Leading from afar. How to be an effective leader in a remote world.

Posted on March 23, 2020

Large parts of the workforce have had to switch to working from home, quite literally, overnight. Although often seen as a luxury, the harsh truth of remote working is that it can take a while to learn to adapt to no longer being colocated with your colleagues.

Being remote can add extra shock to leaders. Whether you are a leader of a team, a department, or a whole organisation, being present, being seen, and most importantly being available are a big part of how you lead. Not only is it important for the people you lead, but it is also how you collect information, give direction, provide alignment and keep everything on track. Without the ability to walk around an office floor, look over shoulders, overhear conversations, leaders can suddenly feel blinded.

When leaders switch to being remote their attempts to restore a sense of control can lead to counter productive behaviours which reduce efficiency and damage trust.

When I became a leader of remote and distributed teams six years ago I really struggled with the transition. The feeling of disconnect from my colleagues and teams was so acute that I nearly gave up. However, once I embraced the reduction in visibility, I realised that the challenges created in leading from afar were actually the opportunities I needed to become a better leader.

Adaptive and Servant leadership

Remote work does not favour command and control leadership styles. This is especially true as remote leadership requires establishing high levels of trust. Both Servant Leadership and Adaptive Leadership are philosophies which reject the traditional top down leadership structures which form the key barriers to leading from afar.

Servant leadership shifts your leadership mentality to serving needs of the employees first and define your success in helping and growing those around you. Adaptive leadership focuses on creating the conditions for teams and organisations to adapt and successfully drive change in challenging environments (which couldn’t be more true right now).

Using both styles together is crucial in fostering psychological safety which has been identified as the most important dynamic of an effective team.

Focus on empowerment

It is well established that micromanagement is harmful. In a remote environment the need to stay informed can push leaders into overbearing micromanagement, requesting frequent checkins and detailed email updates as reports from China show.

We all have micromanagement tendencies, even when we think don’t. Learning to let go of our own ideas and ways of doing things, and focus instead on empowering others can be a challenge. Yet in a remote environment it is the only way.

Google’s Project Oxygen research ranked “Empowers team and does not micromanage” as the second most significant behaviour of high performing managers.

Focus on how you build trust in your remote teams when you can not be around by empowering them with clear responsibility and avoid checking in on their every move.

Give Outcomes, not outputs

“Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave” [Eliyahu M. Goldratt]

Leaders often fall into the trap of believing they can see the solution and hand that over to the team to execute as per their instructions. So people deliver to the instructions, measuring themselves on keeping you happy through obediance. This is managing through outputs or activities. This is a particular challenge to leading remote teams as your access to information from the ground dramatically declines which leads to poor decision making (from you). Therefore, you need to find a way to give teams clear direction whilst simultaneously empowering those closest to the information to make aligned decisions themselves. Basically, without your input.

To achieve this, switch from outputs and focus teams on the customer’s desired outcomes.

Outcomes should be external customer focused (not internal). And they should describe the desired change in behaviour to deliver the business benefits. Which means saying “Music lovers find great music through their friends” not “Add social sharing widgets”.

This lines up with Oxygen’s fourth key behaviour: “Is productive and results orientated”. Which is another important part of giving teams outcomes: tell them how you define success, preferably with clear measures. If the measure is a binary “deploy this”, “ensure that is done”, “enable this” etc., then you have given the team an output or activity. Instead, use words like “Increase”, “Reduce”, “Improve”, “Maintain”. So, rather than the measure being “Enable users to share tracks” it should be “Increase the number of recommended tracks a user listens to”.

Giving teams outputs is also a sure sign that you are micromanaging, and therefore disempowering the team, so use this as a check. Did you tell the team what outcome and the results you expect? Or did you give them a solution? If you did that later, check yourself, you are micromanaging, spend more time reflecting on articulating the outcome the customer needs.

Communication is essential

Now you are remote the constant communication of a colocated environment is hidden in video calls and direct chat conversations. The opportunity to overhear something, correct it, or pocket it away as an insight to be used later, is gone.

Good communication is essential to being a good leader (Oxygen ranked it as the 5th most important behaviour). The difference is that now you are remote being a good communicator isn’t going to cut it. You’ve got to become a great communicator. Up til now, your skills would have been mainly in serendipitous and opportunistic comms, but now you are remote, you will have to become very intentional.

Focus on strategy

Empowerment, outcomes, communication all add up to the need to be able to think strategically. The majority of leaders complain that they don’t get enough time to think strategically even though they rate “clear vision/strategy for the team” (Oxygen #7) as a key behaviour for success.

Being remote gives leaders the perfect time to self reflect and focus on strategy. As a servant leader you need to make sure that teams are heavily involved in the direction. To do this, use the contact time you do have with your teams (1:1s, standups etc.) to gather information and get feedback on strategic priorities.

As an adaptive leader, you will recognise strategy as a continuous learning cycle not a one off exercise you cast in stone and deliver to your teams. By communicating your strategy as clear Outcomes with results to the team, and linking that with the overall strategic context you enable that adaptive environment.

Reward and recognise

When teams are remote from their leaders, and from each other, the normal pats on the back and high fives aren’t visible to the team. Which makes it really important to clearly reward and recognise teams.

When an empowered team, with clear outcomes, hits their results, clearly communicate back to everyone the impact that the team has made. As a leader, you become responsible for creating the positive feedback loop which gives the team its sense of purpose and achievement.

Personality and vulnerability

Even colocated, leaders risk becoming aloof. Being remote, and far from the teams, smeans you are packed into one hour video calls without those casual chats which make you more accessible and authentic.

Give space and time to show your personality to people, let them share in the experience of how you are balancing your life at home, and remember to share your vulnerability too.

And let’s be honest, right now we are all feeling pretty vulnerable. Don’t hide that up. By sharing your own struggles and encouraging others to do the same, you will empower your team to grow their remote skills faster and find creative ways of adapting to this challenging time. And there’s nothing like having a toddler walk in on a call to bond a team together.

The simple version: be a good leader

You may have noticed that all of these tips are just general leadership tips. I’ve just listed a few things off HBR articles, product thinking and well established research by Google and others. And that’s the truth of it. There’s nothing special about being a remote leader. There’s no clever tricks or tips to run a better video call. Sure, you’re going to have to learn all of those things.

Ultimately being a better remote leader is simply about being a better leader. You’re just doing it from afar, that’s all.