Leading remotely isn’t new. Managers, especially senior managers in distributed organisations, have been leading remotely for decades. Remote leadership has, however, been pushed to front and centre by the events of the last 12 months.
Remote leadership in 2021 differs from the past in three important ways:
As the global pandemic has pushed people out of their workspaces and into their homes so more leaders than ever before have had to (often reluctantly) grapple with the challenges of remote leadership.
Previously remote leaders tended to be middle or senior managers with multi-geography responsibilities. They typically had the benefit of experience on their side. Today junior and first-line leaders, often still finding their feet, are having to lead and understand their teams without the benefit of day-to-day, face-to-face interaction or coaching.
Technologies and tools available to leaders today are vastly superior to those that were available to leaders in the past. But there is a learning curve. And with any learning curve comes a change management challenge.
Depending on your perspective the three points above could be seen as either a major obstacle or a huge opportunity. We have encouraged our clients to see them as the latter.
While much has changed, the fundamentals of leadership have not. Over the past three decades whenever we have asked programme participants (who now number in the thousands), “How would you describe the person you go to work for willingly?” we have received the same answer, “I would work willingly for somebody who prioritises giving over taking, and who both cares for and grows me.” In the words of one programme participant: “It’s all about Intent”.
Intent matters when you are leading a team sitting right next to you. And intent matters just as much, perhaps more, when your team is on the other side of a phone or a Zoom call.
If we look at each of the three aforementioned points through an intent lens, we can start to see why remote leadership is so difficult for many leaders, and we can also start to understand what we can do about it.
Most of today’s remote leaders didn’t choose to be, all of a sudden, located far away from their teams. They also didn’t choose to be leaders in the midst of a global crisis. As a result, when we have asked groups of leaders over the last 12 months about their current concerns they have tended to focus on what they’re getting (or not getting), rather than what they are giving (or not giving). Typical concerns relate to management and productivity rather than leadership: “My wi-fi connection is unstable”, “I am struggling to find balance between work and home life”, “I don’t know whether my people are working hard or slacking off”. As leaders we need to separate working remotely issues from leading remotely issues. We need to fix our wi-fi, find ways to establish boundaries between work and home life, and stop worrying so much about monitoring our people and start worrying about how we can help. Once those things are out of the way we can refocus our intent and get back to our core focus: caring for and growing our people.
In our experience junior and first line leaders often see their role as having to monitor and micromanage – usually because they themselves have been monitored and micromanaged. In some ways a move to leading remotely is actually helpful. It forces managers to more effectively clarify contribution. Rather than building bad habits related to monitoring and control, junior leaders can put their focus where it matters: building legitimacy by deliberately taking an interest in people and their situations, and gaining experience in how to be helpful without doing the work for people. As senior leaders we need to be sure that we are deliberately spending the time coaching and watching the game so our junior leaders develop as quickly as possible.
Lastly, we need to deliberately invest in helping leaders to develop the know-how and skills required to communicate effectively in a world that is rapidly moving online. We all need to know HOW to use Zoom, MS Teams and WhatsApp, but even more importantly we need to start by addressing the WHY. Leaders who understand the importance of transitioning to a new online world are going to find it much easier to do so than those who are stuck bemoaning the use of technology as “not as effective as face-to-face”. Keeping up with technology is as much a mindset issue as it is skills issue. As stated earlier, “It’s all about intent”.