“Long-distance leaders” need to use a variety of tools specifically designed to address distance leadership issues and concerns.
Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel’s comprehensive, research-based manual offers valuable insights for those who lead remote workers, including 19 rules for long-distance leaders.
The Project Management Institute reports that 90% of project teams now include one or, often, more workers who operate from different locations than their supervisors and teammates. Nearly 80% of managers now supervise a worker or workers at remote locations. Many leaders face isolation because their team members are far away. These “long-distance leaders” need to use a variety of tools specifically designed to address distance leadership issues and concerns. Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel’s comprehensive, research-based manual offers valuable insights for those who lead remote workers, including 19 rules for long-distance leaders.
- Remote leadership’s fundamental rule is that leadership always matters more than location.
- Follow 19 rules to achieve remarkable remote leadership.
- For “long-distance leaders,” the principles of leadership don’t change, but the leadership techniques will differ.
- Long-distance leaders and remote workers must routinely seek objective feedback.
- Human behavior stays the same regardless of worker locations.
Remote leadership’s fundamental rule is that leadership always matters more than location.
In the opinion of NASA rocket scientists, leadership is complex and multilayered. When asked which is more complicated – leadership or rocket science – many of NASA’s most admired and experienced thinkers decisively identified leadership.
Rocket science calls for exactitude: careful math involving precise numbers meticulously poured into elegantly conceived formulas. Factor in everything properly, do the correct calculations and you can feel pretty confident about the precision of your answers. In contrast, leadership is imprecise and involves complicated, indecisive, changeable human beings.
“Management by walking around doesn’t work if you are in Seattle and part of your team is in Sydney or Singapore.”
Leading people is difficult enough when you and your team are in the same place, and becomes more complex when the boss is in one location and the employees work somewhere else. Leadership calls for action that leads to identifying and meeting goals and achieving results. Leading calls for “vision, influence, direction and development,” even with distant employees. Take as the first tenet of leading from afar that leadership matters more than location.
“It’s easy to discount the challenges of the way the workplace works today, especially the impact of distance and technology-enabled communication, and just focus on what has always made leaders effective.”
Follow 19 rules to achieve remarkable remote leadership.
These first five precepts which can help you improve and enjoy your role as a long-distance leader are:
- Put “leadership first, location second”: Though fairly rare in the past, remote leadership is an established fact in the business world today. With the development of the internet and email and the rise of long-distance workers, remote leadership is increasingly common. A 2017 survey of 225 managers who supervise local and remote workers indicates that some managers worry about what their remote workers do during their workdays. Regardless, they must focus attention on the people they lead – without placing too much emphasis on those workers’ remote locations.
- “Leading remotely” means leading differently: You might be great at face-to-face communication. You speak well, you listen well, you always focus your attention directly on the other party and you read body language well. However, these skills aren’t of much use when you are in one location and the people you lead are somewhere else. As a long-distance leader, learn to communicate with nuance and clarity in emails and instant messages and when using the latest online collaboration and meeting platforms, and other high-tech tools.
- Heed “interpersonal dynamics”: Having workers in different locations from their leaders alters their relationship even though both participants try to avoid strain. Interacting without ever meeting face to face can stymie clear communication. Both parties will feel the lack of facial cues and tonal subtleties. Leading departments that are spread over a wide area may mean that you as a leader bear complex responsibility with insufficient hands-on authority. Still, the basic principles of leading don’t change – nor does the need to develop solid working relationships. Effective leaders understand how to nourish and sustain positive relations that are based in virtual communications.
- “Use technology as a tool”: Stress is common for long-distance leaders. The “Remote Leadership Model” offers an antidote. It involves several interconnected gears: The “leadership and management gear” includes creating relationships, pursuing continual self-education and being accountable. The “tools and technology gear” includes understanding and exploiting the technology at hand and making sure that your comfort with one or more tools doesn’t lead you to use them too much. And, the “skill and impact gear” includes being willing to adopt and embrace new technology.
- Follow the “Three O Model of Leadership”: This model involves 1) “outcomes,” whereby you guide people to specific goals; 2) “others,” whereby other people become your primary tool; and 3) “ourselves,” whereby no action, good or bad, takes place without you. Wise leaders prioritize outcomes and other people.
Over long distances, focusing on outcomes means dealing with workers’ isolation and the absence of “environmental cues,” such as you gain when touring a workplace.
“We have all spent a lifetime learning to communicate in person – and now we’re conducting our most important work in ways that we may be less effective and comfortable with.”
As a leader, you have to deal with finances, plans, processes and sales, but none of those matter as much as your people. Focusing on other people generates and sustains trust, furthers relationships, increases your influence and builds their level of engagement.
For “long-distance leaders,” the principles of leadership don’t change, but the leadership techniques will differ.
The next five rules to keep in mind as you work with distant employees are:
- Remote leaders must reach many kinds of objectives: Communicate your organizational goals and your team goals clearly to long-distance workers. Never assume that your distant workers fully understand all relevant team goals, since remote employees often tend to focus too much on their own goals. Give them the necessary context to develop a helpful sense of perspective about the way their individual goals fit the team’s goals. Make sure your organizational targets are clear. State your expectations often, and hold employees responsible for meeting them.
- “Focus on achieving goals, not just setting them”: Many business books teach how to set goals. Few teach how to achieve them. Measurable goals are easier to attain. Determine how many components each goal has, how much time workers will need to attain each goal and which metrics you will apply. Link goal-setting closely with goal-planning.
- “Coach your team effectively,” wherever they are: To be a viable coach, always assume your remote workers have benevolent intentions, even when they make mistakes. Your long-distance interactions with your workers must be genuine two-way conversations. You aren’t coaching if you do all the talking; listen carefully. Frequently coach your remote workers, and regularly give them feedback. Be “conscious and intentional” every time you communicate.
- “Communicate in the ways that work best for others”: Remote workers differ from one another, often in substantial ways. One remote worker may want the boss to check in on a regular basis. Another may see routine check-ins as micromanagement. Tailor your interaction and communication with remote workers according to each individual’s work style, preferences, needs and personality. Don’t impose a one-size-fits-all interaction, communication or management style.
- Try to understand your workers’ point of view: Don’t pay attention only to what your remote workers do. Consider what’s on their minds. Reassure them, so they don’t feel pressured into “playing politics.” No employees should have to manipulate or make power moves, but they all should understand the relationships that might affect them. They need to figure out the “interactions, roles and power” among the people in their organizations. Learn how data moves and relationships connect. Minimize office politics among your remote workers, and help them work well together. Make sure they feel part of the organization’s vision and plans.
Assess individual remote workers’ psychological orientation through such tools as DISC, Myers-Briggs, Insights or Strengths-Finder. Don’t play guessing games when you are working with remote employees and want to know how they’re doing and what communication technique will work best. Simply ask your workers how they want you to work with them and how you can help them succeed.
“When working remotely, the written word takes on far greater importance. Texts, reports, emails and IMs are how you’ll get information from people who may be asleep when you’re working.
Leaders usually don’t know what remote workers are doing hour-by-hour, every day or every week, as is true about local workers. Remote workers are often more productive.
Long-distance leaders and remote workers must routinely seek objective feedback.
The next five rules for working with long-distance employees are:
- “Building trust at a distance doesn’t happen by accident”: Trust is evidence-based. Many leaders of remote workers ask, “How will I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” To establish trust, establish and nurture a common purpose, motives and competence between your home office and remote workers. To engender trust, be strategic about meetings. Delegate publicly. Establish connections. Minimize conflicts. Ensure that remote workers know that you don’t favor home office workers over them.
- Identify the most effective communication tools: Since distance leaders depend on high-tech communication to interact with remote workers, seek the best tools for each communication purpose. Unless you run your company, someone else is likely to choose your high-tech tools for you. It is your responsibility to know what tools are available, how to use them and which ones best suit your purposes. Know your tools’ advantages and disadvantages so you can deploy them effectively.
- Get the highest capacity out of each tool: Stay up to date on the latest advanced technologies. Technology changes all the time, so make tracking those changes a priority. Such technology includes the latest advanced video and video chat services; webcams; web meeting tools; texting and instant messaging tools; and file-storage tools such as SharePoint, Google Docs and Basecamp.
- “Seek feedback”: Every leader requires unbiased, objective feedback. Find people you can rely upon to be honest. Ask questions that allow for free-ranging answers. Don’t try to gain all your feedback in one conversation; use several interactions in different formats over time. Outside consultants can coordinate quality 360 assessments – as well as expert analysis of the survey data you collect.
- “Examine your beliefs and self-talk”: In ancient Rome, an auriga was someone who stood directly behind the emperor while he was the object of public love at gala events. The auriga would whisper in the emperor’s ear: “memento homo” (“remember, you are just a man”), a humbling message meant to keep the emperor grounded in the face of adulation. The auriga would be of little use if he said, “You’re an idiot; nobody likes you” instead of something positive like “Are you sure you want to do that?” Keep your self-talk positive, since negative self-talk will sabotage you. The same holds true for your self-beliefs. If you tell yourself, “I can’t do this,” you won’t get much done.
Remote teams often need more definitive procedures, checklists and templates. This can help your far-away team members visualize their shared objectives.
“As a long-distance leader, make sure that your remote team members have context for the roles and targets of other team members, too.”
Make sure your remote workers know that you’re paying close attention to them and their performance. Regularly recognize and publicly applaud the progress they are making.
Human behavior stays the same regardless of workers’ locations.
The remaining four rules for managing at a distance are:
- “Accept that you can’t do it all”: Y0ur responsibilities are to your organization, your team members, your customers, and to yourself and your loved ones. But you can’t do everything alone. Balance your professional life with your personal life. If you don’t take good care of yourself, you can’t take good care of your business responsibilities. Don’t think and act as if you’re an indispensable asset. Organize tasks, goals and timetables so your long-distance teams can carry on in your absence. Ask yourself, “If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, how would my team function?” Plan accordingly.
- “Balance your priorities”: Make smart choices about spending your limited and valuable time. Keep in mind that “time management is really choice management.” Your important choices include your professional and personal demands. Set aside time for physical exercise; for your spouse or partner; and for friends, self-development, reading, spirituality and community participation.
- Prepare future long-distance leaders: As you conceptualize your distance leadership program, stay mindful of your organization’s plans for its future status in its sector. What qualities and characteristics should your future distance leaders have? How will you and your company support remote leaders-in-training? Structure your professional development activities accordingly.
- “When all else fails, remember Rule 1”: Never forget the essential long-distance rule: “Think about leadership first, location second.
“The fundamentals of coaching – having clear goals, building a relationship, providing both encouragement and correction – don’t change whether you’re in the same room or an ocean apart, but somehow it seems harder.”
These 19 rules may have educated, inspired and entertained you, but their primary purpose is to lead you to take action.
About the Authors
Kevin Eikenberry is the chief potential officer at the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne Turmel is a co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute.