Five core skills for remote leaders


Management and leadership have never been easy jobs. There are certain skills that people needed to have in order to be successful, and while experts and consultants may argue over what exactly those are (seven habits? six keys? 12 steps . . . ?), we do know one thing: managing remotely requires all of those skills plus a couple more.

As organizations look at their leadership development, it's become apparent that there's a lot of disagreement over the key skills remote managers need, how they can be developed, and how to measure them in order to manage a leader's performance and professional development.

While models differ (and there's a multi-million dollar training industry built on whose model rules) there's general agreement that a team leader needs certain core competencies:

  • The ability to understand team dynamics
  • The ability to interpret direction from on high and create a common, coherent vision for the team
  • Key communication skills such as listening, writing and oral communication or presenting effectively
  • The ability to coach for both performance and long-term development.

Now, we can quibble over whether these four groups are sufficient, or if we need more. For example, is delegation a discrete skill or does it fall under coaching? What is apparent, though, is that the demands of leading a team who don't share a common location, time zone or even first language, and tethered together primarily by technology are different. In fact, in some cases they're an order of magnitude more difficult. That calls for other skills on top of what's normally needed.

All four of the original skill sets still apply, although there are new insights and sub-skills necessary in the virtual world. This means that simply teaching existing leadership training or development and expecting people to extrapolate those concepts to the virtual and remote world is asking an awful lot of them.

They are the same, but also very different.

1. Team dynamics still matter. Building trust, the old concepts of forming-storming-norming , all those haven't changed since Aristotle consulted with Alexander. Doing those things in a remote team, though, require an awareness of how distance and a lack of frequent physical interaction impact how a team works together. When you're not all together, though, how do you read the signs of team interactions and check your assumptions?

2. Creating a common, coherent vision is as critical as always. Doing that through webinars, conference calls and email is different than walking past that Mission Statement posted over the door. How well does your remote team understand and embody your organization's goals and values? How do you know?

3. Listening, writing and oral communication have never been more important to leaders. However, when these skills are mediated by technology they take on new, subtle nuances that can create major pitfalls. Do your managers and leaders know how to communicate effectively using all the communication tools at their disposal? Being a great communicator around a conference table isn't the same as delivering an effective webinar. It might, though, be every bit as crucial.

4. Coaching is essential to a good manager or leader. But can webcams be the same as standing shoulder to shoulder? In some ways it's as good, in some not as effective. Do your managers know how to identify and play to the strengths of their situation, and mitigate the weaknesses?

And that leads us to at least one new skill or competency that virtual leaders must develop or enhance:

5. Understanding the implications and the effective use of technology. This includes knowing the tools available to help achieve your communication goals, choosing the right tool for the job, and using them effectively. If managers only use webinars or webmeetings as one-way broadcast tools, for example, they're severely limiting their team interaction and effectiveness.

So what does all this mean for organizations, their leaders and those responsible for developing training and development for those people? In essence, there are four questions they must ask themselves:

  • Does existing training and development sufficiently address the challenges of working remotely?
  • If not, how can you augment your training to fill in the gaps?
  • Does the organization set expectations, offer training and measure the performance of its leaders when it comes to the effective use of technology and communication tools?
  • If not, what will you do about it?

There is no shortage of training, vendors, tools and resources out there. I would humbly submit that a new Remote Leadership Certification that we've put in place with our strategic partners at Remarkable Leadership is one possible solution. Please feel free to check us out. Or look at other options.

The point is that acquiring the skills of effective remote leadership doesn't happened by magic or osmosis. Whether you find the solutions in-house, or look to outside training and technology providers, ignoring these questions is laying very shaky groundwork for the success of your remote leaders and the people on their teams.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.