Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep.3- Managing Global Distributed Teams with Sylvia Burbery

Updated: Mar 2

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.


In this third episode of the season, and under the chapter of the team dynamics, Marilyn hosted Sylvia Burbery, Regional President of Emerging & Seeds at Royal Canin to discuss managing global distributed teams. Sylvia who manages a team spanning over 16 countries and 14 time zones, shared her insights and perspectives.


Watch the full episode here.



About Sylvia

Sylvia Burbery began her career with Mars Incorporated in 1994 and worked in a number of roles across Sales and P&O in New Zealand and the US including developing the framework for the transition to SBUs in the US business. In 2005, she returned to New Zealand as General Manager of the New Zealand multi sales business where she led a significant turn-around in the business results and culture, which saw Mars New Zealand win the JRA Best Places to Work award.


Then, in 2009, she moved into the role of General Manager for the Mars Petcare business in Australia, where she was responsible for leading all aspects of the business operations for a team of over 1000 associates, four manufacturing sites, two sales offices and more than 14 well-loved and trusted brands. She did a brief stint in 2016 in a global strategy role working on Specialty Petcare across both Pet Nutrition and Royal Canin.


Her journey with Royal Canin began in early 2017 when Sylvia moved to Singapore as Regional President for the Asia Pacific business, and then very recently into her current role, based in France but with responsibility for emerging markets across Latin America, Southern Eastern Asia, Africa and CIS countries.


On a personal level, Sylvia has two adult children, and her partner also has two adult children. She has recently become a proud grandmother. Sylvia is passionate about family, health and wellbeing, nature, and travel, and is committed to bringing herself to work and creating the conditions for others to do the same.


About The Topic

Marilyn introduced the topic of this episode with a textbook definition of a global distributed team. “Global, distributed teams consist of professionals working together from different geographical locations to accomplish joint goals. These teams draw on benefits of international diversity and thanks to technology have been able to be more and more connected with each other in the last few decades”, she said.


“But the distance between global distributed team members can be challenging. Often, there are drastic differences between team members in terms of their culture, their beliefs, their language, their identities, not to mention their location and time zones, and all of these reflect on team dynamics”. Marilyn also quoted the HBR article Global Teams That Work by Tsedal Neeley (Marilyn shared key takeaways in this LinkedIn post): “The main factor that distinguishes a successful global distributed team from others lies in the degree of emotional connection between the team members. In co-located teams, even if team members come from different countries and cultures, it's still a lot easier to have informal communication, to have times for trust building and connection. When you're a global and distributed team, this becomes more difficult, because even though video calls and emails are very helpful, they can be a barrier to these emotional connections”.


Managing Global Distributed Teams

Turning the mic on Sylvia, Marilyn asked her about her experience: “You've had a really long career with Mars, and you've gone across all layers of management: managing co-located teams, managing distributed teams... I'd love to just start us off with all this management experience. What are the lessons that you've learned around the nature of teams, and what is the difference between managing a team of doers and managing a team of leaders, as you do today - since many of the people reporting to you are country managers. Tell us about that big overarching lesson of what you see as being the right way to manage teams”.


Sylvia answered that it is different for every team, since they have different individuals.. She continued by highlighting the role of purpose and process in teams: “I always approach a team with an understanding of what the purpose is, and in getting to know the individual, since the team has the sum of the individuals and what we have to work on. What I've learned over the years is we have a number of processes and models around what we call “high-performance collaboration”. We focus on being clear on the purpose of the team, and we have a facilitated process to help the team figure out what it's about, what its purpose is, what it wants to work on together, and what the ground rules are for the team in terms of how it wants to work together. I really think that process, which is a very engaging and consultative process, really draws out the purpose. It's not leader defined, it’s team defined, which is super helpful”.


Building connections with team members

Sylvia then mentioned that the process works on all kinds of teams, whether they consist of doers and leaders - the only factors that change are the purpose itself, the outcomes, and the ways of working. When she levels up as leader, it’s a shift in how she operates and how she worlds: “You become less and less involved in the tasks, and more involved in creating the conditions to enable others to succeed and in a very broad sense”.

Marilyn then asked Sylvia about what she had learned, managing a global distributed team in the middle of a pandemic without the ability to meet most of them.


“Before the pandemic, I knew everybody and we'd work together. We established some ways of working. When we went fully virtual, we had to think about how we did that differently to maintain those emotional connections”, said Sylvia.


She explained, “The biggest thing for me has been having to be incredibly intentional about making those connections, both with the team as a whole and with the individual members of the team”.


Sylvia then shared an example of how even though some team members can be in the same room during a meeting, they all have their computers on, and they can all be seen on the screen. She said, “I think the intentionality around making time for the connection when you're virtual, allowing time for a check in, and making sure that there's time and invitation and almost an expectation of a genuine check in and not skimming across the surface, is really important. I've learned through the pandemic to do that both when we're together as a team, but more importantly, for me as a leader of the team to make the time to have those connections individually. I try to really get to know the team as best I can virtually, so that when the team is working together, I can be aware of the nuances and the things that might impact the dynamic.”


This piece of advice really resonated with Marilyn, who added that it’s important not just to hear what a person says, but where that is coming from - whether it’s their culture or personal preference, because the space for misinterpretation can become very wide.


Asynchronous work, synchronous work, and the desire to connect

Marilyn then asked Sylvia about asynchronous and synchronous communication, and how she approaches them.

“Well, when you have 14 different time zones, if you're going to be synchronous, you're going to meet in the middle of somebody who's not”, answered Sylvia. “We've really limited now the amount of synchronous time, and we've worked really hard with the team to try and figure out when we need to have synchronous time. It requires a lot more planning and thinking about meetings, and we've now created more opportunities for people to do asynchronous work, or small group work, for people who are in closer time zones. If we're going to have a big meeting, there's often pre-work happening in subgroups, so that people are bringing in those connections and leveraging tools. We used to send emails with attachments - now, we put everything into a team site where people can work on it directly, and you can actually be typing in while somebody else's typing, and you can actually see what's happening. Really leveraging tools to be able to work asynchronously, is absolutely critical.”


Sylvia added that, although they are doing a better job of really being clear on when there is a need to connect, there are still many meetings happening early in the morning or late in the evening. “There's a desire to connect. We are humans - we crave connection”, Sylvia observed.

She then shared a story about how they have a debriefing meeting that happens every four weeks, and even though they try to be sensitive about its timing for those located in different time zones - the feedback from the team was that they would rather have one session that required them to be out of time, as they felt that having the connection with the whole team was more valuable than doing it the other way.


Purpose

Marilyn asked a question from the audience - “how do you think that the company values are brought into this dynamic? I know that at Royal Canin, you are really close to your values. How do you bring them into this global team?”


Sylvia highlighted that Mars puts employees and associates at the heart of things - they have a strong associate concept, and that plays very strongly into the way they value teams and the way they value the individual contributions in teams. “We also have a very clear purpose for our business, improving the health of cats and dogs through personalized nutrition. Because that purpose is so strong, it helps us create a real sense of purpose, and every team has a purpose that links to that somehow. It makes it easier for us to create those connections in teams.”


“And are the pets invited to the team meeting?”, joked Marilyn. “One of the things I actually love about virtual is that we get to see pets”, said Sylvia. She expressed how much she enjoys getting glimpses of team member’s lives, when their pets show up on camera, or even when their kids or spouse come in. Also seeing how their workspace is like can hint at their hobbies - seeing that person in a different environment makes the team more real.


Unstructured time for informal conversations

Going back to Tsedal Neeley’s article, Marilyn mentioned that Tsedal offered a framework in order to create more emotional connection in global distributed teams, and it includes the five components leaders have to focus on: structure, process, language, identity, and technology (SPLIT). “Under the process component, she talks about the importance of being empathetic, being deliberate, all the things that you mentioned earlier in our conversation - to have that unstructured time for informal conversations to happen between team members. How have you created that space for your team?” she asked Sylvia.

Image source: totalent.eu


“We do a lot more small group work,” said Sylvia. “We break our sessions up, and in small group work, there's always more opportunity for informal conversation”. She stated that she and her team approach this in two ways: first, they have check-ins at the beginning of every single meeting - to see what they are excited about in their personal lives. The second way is that they have a WhatsApp group where they share photographs of their trips, their children…”We’ve had to create those opportunities for people to connect, to have those offline conversations, that you would normally have face-to-face”.


Marilyn agreed - “being deliberate to create that space where people feel like it's okay to bring that piece of yourself is so important, and actually you might find a lot of points of connection with others when you do that.”


What about language?

Language is one of the components of Tsedal’s SPLIT framework, Marilyn posed a question about this asking, “When we're a global team, English might be some people's first language, but maybe not everybody's. If that happens to be the language of the business, there can be some kind of power dynamics between those who do or don't speak the language as their first language. Have you found that to be an issue in your team, and how have you addressed it?”


Sylvia began her answer by pointing out that her team members who speak English as a first language are a minority. “My team is very diverse, it's something I'm conscious of. Firstly, when I am speaking English, I try to slow down. It's something I’m aware of because when you're working with a second language all day, it's tiring and when you're doing that virtually it's even harder. So, we're very aware of it. The thing for me around this is that people can be reluctant to share their thoughts, so I try and keep a bit of a tab on who's speaking or who's contributing, and making sure that I invite team members. I have to be careful about putting people on the spot, but I think making sure that people have the opportunity to be heard is important. The other thing that I find actually very helpful with virtual calls is the ability to use the chat box, because some people find it easier to write than to speak.”


Conflict in distributed teams

Marilyn stated that teams - good teams - actually engage in a lot of conflict. Not interpersonal conflict, but on the task and process level, as it is an important part of innovation and creativity. “In a study we did, 60% of respondents said that face-to-face was still for them the most comfortable way of addressing conflict. Yet in a team like yours, that may not be possible for months at an end. How do you manage conflict in a distributed team?”, asked Marilyn.


Sylvia answered, “you can't do any of these things in a vacuum. You have to create the conditions that enable conflict to be raised. I work really hard to create a space where people feel safe to raise different challenges”. She went on to elaborate that it’s very important to create space for people to disagree, as it is not easy to raise a concern or conflicting opinion when everyone on the team thinks differently. When a member of her team did that, her team’s response was “Hey, thank you. It's really good that you raised that”, and she initiated a discussion around it.


Sylvia continued, “I think it comes over time by making it okay for people to raise issues. When you have tensions virtually, and if those tensions don't get addressed quickly, they can’t finish there because you don't have those offline conversations. What’s worked in teams I've been in is to identify where the issues are, and take it again in small groups offline to understand what's behind the issue, and then come back with proposals, but it does require facilitation, intentionality, awareness, all of those things.” She concluded, “It requires that space of safety for even the conflicts to be raised. Otherwise you get stuck with the conflicts going underground and that can be really damaging.”


Building trust

Marilyn then took a question from the audience, about building trust in those teams.


“It’s about time, and making the time”, answered Sylvia. Sylvia explained how she ensures there is time for one-on-one conversations, and talks about who she is as a person and not just what she is here for, and asks team members to do the same to build relationships. “I think it sounds simple, but I always say treat people like people, get to know them as people. I think we get into a trap sometimes at work that we get focused on the task or what has to be done. We do the meeting, we do the staff, we forget that we're dealing with human beings. I always think first, let's take the time to understand who we're dealing with, what you're about. I think that creates an element of trust.”


Sylvia also highlighted the importance of letting her team members know they can disagree with her, as their manager. “They need to feel safe and know that they can raise an issue. Sometimes they need to see that - if I know that there's something near, I'll say,can you help me bring this out in the open, so that other people will know that it's okay?”


Marilyn added, “It's such an important part of the collaborative and innovation process that you disagree with each other. The leader always tends to come with this really unhelpful halo of ‘oh, they must always be right’. There's nothing worse than having a team that doesn't challenge you. Because then you get stuck as a leader. You never really grow, and you never learn anything”.

About mental health

Marilyn then asked Sylvia - “We know that many people have been through a tougher time during the pandemic being isolated and not being able to see their families, and so on. Talk to us on this specific topic, how do you create space for people to bring their mental health to work?”


Sylvia said that she approaches this topic in two ways. First, during the pandemic, she always tried to meet people where they were - whether they were having a horrible day, or a good one, she always did her best to listen to them - “I think just being there and listening, being empathetic, and being available, I think that’s what helps is”, she said.


Secondly - “I’m very open about my family situation. I have a son that is on the autistic spectrum, who's dealt with a lot of mental health issues, and I think when I talk about that, it makes it okay for other people to talk about challenges that they're having"


Sylvia continued, "I think vulnerability as a leader, helps other people to feel comfortable to be vulnerable and to know that it is okay. There's always a limit, you don't want to tell everybody everything that's going on in your life, but being open about and vulnerable creates an environment that creates trust.”

Business of the global side

Marilyn opened another aspect of the conversation: “We can't talk about managing global distributed teams without also talking about the challenge for you, as a leader, to be up to date with so many different countries - to be able to both allow your team to do the work locally that needs to be done, but also to coordinate perhaps global or regional actions, the more technical part of the job. I'm really curious to understand how you manage to hold space for all of these different geographies, countries, and markets, how much do you get involved in the local initiatives, and how do you then, on the other end of the spectrum, also help coordinate global initiatives?”


Sylvia answered - “First and foremost, I believe in empowerment. I trust the general managers and I'm leading a fairly senior team, so I have general managers and markets. I don't want to go in and tell them what to do, because that would be very disengaging for them”. She elaborated that what she needs mostly is to know enough to ask the right questions, to know how to think about those things and what are the changes that are needed to be made.


Sylvia elaborated that she has regular business reviews with each of the businesses, which they do separately, and she hears what is going on for them - that allows her to share best practices and to work on the connective threads. “Then I do the same - I’m part of the global team. It’s just like a giant jigsaw puzzle, which you figure out as you go. I guess it comes from trusting the people in the businesses that they know what's best for their business. Creating the threads where they exist.”


Marilyn went on to ask, “Are there any specific learning moments where it's not so much about, ‘what are you doing in your country and here's how you can do better’, but more about, ‘well, here's something we tried somewhere else and maybe this is some best practice that we can share’. Do you have a dedicated moment for that?


Sylvia answered, “ I actually think one of the roles for people in roles like mine is to see best practices across different markets”. She explained that they do this in a lot of different ways, it can be informal or formal. For example, as they have processes to share best practices but it can also happen in informal conversations. Sylvia then shared an anecdote about how once in their virtual team, they asked everybody to state what was the thing they've learned the most about during the year. “It was amazing, there was no frame on it. People talked about diversity, Generation Y, and other numerous things. It was one of those great informal sharing moments.” She also added that access to this knowledge is important for team members.


Raising a question from the audience, Marilyn asked Sylvia about what a day in her life is like. “My days are very varied, but they tend to be a lot of sitting in front of a series of video calls, having different types of conversations”. Recently, she has been working on performance reviews for team members, through which she focuses on how she can help them from a development perspective.


Leadership during difficult times

Marilyn went to the next topic - leadership. She said, “There are two images that I love about being a leader. One you kind of brought up is about helping people learn from each other - I've always thought of leaders as those telecom phone operators from before there was an automatic switch, and they had to just put plugs in the right places so people could talk to each other. I find that so much of the time, the job of a leader is just to do that, and then let the people have the conversation. Another image that I really love is from a professor of mine called Jo Santos. His vision of leadership and management is that the job of a leader is to reduce the sense of risk that everybody perceives, so that their teams can do their best work to take on the risks coming from inside the organization, from the outside world.”


She then asked Sylvia, “There has never been a more challenging time than the pandemic. How were you able to absorb the volatility of the world around you and create a space of some sense of calm for your team to be able to operate during that time?”


Sylvia shared how much she would try to diversify how she reads her news, as different sources have different opinions, and she would listen to podcasts about different stories about the globe - it helped her stay connected. At the end of the day, she would always be really thinking about her impact on her team.


“I feel my goal as a leader is to create the conditions for people to succeed. That means a lot of the time importing stress and exporting calm, trying to help people, see a path through uncertainty”, Sylvia said.

She continued, “It doesn't mean that we know exactly the way to get there, but if we know where we're going, we can figure it out., giving people confidence and an ability to address things. There are so many dimensions that impact us, political, social, environmental, financial, and it is just the same as for everybody, you sort of try to figure out what's going to be the impact here. My crystal ball is no better than anybody else's. So you just try to make as much sense of it as you can and help the team to think about what's important”.


This really resonated with Marilyn - whose friends call her “Google” because there isn’t a topic she does not want to learn about, and she always makes it her duty to see how she and her team can learn about new things.


Learning as a leader

Marilyn then asked Sylvia what she has changed about her leadership during the past two years.


Sylvia said, “I’ve been learning as a leader all the time. Certainly, operating digitally and virtually has been very different. I've always tried to lead with empathy, but I think that has been much more important in the pandemic environment. I think the intentionality of connection has increased, because connecting is hard in the virtual world. I think I've become much more conscious. I've always been a proponent of work-life balance, but I have this sense around energy and resilience. The boundaries between work and life have become more and more blurry. I think we've had to get much more intentional to create space for people to say no, to give permission for people to put boundaries in, around their life. Another area that I think we're all learning so much about is diversity and inclusion.”


Sylvia explained how diversity and inclusion have been values she holds dear, and she keeps learning about them - for example through the HBR Unconscious Bias survey. She also feels lucky to work for an organization that makes diversity and inclusion a priority, and makes space for conversations around them.


Marilyn then took a question from the audience - “how do you encourage your team to go ahead, and experiment?”


Sylvia answered that there is a lot of testing and learning, especially since they work digitally, and that she emphasizes on celebrating the learning itself. “I think part of it is making it okay when things don't work, if you're going to teach and learn by definition, some things aren't going to work”, she said. “I always think about how to encourage it, and it goes back to psychological safety , making sure that people feel that they have that right. It is a big part of our culture at Royal Canin, we're constantly looking for new ways to do things”.


🔥Rapid Fire

The one thing every team needs is…”A clear purpose, and framework - known ways of working”.

The one thing a team needs to avoid…”Groupthink”.

A good team leader is…”Empathetic, open, creates space for every team member to be heard”.

The best book on teams is…””Lessons From Mars”, by Carlos Valde-Dapena.”

What’s your favorite team ritual? “Check-ins, to see where people are at a moment in time. I think it's a key enabler for great conversations.”