Career advice: Running projects across time zones

One of our Premier 100 IT Leaders on the future of IT, steering a co-worker away from talk about politics and more

William Sztabtnik
Citigroup's William Sztabtnik

Ask a Premier 100 IT Leader William A. Sztabtnik

Title: Executive vice president

Company: Citigroup Inc.

Sztabtnik is this month's Premier 100 IT Leader, answering questions about communicating across time zones, influencing a new CIO, the future of IT and more. If you have a question you'd like to pose to one of our Premier 100 IT Leaders, send it to askaleader@computerworld.com.

Sztabtnik's responses reflect his own opinions and not those of Citigroup.

I'm overseeing some projects that are being carried out by a team that's scattered across the country, as well as in India. Communication is our big issue. Any advice on how to improve it? Having worked on several projects of a global scope, I can empathize with the hurdles you are currently facing. Keeping a team in sync spanning multiple time zones can be challenging, as the ability to communicate in real time is limited, if not impossible. I believe that basic project management using collaborative tools is essential here and the key to success. Detailed meeting minutes and project plans from all regions need to be kept current and available to the entire team. You might also consider recording conference calls. Meeting minutes ensure that your team is made aware of the results of regional meetings that they may not have been able to attend. You might also consider rotating the times of meetings so that everyone shares the pain of off-hour gatherings. If feasible, a face-to-face meeting at the initiation of the project goes a long way toward establishing the relationships you'll need along the way. Don't let issues linger -- reply to inquiries immediately to lessen the impact of time zones. It may make sense to adjust your work hours a few days a week. In summary it's all about fostering transparency, having no surprises and keeping everyone up to date.

After our much-loved CIO retired, his replacement started making wholesale changes in the way we do things. I'm not one to say, "Let's keep doing things this way because they've always been done this way." But some of his decisions strike me and several colleagues as wacky, if not dangerous. We're not anywhere near the level of being his trusted advisers, so what should we do? Two-way communication is needed here. You may not fully understand what the new CIO is trying to accomplish, or his approach. Try to take advantage of Q&A periods during town halls if you have them, or any other type of communications forum you may have, to ask questions. Work through your management chain to bounce the issue around. See if other senior managers feel the same.

On the other hand, the CIO may not understand the impact of his changes. Find a way to constructively show how the results are affecting your business. Utilize nonsubjective data such as metrics to build your case. Let the facts tell the story. My guess is that you may find out that the CIO and you are both worried pretty much about the same things -- that is, making your company a better place.

My son, who's still in high school, is thinking of studying computer science. I'd feel good about him emulating his old man if I didn't feel so negatively about this industry's future. If you were in my shoes, what would you tell your son? I'm a firm believer in following what you like to do and then figuring out how to make a living doing it. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from following his own instincts based upon any negative feelings I might have. Compared to many industries, I think technology has fared quite well, and there hasn't been any shortage of new opportunities. In fact, technology is a catalyst for industry and commerce in difficult times. I would start a dialogue with your son and ask him what he is looking to achieve in life and why he thinks this field will help him achieve them. If you think your son has incorrect expectations, you might want to point them out, but only after careful consideration. Everyone has the right to experience life firsthand, including your son. I wouldn't want to steer the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs away from the next big thing!

I work for a small but fast-growing outfit -- fast-growing everywhere but in IT. It's pretty much a one-man shop. I've tried to get funding for some help, but no luck. Any advice, other than find another job? That's on the table, of course, but I'd like to see whether I'm overlooking any options. It looks like you need to start marketing yourself internally and communicating the merits of IT -- what both of you together can accomplish for your company. Do you have an internal Web page that lets the rest of the company know what services you provide? You need to get the message out that IT can be the differentiator your company needs and that you are the one who can make it happen. Set up a face-to-face meeting with key managers in your company; they may not be aware of what you have to offer. Show them how you can help them. Put together a business case for new things you want to do. If possible, show the return on investment the company might achieve by adding staff or contract help. But be prepared to spring into action when you get feedback! Overall, get the message out!

I often work closely with someone who is always talking politics, which I'd rather not do. I'm always trying to steer the conversation into other areas, with little success. How should I handle this? This is a tough one. Unless you really think it's going to offend the other person, be upfront and tell him (or her) you're not comfortable talking politics at work. Let him know it's the topic, not him. He may be totally unaware of your feelings, so don't assume that he is and is just ignoring you. Sometimes, the obvious isn't so obvious. Be proactive, bring up other topics, steer the conversation -- or start the conversation. That puts you in the driver's seat.

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