Leading from a Distance

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Leading from a Distance

If you’re a manager, right now your leadership skills are being tested, and evaluated (by those you lead), like never before. Add to that the challenge of trying to lead from a distance, and… well, I don’t have to tell you…

The US Patent and Trademark Office asked me to conduct a workshop on “Leading  from a Distance.” Oh, not in response to COVID-19. This was ten years ago, when the vast majority of the agency’s workforce had already been working almost entirely from their homes for more than a year.

Everything I shared with them in 2010 is still 100% applicable, and entirely more relevant, today.

Here goes:

  • Many things your employees need are harder, but not impossible, to deliver from a distance. But they’re still needed. The shortlist includes:
    • Mission clarity
    • Feedback
    • Recognition
    • Individual development
    • Team synergy

               So make it a priority, as in, put on your to-do list, something that addresses each of these issues. Every day.

  • Engagement relies on mutual trust. Not always easy in a traditional setting, even harder when you’re working remotely. This won’t be easy, but…You’re going to have to let go and trust, probably beyond what you’ve been comfortable with. But even more, you’ll need to work extra hard at being trustworthy. Communicate more, not less. Be more explicit. Pay special attention to how things appear, keeping in mind the distance disadvantage. Above all, tell the truth. Even the ugly truth. In the latter case, polish up your compassion skills before you open your mouth.
  • Speaking of trust, performance management takes on a whole different look when leading remotely. Micromanagement is ineffective in person, and it becomes no less so from afar. Distance leaders are not supervisors. Focus on productivity, over activity; output, over input; and big picture results, not little picture evidence. And really make sure everyone has what they need to do their best work.
  • Engagement and fear don’t mix. To the extent that the people you lead are afraid, for their jobs, their health, their family’s wellbeing, whatever  – do all you can do, and say all you can say – honestly and truthfully – to minimize or eliminate that fear.
  • Engagement can thrive when there’s a strong sense of community in a workplace; it struggles in isolation. While the virus has put distance between us, your job as a leader is to bring people together. You’re having lots of meetings, by phone, or in front of a screen. Use those meetings not only to conduct business, but to build community. But be sensitive to people’s time.
    • Many groups are already having optional virtual happy hours. If that fits your culture, go for it!
    • Happy hour or not, encourage your team to “meet for lunch”, as they might at the office, but virtually, and again, optionally. Some days, you, as the leader, attend; other days, stay away, and let them talk about whatever they would ordinarily talk about at lunch.
  • Consider a virtual buddy system. Pair people in similar roles who are happy to help each other with those little day-to-day questions that, in a traditional environment, we would pop our heads over the cubicle wall to ask.
  • Finally, one indisputable truth is that people reserve their best effort for someone who cares about them. In these days, especially, you, as a leader, need to demonstrate, in clear and compelling ways, that you DO care. Again, this isn’t complicated.
    • Check in with everyone on your team, daily if that feels right, not only to see how their work is coming along, but how they are doing. And what you can do to help.
    • Now, see that thing you always have in your hand? The thing with apps, email, a flashlight, music, texts, the internet, games, and everything else? Reacquaint yourself with its phone feature, and connect, voice-to-voice, with the people who need to know that you care.

Lots of things have changed, some drastically, in the last few weeks. One thing that has NOT changed is this: Creating a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce, is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.

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