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Before I joined Twitter, I was asked, “How can we find the best place for you within the company that brings your unique skills and experiences to the forefront?”

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As a senior manager of software engineering who is building out a distributed team, I’ve found that asking the same question supports diversity and professional growth.

My background and personal experiences have not only shaped who I am, but have also played a formative role in my view of – and passion for – diversity. I was born and raised in Colombia. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to live in several countries, including the United States, and experiencing these different cultures has played a large role in who I am today, and has made me genuinely value the meaning of diversity.

Twitter is committed to supporting workplace diversity, and this is one of the reasons I initially wanted to work for the company. Inclusivity is intrinsically woven into the fabric of how they do things, and I was excited by the opportunity to be part of that vision and drive the company forward.

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The question: how can we find the best place for you within the company that brings your unique skills and experiences to the forefront?

It’s a simple, human question but not one often asked in a professional context, and its impact on me was profound. It’s a question that is fundamentally Twitter and reflects the company’s commitment to grow inclusively. Being as inclusive and accessible for Tweeps as we are for the people on our platform is a theme you’ll hear a lot within our walls, and posing this question has pushed us to rethink the future of work by meeting talent wherever they are – all over the world.

This commitment to inclusion and diversity is directly reflected in the model and makeup of the team I lead, which is fully distributed and represented by members from different countries. The team lives and works across different time zones and liaises globally with other teams inside the organization. A distributed model is wonderful in that we are able to unlock pockets of talent that we wouldn’t be able to reach in a centralized work model, but it is also not without its challenges.

The challenges of a fully distributed model: scaling culture, creating accountability, and supporting impact

A distributed model of work represents a new frontier. It’s exciting in that it enables us to tap non-traditional talent, which centralized models cannot, but it also presents a newly formed problem space that is being solved by companies like Twitter in real-time. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that the question I was asked during my interview is a helpful tool in overcoming some of the challenges that a distributed model presents.

Challenge 1: scaling culture 

Developing productive teams requires autonomy for individuals to further their own work, and therefore achieve company initiatives, in an agile manner. However, for anyone to reach a certain level of autonomy, developing a sense of trust and creating a safe space for people to fail is crucial. This sense of trust develops more readily within a traditional workplace setting, as people bump into one another over coffee and between meetings. All of these small interactions add up, and a bond is formed. This shared understanding instills trust and creates a team that readily supports one another.

In a remote environment, making these connections is less organic, as individuals are confined to the time limits of a virtual calendar. This can make it challenging to build trust as the relationship is much more restrained. This restraint runs counter to our nature. After all, we are human, and we crave tangible connections. However, I’ve found that by using the question that Twitter posed to me as a framework, I can create a more honest dialogue between myself and the individuals on my team, which filters down into the team’s interactions with one another.

As a manager, I believe part of my role is to encourage team members to bring their whole selves to work; to build trust, and empower individuals to feel confident in sharing their unique perspectives into their day-to-day work. Diversity creates healthy conversations that allow us to make better business decisions. By understanding the personal and professional strengths and desires of each individual on my team and welcoming that dialogue, I empower them to go forth and have those same, open conversations with one another. This is a scalable way to instill trust and mutual understanding across a distributed team while building a safe environment for us to fail and learn together. This is also known as Intelligent Failures, where people know that a climate for thoughtful risk is welcome.

Challenge 2: creating accountability

For a team to achieve shared goals at a global scale, it’s essential that each individual understands the importance of their role within the team and feels empowered to move their projects forward. Creating a sense of accountability can be challenging in any environment, but the challenge is more profound within a globally distributed team where individuals work across multiple time zones. The time difference can be especially limiting when it comes to sharing information in a wider forum where all team members have the benefit of hearing the same things at the same time.

To ensure that the team collectively realizes its objectives, I pose questions – rooted in the aforementioned framework – that seek to align the team’s individual aspirations and strengths with their workstreams, which in turn move the needle on company-wide goals. Questions I ask include things like, do we, as a team, have a common understanding of the company’s Objectives? Do we know the Key Results that we must support in order to achieve them? Do we have a shared vision and do we fully understand each other’s roles in getting there? Do we know collectively that we will hit each milestone, and do we know how we’re going to get there?

By working with each team member on their growth and development plan, we can connect the dots between their goals and what the company can provide. This allows each individual team member to realize their own professional ambitions, while also understanding the importance of their role within the team. When everyone is held accountable and encouraged to have positive, personal relationships with the folks on your team, you create an unspoken contract of support and make room for vulnerability and candor. This enables individuals to really understand and respect one another, and successfully achieve their goals with a sense of autonomy.

Challenge 3: supporting impact

Twitter is a platform that has global reach. Due to the relatively small size of our team, this means that you, as an engineer, have the ability to make an influential impact in the world and on our company objectives through the work that you do. By asking the question – “How can we find the best place for each team member to excel within the company that allows their unique skills and experiences to shine?” – I am able to be a better manager who more readily understands the different backgrounds and skillsets amongst my team and how diversity can positively influence company objectives. This allows everyone to grow and succeed together.

When the dots can be connected between the individual, the collective, and big-picture strategic goals, I believe it instills in us a sense of purpose. We understand our mission not only as individuals but also as a team and know that the work we’re doing is important. This allows everyone to operate autonomously while feeling empowered. We are seen as the unique individuals we are, and supported. I believe it’s this combination of factors that make a team successful.

A parting thought

When individuals come together as a collective unit moving toward a common goal, it’s a powerful thing. Getting there takes time and a genuine and transparent intent set by the leader. The journey can begin with a question as simple as, “How can we find the best place for you within the company that brings your unique skills and experiences to the forefront?” This question, personally, helps me see the individuals on my team more completely.

It allows me to better understand their diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets, thus enabling me to visualize how each member can shine and be seen authentically within the collective. Over time, this builds a culture of autonomy and trust which allows us to fail, learn, and succeed together from our remote offices all over the world.

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