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8 Strategies for Remote Leadership

8 Strategies Remote Leader

In a speech in January of 1977, the Twelfth President of the Mormon Church; Spencer W. Kimball said that “The leaven of true leadership cannot lift others unless we are with and serve those to be led.” Among other things; he was talking about the criticality of being face-to-face with the people you lead to be able to offer them the best possible leadership. History tells us that he was right for the thousand years prior to this speech, but the avenues of leadership were opening up even as he was speaking

Our bookshelves are replete with stories of leaders who ruled over vast empires (both political and corporate) effectively exerting influence over a huge number of people. In almost every case, however, the leader was directly influencing only those people in his or her immediate vicinity, and working through surrogates for anyone who was not immediately at hand.

Often times even the surrogates were not personally led. They were simply people the leader had previously influenced and had come to trust; appointed to hold a post and exercise their leadership in a manner that was consistent with what they believed to be the will of their leader. They rose to independent leadership positions simply because they had demonstrated both loyalty and the potential to operate independently – traits that are still very prized in today’s business environment.

For most of history, personal leadership has been very much a face-to-face proposition.

So when a colleague of ours recently wrote a post on Tools to Help You Succeed Working with a Remote Team, I began reflecting on how remoteness is impacting leadership.

Most agree that leadership is very situational; leading individuals and teams requires the person in charge to interpret the needs and focus of the team and to identify the proper leadership approach to each given situation. Leaders draw these clues from a number of sources including employee’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, the leadership environment and manner of task execution. History teaches us that the most effective personal leadership is exercised within the direct view of the leader. What then, does the rise of technologies that allow personal leadership from a distance mean for our ability to lead?

  • What if Carnegie and Rockefeller had email?
  • Can you imagine Kennedy and Khrushchev with Skype?
  • What could von Braun, Tesla, or Edison accomplish with Slack?

Here are eight measures and techniques available to leaders who are faced with providing personal direction and supervision to a distant subordinate to help ensure a good leadership environment.

1. Trust 

Few components are as critical to leadership as trust. In a direct leadership environment the leader establishes the “norms” and “culture” of the organization; marking the boundaries of behavior and the roles of key members. Even when applying discipline, a leader sets the standard for acceptable behavior and the importance of the mission at hand – things that are critically important in developing trust but may not be immediately apparent to a distant subordinate. Developing trust in a distant subordinate does not necessarily require a different approach to leading, but it does require that the leader understand the challenges of distant personal leadership and the tools with which to most effectively counter them.

2. Over-Communicate

Just as no one appreciates decisions made in a back room away from input and visibility, infrequent communication with a remote employee creates an unnecessary distance. Use all the avenues of communication available to you as a leader, and communicate more often than you do with the team that you lead personally.

3. Get Personal

You can communicate about more than just work. In a direct personal leadership situation there will often be clues to an employee’s other interests, desires and personal pursuits. The family photos on a desk, the logo on memorabilia, or the issues that they like to concentrate on when they interact with other employees are examples of the personal details frequently absent in remote management – unless they are cultivated and encouraged. Over time; by asking about these kinds of things, a distant leader can develop the informal links that will be important to effectively encouraging healthy subordinate development and trust.

4. Don’t Overlook Written Interaction

As more opportunities rise to be virtually present with subordinates, distant leaders shouldn’t discount the power of the written word; it’s durable, has the advantage of deliberate thought in both transmission and reception, and it can be used effectively to pass along instructions to a third party or reinforce the authority of the distant subordinate. E-mail is powerful because it can be sent to a subordinate and then be easily and rapidly forwarded, providing both clarity and credibility to that subordinate.

Avoid the temptation to blanket your organization with your own email – let your team leaders pass the information along. Providing direction to a subordinate offers them the opportunity to communicate too; encouraging them to both “own” the message and add their own emphasis.

The immediacy of one-to-one chat is particularly effective in executing personal leadership across a distance. While not completely duplex, it does offer a great venue to support immediate feedback and help ensure understanding. Resisting the temptation to start simultaneous chats with more than one person is important in executing distant personal leadership. It enables a less constrained senior-subordinate interaction and can further facilitate the development of trust.

5. Non-Traditional Feedback

One of the keys to indirect personal leadership is capitalizing on feedback that is available through other means of communication. The internet-enabled world around us allows a previously-impossible aggregation of data from multiple sources about the distant subordinate’s work environment and responsibilities. Information about things like their productiveness, their rate of work and the morale of their subordinate workers is, in many cases, available immediately.

6. Capitalize on Opportunities

In almost every case a distant leader will have intermittent opportunities to interact live with a distant subordinate. A quarterly meeting, a business trip to the subordinate’s location or a slight diversion from a trip elsewhere can make a real difference to the relationship. Recognize that this is an opportunity to communicate in the richest possible environment and leverage the occasion to expand your subordinate’s trust. Provide your subordinate with the best possible opportunity to gain insights, raise issues and understand the organization and team.

7. Make Them Part of the Team

Including the distant subordinate in the team is also a way to not only provide a stronger sense of group but also to provide alternate avenues of communication to the distant subordinate. Having the opportunity to ask “Just what did the boss mean?” of a peer is an important capability, providing an opportunity for clarity and a means to avoid disaster. The subordinates who work daily with you in a face-to-face environment have this opportunity; your distant subordinates should have the same chance.

8. Shared Success

One of the critical elements of providing effective personal leadership to a distant subordinate is to make sure, whenever possible, that the leader stresses the common goals that are shared by the team. People are motivated by reward and recognition as shared organizational and personal successes drive a sense of team.

Technology is expanding the tools available to leaders, opening new possibilities toward effectively leading and developing subordinates who do not spend each day interacting personally with their leader. Doing this effectively, however, requires awareness on the part of the leader of both the pitfalls and the tools and techniques of applying the “…leaven of true leadership.”

Have you found additional ways to better lead remote teams? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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