Case Studies

Leading Legitimately – And Remotely, In A Pandemic

Sep 2021

By Stefaan van den Heever, Associate, Legitimate Leadership.

When Corona-19 struck, government lockdown laws in South Africa meant that employees of a financial services company were forbidden from work from its offices: they could either work at home, or not at all. The company achieved the almost-overnight IT transition for remote working relatively well (although there were many issues with connectivity and work-from-home problems), but leadership issues related to the new working mode quickly emerged.

The company had previous engagement with Legitimate Leadership and its framework.

When a Legitimate Leadership associate phoned one of the company’s managers concerned with learning and development, she told him that she was grappling with two major issues related to the new remote-working mode.

These were:

  1. How do managers stay connected with their direct reports?
  2. How do managers manage their direct reports and hold them accountable when they do not see them in the office?

Legitimate Leadership had already been consulting with various other companies on problems related to remote working.

Legitimate Leadership’s proposal of five, 90-minute modules to address these two challenges was accepted by the company.

The modules were done over a period of eight months remotely using Microsoft Teams, by members of Legitimate Leadership’s team with seven groups from the company, six of which numbered around 25 each. The six groups were managers in the organisation. A final, seventh, group of 50 people, was a selection of managers and direct reports from across the organisation.

The intervention specifically covered three departments in the company which were concerned with operations, administration, consulting and investment.

Legitimate Leadership associates found that the groups were not too large (although they were larger than would normally be considered optimal in a physical environment). Engagement within the groups was excellent because people were “hungry for the input”.

Throughout the period of the intervention, lockdown laws meant absolutely no physical meetings were allowed between the members of the teams. Although some authorities (for instance, Simon Sinek) say that at least occasional physical interaction is necessary to build up trust within teams, the Legitimate Leadership associates felt that trust could in fact be built up within a team or project – even a new team or a new project – via remote means. An essential however was that cameras were switched on so that there was at least visual interaction.

SALIENT OBSERVATIONS BY LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP

  • On the positive side, people did enjoy the new remote way of working. Leaders consistently commented that their people enjoyed the flexibility and freedom associated with remote working. They also commented that employees enjoyed ‘not being micro-managed’.
  • On the negative side, employees struggled with work/life balance, lack of face-to-face engagements, and working-from-home issues (IT constraints, connectivity issues, lack of space at home, etc). And both employees and leaders struggled with longer working hours and with defining the boundaries between work and personal life.
  • The associates’ initial impression had been that major problems were firstly, lack of communication between managers and direct reports and secondly, that everyone was too busy. It soon became clear that the participants were excessively busy because the tasks which needed to be done were being prioritised, whereas (according to Legitimate Leadership) the people should have been prioritised. The prioritisation of the tasks, combined with the multilateral communication required when working remotely, resulted in people scrambling to do the many tasks and attend the many meetings. The associates believed that changing the leaders’ focus to the people would alleviate this problem, and that is in fact what happened by the end of the intervention.
  • 87% of respondents said that this programme has improved (increased) their confidence to lead in a remote environment.

COMMENTS OF LEADERS ON THE PROGRAMME

  • That they gained better awareness of the essential role of a leader – namely, to enable excellence in staff so that they could achieve excellent results. Rather than, as managers, getting the results done. In other words, shifting from prioritizing results only to prioritizing people and enabling them to achieve excellent results. The importance of this intent as a leader came through particularly strongly in the remote working mode.
  • That they gained better awareness of the importance of establishing legitimacy and trust with their people and the importance of engagement and staying connected with their people.
  • That they gained better awareness of understanding their people better as human beings – their personal circumstances and what they were going through.
  • That ‘communication was now more important than ever’, and that they needed to do more of it. This included making more time for one-on-one meetings; asking what their people needed from them in terms of support, and also giving more feedback to improve contribution. Personal interaction between managers and their direct reports was encompassed in three (remote) interaction types: one-on-one meeting; team meetings; and watching the game by the managers. Trust between leaders and their people was particularly built up in all these interaction types.
  • That their meetings became more focused on the needs of their people; previously they were largely report-backs for the leader’s own benefit. Also that they as leaders needed to do more listening, observing their people, and giving feedback to their people in meetings. Also that the greater clarity resulting from this allowed for better strategic focus. One leader commented: “As consultants we are so busy doing the generic consulting that is suggested and proposed by our research and development team. While this is great as a house view, consultants sometimes do not take a step back and strategically evaluate what their client needs. I think this will be a focus area. I have scheduled quarterly meetings with each direct report to interrupt them into discussing each of their clients with me and what they perceive to be the most eminent need. The need cannot be merely by observation it will be through engagement with the client”.
  • That they let their people take more ownership of the meetings, giving different team members opportunities to run the meetings and letting them also set the agenda.
  • That they had become more creative in connecting with their team and deliberately scheduling time for connection to happen. This included examples of more ‘creative meetings’, more ‘fun’ meetings, and more ‘sharing of personal stories’.
  • That there was a need to establish clear guidelines for remote working. And that establishing Guidelines for Remote Working helped to prioritize the company’s values and also to think critically about the values. For example, how to find balance between the value of Customer First and their own work/life balance as a team. These guidelines had assisted with ‘improved communication’ and more ‘creative ways of working together’ within the teams.
  • That the Watching the Game tool assisted leaders to realize that a leader should not focus only on the scoreboard, but also the unique contribution each player makes to the score. Most people had Means and Ability needs issues to be addressed. Through Watching the Game, the leaders gained clearer understanding of the development needs of their people (previously it was simply a matter of ‘getting the task done’). They experienced that watching the game can be easier in the remote working mode because, for instance, an interaction between a consultant and a client can be easily observed through screen-sharing on Microsoft Teams. This is more easily done in a more administrative situation than a factory production situation, for instance. Watching the Game stood out as a very valuable tool in this programme.
  • That the need to hold their people accountable had become even more important in a remote-working mode – with the proviso that before Accountability comes empowering people with the Means and Ability to succeed. Also that accountability goes hand-in-hand with watching the game. There were a number of examples during the programme in which leaders held their people accountable whereas previously they would have simply jumped in and done the work themselves or would have opted to allocate the work to a ‘high performer’.

SOME QUOTES ABOUT THE IMPACT OF THE PROGRAMME

  • “It has provided a more guided and pragmatic approach to leadership. Especially in a remote working environment.”
  • “Letting go, and let the team members come up with solutions, team members should be given the opportunity to chair a meeting. I always used to be more controlling, now focusing more on providing support than doing it myself.”
  • “It definitely has made me feel more confident to trust my employees within reason that they know the repercussions and that if something is to go wrong and they don’t get things done that they can’t feel ‘sorry for themselves’ when I have to ‘discipline’ or point out their actions or failures.”
  • “I have realized that by trusting my team more, they are more willing to go the extra mile, for them and for me. They are more open to constructive criticism, as they realized that I am trying to help them grow. I do not micromanage any more, freeing my time to attend to other matters. I praise them for a job well done, resulting in them growing their own confidence and abilities.”
  • “It has improved my confidence, as I can rely on my team to get things done more efficiently. Improved trust between myself and my team – we rely on each other to be successful.”
  • “It definitely has helped me, I feel, more mature as a leader to not always be the one who feels all the weight on my shoulders but to empower my employees to take ownership and some of the weight so that they feel like they are developing and also get the feeling of what it is like to carry certain responsibilities 100%.”
  • “I think it will empower all staff members to feel more responsible for their jobs and hopefully take more pride in their work and themselves to ensure that they are always willing to go above and beyond to always improve themselves and their characters.”

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