The Importance Of Being There

Working remotely may be ideal for your lifestyle. But you can't phone in real leadership

By Jack and Suzy Welch

What do you think of telecommuting? — Jennifer Heizer, Waltham, Mass.

We love it. Telecommuting allows us to write this column from Boston, Buenos Aires, or wherever our life happens to land us in any given week. Our editors are a phone call or e-mail away, and we communicate with them as easily as if we were in a cubicle down the hall in New York. So all in all, telecommuting is a perfect deal—for us.

For you, telecommuting may also be ideal, or it could be a total disaster, especially if you want to climb the corporate ladder. Because the facts are, even in this day of ubiquitous technology and open-mindedness toward flexible work arrangements, telecommuting still comes with a cost: diminished face time. Sure, that won't kill you in your early career. As long as you're an individual contributor with enough talent, you can do almost any job from home—write code, analyze legal documents, design marketing materials, or sell financial services. The list goes on and on and gets longer every day with the expansion of the intellectual economy and e-commerce.

But what you can't do very well from home is lead. To lead, it's no good blowing into town for important meetings and showing up at retreats. You have to muddle in the muck in between. People have to see how calm you stay in a PR crisis, how decent you are to new employees who don't have the hang of things, how much you sweat during a tough deal, and how hard you work on a deadline without bitching and moaning. Or how you don't do any or all of the above.

Which brings us back to face time. Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven't been consistently seen and measured. It's a familiarity thing, and it's a trust thing. We're not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every "crucible" moment at the office, but at least they're present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I'm committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.

Telecommuting sends another message, one that says you value lifestyle flexibility over career growth. Again, that can be just fine. We recently met a lawyer who has worked for her corporate headquarters in Illinois for 12 years from her home in New Jersey. "My husband has a great job in Manhattan, and my kids love their school. I enjoy working with my colleagues, even if it is on the phone," she said. "Who needs to be CEO?"

Well, obviously she doesn't, and maybe you don't either. But for anyone who has dreams of leadership in any meaningful way, telecommuting can get you only so far. The road to the top is paved with being there.

My company places a great emphasis on colleague feedback in conjunction with the annual performance review, sometimes eliciting anonymous comments from as many as 30 people for an assessment. The whole process is so time-consuming. Is it worth it? — Anonymous, St. Louis

You're referring, we assume, to the cottage industry known as 360 feedback, which first popped up about 20 years ago and has since spread across the business terrain. And for good reason: 360 feedback is an unvarnished way for people to receive a wake-up call about behaviors that distress their peers and subordinates. One of us (Suzy) once attended a leadership-training program where she saw another participant, a middle manager from a technology company, practically go into shock over his 360 results, which were a veritable Greek chorus of negativity. "Impossible—my people love me!" was the manager's reaction. "They must have mixed up the paperwork!" They hadn't.

But the problem with 360 feedback, and it's a big one, is that after about the second time around, it gets gamed. The system devolves into a highly negotiated affair in which colleagues work out nuclear deterrence treaties with each other, and all the "feedback" shooting back and forth starts sounding the same—i.e., positive. Perhaps such behavior is all too human, but it renders the process useless.

Now, we know that 360's proponents, and they are legion, claim the system has safeguards, and surely it has some. But you ask whether the whole long process is worth it. And to that, we'd have to say traditional appraisals, boss to subordinate, still win hands-down. They generally work, save everyone time, and are very hard to rig. We'd suggest your company, then, not eliminate 360 feedback but use it only every few years. Its main value is to "out" the unspoken. After that, almost everyone's in on the game.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at For their podcast discussion of this column, go to

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