Leadership is a rare enough at the best of times. Leading people when you aren't in close contact with them is even harder. Hard, but not impossible. You simply have to understand the dynamics of working remotely and adjust.
One person who knows that more than most is Erika Andersen of Proteus International. She's made a career of teaching leadership. In her newest book, Leading So People Will Follow, she makes a lot of great points.
I was thrilled to catch up to her after too long, and we had the following conversation:
How does working remotely impact the way people view their leaders?
The problem with working remotely is that we're all wired to operate best as physical creatures. Think about it: for the whole of human history, hundreds of thousands of years, we have only been able to interact with each face-to-face. Then for the past fifty years, it's been feasible – first because of phones and telexes, and now because of broadband – to be able to work with people day-to-day who are in a different location.
But fifty years is the blink of an eye in human evolution, and our wiring really hasn't changed. We can communicate the essentials long-distance, but all those cues that we've evolved to look for: facial expressions, body language, how the person interacts with other people in the environment, how they react to situations that have nothing to do with us – we don't get the input we're used to. It' very two-dimensional.
So, we do what human beings do: we make stuff up, fill in the blanks. The few interactions we have take on inordinate importance. So for leaders, what that means is that people make judgments based on the limited interactions they have with you. What you say on a weekly phone call, or what you write in an email for instance, become a big part of how your folks see you, rather than just one of a hundred data points.
How does that show itself in results and behaviors?
It makes it much harder to build loyalty and commitment. Followers look for certain attributes in their leaders before they'll fully sign up. They want to know that a leader is far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy. If they don't see and feel these things, their commitment to the leader and his or her goals will be tentative at best. At a distance, it's much harder to tell whether a leader has these attributes. It's why we often feel that distant employees are provisional in their loyalty and trust – they probably are. And when people don't completely sign on, they're much less likely to give their best.
What are some specific things good leaders need to do when they don't have constant physical proximity to their folks?
One thing is to somehow bring the team together physically whenever possible. About 10 years ago, I happened to be working with two executives in different companies who were building teams. One of them tried to do it entirely long-distance. She never brought her team together in one place. The other leader brought everyone to the home office once they were hired: he took them all on a tour of headquarters, and then spent two days with the whole team, planning for the future and giving them a chance to get to know each other and him. It was kind of amazing, over the next year, watching how much more quickly and easily the second team came together.
Then, on a daily basis, do whatever you can to make your interactions more three-dimensional: phone better than email; Skype or videoconferencing is better than phone; in-person is best of all.
And finally, make sure that you communicate about more than logistics, tactics or finances. It's too easy to focus your emails and phone calls purely on what to do and whether it's done. Figure out how to expand your interactions to include why you're doing what you're doing, how to do it better, and what the implications are of doing or not doing something. It will be much easier for your team to see your far-sightedness, passion, courage, wisdom and generosity and trustworthiness in these kinds of conversations.
An example or two?
Let's say you're having your weekly phone call with a direct report. She tells you what's happening with her key projects; you ask her a few questions about resources needed or obstacles to be overcome. Rather than ending the conversation at that point (which most people would do), ask an open-ended question instead: "How's your team doing?" or, "What are you most concerned (or pleased) about in your region?"
Then really listen: get curious. With every moment you spend finding out about what's really happening and how she feels about it, you're expanding her sense of you as a leader, deepening her trust in and connection with you – and giving yourself better insights to lead well.
You're building your team long-distance, showing yourself to be the kind leader people turn to and say, "We're with you – let's go."