Working in different time zones

At first, I thought I would capture an overlap by starting a bit earlier and staying later. But, some meetings would run really late, and if I would accept that as the norm I would disrupt my work-life balance over time. However, at the same time, I felt I had to accommodate. I set my working hours in Google Calendar to be from 10 am to 6 pm Eastern Time, which converts to 3 pm Pacific Time.

I also got rid of meetings that didn’t have to be meetings. I would either completely get rid of them making sure that only essential meetings were on the calendar, make them as much as possible asynchronous, or do the prep work that would shorten meeting time. Also, if there was an important meeting that was scheduled late I would block my mornings and have them for myself. For example, if a meeting would last until 8 pm I wouldn’t start working by noon.

Hiring local talent

In reality, we ended up hiring only two people within the first year. The fact that I was a distributed manager communicated to candidates that the company was open to that possibility. During my stay in that role, we had only a couple of open positions and we managed to schedule onsites during my stay in San Francisco. Also as a leader, I delegated a lot of leadership responsibilities and had developed two people on the team whom I referred to as chiefs. When I was not there they were culture bearers and would envelop people into the team culture.

Lessons learned

  • Everything we learned from my experience helped us through a recent transition to remote work caused by Covid-19 and furthermore, it gave us a leg up.
  • There is a small fraction of work that absolutely requires in-person time and that is an important part of our work. Once things open up again, we should travel and meet again and interact in the same space.
  • I had to learn to control my schedule and make it work for me. I had to create clear boundaries and then have things done within these boundaries.
  • Most of the meetings could be emails. I realized how asynchronous work was positively impacting our productivity and how going prepared for a meeting would get things done, so that we could spend more time socializing when we did meet.

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