Do you lead a team of people who don’t work where you do? Whether you lead a fully virtual team or just have team members who work from home a couple of days a week, you probably already know that leading from a distance can be tricky.
You might worry about whether you are talking to your remote people enough, or whether email can really replace face-to-face communication. You might be challenged to build team morale and cohesion when you rarely get to see each other. And it can feel overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to remember that when it comes to remote leadership, things are different—but not as much as you might believe.
One of my co-author Kevin Eikenberry’s favorite sayings is “little hinges swing big doors.” In this case, it really means that a few key differences in leading a remote have an outsized role in your success or failure as a long-distance leader.
We often assume remote leadership requires an entirely different skillset from what we use when we all work in a single location. It’s just not true. Yes, there are some new skills you’ll have to master (unless you were born a Skype for Business savant), but the differences tend to be matters of degree. In The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, we go into what some of those differences are. In this article, we’ll look at some of those “little hinges” that can make a big difference.
Remember: Long-Distance Leadership is still leadership
It’s easy to get hung up on the new and different. It’s tempting to forget about people when you don’t see them all the time. It’s hard to communicate effectively when you can’t see the reactions of those who read your emails. In short, leading at a distance can quickly become stressful and overwhelming.
All of this is indeed a challenge. And while there certainly are adjustments we need to make to lead in a world with more distance between team members, there is far more that won’t change.
That’s why the first rule of our "19 Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership" is: Think leadership first, location second. What’s that mean? Well if we think about the role of a leader—what we have to do—not much has changed. You’re a leader, regardless of where you are. And what’s a leader’s job?
A leader's job is to:
- Help set a vision
- Work to create goals and accountability
- Delegate tasks
- Help locate and allocate resources
Do any of those things NOT apply when managing a remote team? Of course not. The role of the leader is the same as it has always been. What’s changed isn’t what we do, it’s how we do it.
Adapting your style
When we lead from a distance, we are asked to do all the things we’ve always done as leaders. The difference is that our presence is mediated by technology. This means big challenges for relationships, communication, and the ability to observe the day-to-day of the environment that might give us cues about unspoken opportunities or problems. We can no longer rely on the face-to-face communication skills that have gotten us this far in life and come naturally to us. We have to use technology to fill the gaps, and that can be difficult.
Many remote leaders struggle to apply technology effectively. Some common issues are:
- Trust is hard to establish and maintain when we don’t have constant 2-way communication.
- Relationships tend to become transactional. The social niceties and relationship-building that comes naturally when we share a workspace don’t happen as organically and effortlessly as they do when you share a break room or see each other in the conference room.
- Effective communication is difficult when we have to rely on technology. Email just doesn’t have the same impact as a private conversation. A conference call is a good excuse for many people to disengage and not participate as a full member of the team. A Long-Distance Leader has to understand which tools to use for which communication challenges.
- Even if we have the technology, many leaders don’t maximize its power. 80% of people use 20% of the features of most communication tools. Additionally, a majority of leaders say they aren’t “confident and competent” when using the tools at our disposal. If we have a job that is already tricky and we’re asked to do it in ways we’ve never done before—AND we don’t maximize the tools we do have—is it any wonder this feels difficult?
- We get so busy, we don’t know what we don’t know. When we share a workplace, we can tell when someone is confused. If they’re banging their head on their monitor, we can ask, “is everything okay?” When we are miles apart we often either don’t get the clues that tell us we need to coach, mentor, nudge or just reach out and talk to people. Even if we do get them, it’s much easier to ignore those signals when they come across as an Instant Message or a Slack post. Long-Distance Leaders proactively seek out connections and maintain lines of communication.
- Lack of instant feedback makes leadership difficult. We rely on input from others to help us assess our ideas, check our assumptions, and stop us from sending that ill-advised email. When left to our own devices, we are at the mercy of either unchecked ego or crippling self-doubt. Both can be disastrous.
Do any of these issues sound familiar to you and your team?
The good news is that once you’ve identified any of these gaps, you can take steps to solve them.
Overcoming the challenges of Long-Distance Leadership
Effective Long-Distance Leaders understand the traditional role of a leader. They start there. Then they take changing dynamics into account. They ask, “If I’m going to accomplish this, how can I do that with the tools at my disposal?” Then they ask “If this is the tool I’m going to use, am I using it properly?”
Do you find that you don’t have the same relationship with your remote team as you do with the people in-office? Schedule regular check-ins rather than waiting for someone to ask for help.
Do you find that email isn’t getting the job done? Think about using tools you’re less comfortable with but might help you communicate more effectively. (Think web-cams or virtual meetings rather than conference calls.)
Leading from a distance can be done. Remember that Genghis Khan ruled half the known world and never held a WebEx meeting. What’s important is that leaders understand how working at a distance changes how we do our jobs then address those differences.
Wayne Turmel is the cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute and the author of many books, including the Association for Talent Development's 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations. Find out more about his latest book with Kevin Eikenberry The Long-Distance Leader here.