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Leading remotely: Five success factors for leadership at a distance

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, companies around the globe have been thrown into the challenge of switching from physical meetings to virtual channels. By now, we have already become accustomed to communicating through digital media. But as a leader, how can you use MS Teams, Zoom, Skype, etc. to hold effective meetings, achieve strong results and establish lasting connections? The five success factors listed below can help you with this:

  1. Technology that works properly, with strong data protection
  2. Making your expectations clear
  3. Strengthening team cohesion and laying ground rules
  4. Empowering employees and promoting trust
  5. Seeking and offering feedback

These five key points are drawn from our experience in supporting executives to lead their teams using digital media, and are based on research from the Harvard Business Review as well as from expertise from the consulting firm McKinsey.

1. Technology that works properly, with strong data protection

“Hold on a minute, I just have to switch on the camera…” Or “It’s not working, I can’t log in to the meeting…” No doubt scenarios like this have become all too familiar to you in recent times. Nothing is more infuriating than wasting time in virtual meetings because of technical problems, or because some of the attendees are not properly prepared. This is why having technology that works properly is the first factor for success. Before you start your meeting, you need to be sure that:

  1. All participants are equipped with the right hardware, i.e. a desktop or a laptop with camera and microphone, and a headset if they are working in a noisy environment.
  2. All participants must have the program you are using (MS Teams, Zoom, Skype for Business, etc.) already installed and working on their computer.
  3. All participants must have access to a fast, stable internet connection.
  4. You need to clarify who has access rights to information, news and chat platforms, and ensure that these rights are securely implemented.
  5. You need to make sure that IT support is available when you need it.
  6. And you need to ensure that your meetings, as well as all data transfer and data storage, are protected from cyber attacks.

Once all six of these technical requirements are assured, you and the participants will be able to focus your full attention on the content of the meeting.

2. Making your expectations clear

A lack of clarity around expectations can create misunderstandings, diminish trust and often results in an unproductive use of time. For example, how often have you asked yourself: “Why am I at this meeting?” Time and time again in our training programs, we hear from both employees and managers who are frequently summoned to attend meetings in which they do not receive any important information, and are not able to make any significant contribution. To avoid this kind of pointless situation, we need to decline unnecessary invitations and ask the organizer to explain the purpose of the meeting.

But how can you personally contribute to assuring productive and reliable collaboration? Whether you are holding a meeting, starting the team on a new task or launching a new project, getting off on the right foot is critical for success. And, as many studies have shown, a physical meeting not only promotes positive momentum, it can also help to resolve a lot of frictions – simply by being together in the same room and getting attuned to each other. If pandemic restrictions, etc. conspire to prevent you from holding a kick-off meeting despite the need for extensive briefing, then careful preparation, implementation and debriefing become even more important. Plato, the Greek philosopher, puts it like this: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” That means:

  1. First of all, you need to choose exactly the right people to take part. For each attendee, you should know what added value they can bring to the meeting, or what benefit they will gain for their work. If you are unsure how much an individual will contribute to the meeting or benefit from attending it, talk to them before hand to clarify the issue.
  2. The goal of the meeting and your reason for calling it should be clear and transparent. In this regard, it helps if the meeting title and main agenda items are clearly defined in advance and included in the invitation. This not only provides clarity for all participants, it also promotes trust.
  3. To make the meeting more effective, every participant should be allocated specific preparation tasks in advance (research, preparing data, obtaining quotes, project outlines, status updates, etc.). For example, imagine we are working in an executive team where the secretary, on behalf of the CEO, reminds the members of their deliverables. This helps us to stay focused.

In a virtual team, a focus on good collaboration is especially important because the usual opportunities for informal exchange that we have in the physical office environment, e.g. conversations in the corridor or by the coffee machine, are simply not there. This can result in people missing out on information, giving rise to situations such as this: “I thought the other team was taking care of that job. ”That is why you need have individual conversations with your employees, and make sure they can answer the following questions:

  • What are my responsibilities?
  • What decisions am I competent to make?
  • What does my boss expect me to do, when do I have to do it by, what is the expected level of quality and what is the purpose?
  • What issues can my superior support me with? Where can I go to seek further support?
  • How can I get hold of my boss in an emergency? What’s the best way for my boss to contact me?

It is important to help your employees draw boundaries – especially if they are ambitious or overly conscientious. For example, if you find your emails are being answered late at night or on the weekends, it is vital that you make your expectations clear and explicit as to what situations require action outside of normal business hours, and what can wait until the next day. Otherwise you risk overworking your employees, which can lead to burnout.

3. Strengthening team cohesion and laying ground rules

The CEO of a medium-sized financial service provider, who has not yet met most of his team in person because of the Covid-19 lockdown, begins a virtual town hall meeting with a short tour of his private garden. This helps to create a personal atmosphere and a sense of intimacy before getting down to the business. What methods do you use to strengthen cohesion within your team despite the supposed digital barriers? Do you have chats about the ups and downs of working from home? Do you hold virtual coffee breaks, or virtual after-work drinks? Do you have a morning team huddle where everyone talks briefly about the most important issues facing them that day?

Taking a quick pulse check at the start of the meeting is a very effective technique. This is explicitly not about business issues, it’s about gaging the current mental and emotional state of your team members. You might, for example, approach it like this: “Before we get started with the business, I’d just like to hear how everyone is doing. I’ll go first.” A useful lead-in question for this might be: “What is on the top of your mind at the moment?” When moderating this warm-up round, it’s important to make sure that everyone is paying attention – no one should be sneakily checking their emails, or occupied with other distractions. You also need to encourage the participants to talk about their personal lives, as well as work-related issues. The art of moderating a successful pulse check is to ensure that everyone gets to speak, while nobody takes up too much airtime, so that everyone is able to get an idea of what the other team members have on their minds.

Especially in times of upheaval and uncertainty, simple rituals like the pulse check described above can promote team spirit and a sense of direction, and can help create stability and certainty.

Following a few simple communication rules can help provide greater clarity and make the meeting more effective:

  • Use the right communication channel for the situation:
    • For higher level planning, retrospective analysis, decision-making, etc.: video conferences
    • For explaining a task, addressing conflicts, individual development meetings: 1:1 in-person, telephone or video meetings
    • Technical questions or process-related issues: chat
    • Formal communication and updates: email
  • If there are frictions or if something is unclear, be proactive and talk in person to the people concerned.
  • In virtual team meetings, keep presentations as short as possible; plan more time for dialog rather than monolog. The more active the participants are, the more productive your meeting will be.

4. Empowering employees and promoting trust

The fourth factor for success relates to your own attitude: how much do I trust my employees? A current executive board member from a Trans-In client company reminisces: as a fresh-faced new graduate, he started out with an engineering job in a medium-sized company. His first boss proved to be his most important life mentor. Because during his trial period, the company won a contract for a project worth 5 million – and he was given full responsibility for managing it. His boss’ confidence that he was capable of doing this job (without any experience of project management, customer guidance, etc.) gave him the strength and self-confidence that he needed – not only to carry the project to a successful conclusion, but also to drive his career forward in a constructive direction.

Of course there are limits to trust and empowerment, for instance if employees misuse their positions to seek their own advantage. In the virtual context, there is even greater leeway between empowering your employees and giving them creative freedom, and holding them to account and demanding results. In this context we lack many of the small and larger indicators that enable us to make a coherent appraisal of a person’s behavior. The following questions help to give clarity:

  • What are the skills and experience that my employee can bring to this issue?
  • What certainties does my employee need in order to do an outstanding job?
  • What are the areas or tasks in which I could trust my employee to take on more responsibility?
  • What tendencies can tell me if an employee is withdrawing and not taking responsibility? In this case, how can I hold him/her to account more effectively?
  • What criticisms do I have of my employee? What do I want to see improve? What positive intentions can I depend on?
  • How can I support my employee in emotionally challenging situations?

In the 60s, American social psychologist Douglas McGregor contrasted the “X-type” personality (people who are reluctant to work and need to be extrinsically motivated) with the “Y-type” personality (people who are enthusiastic and intrinsically motivated). In the digital context, we would all be well advised to work on a developing positive, Y-type attitude. Not only does it make sense, it also helps you to work more effectively – and, at the end of the day, it makes life more enjoyable for everyone.

5. Seeking and offering feedback

We all find ourselves in organizations that are constantly learning and changing. Amidst all this movement and change, we simply can’t do without regular external feedback to help us gage our own performance. Without feedback, you have no means of assessing your effectiveness as a leader. This is where I ask the revealing question: “Can you think of a piece of feedback you have received which led you to change your leadership behavior?” Of course it takes courage to ask for authentic, critical feedback. But the research of Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in their publication “Thanks for the Feedback” shows that the key to constructive, successful feedback lies not so much in the feedback itself, but more in the recipient. As humans, we are driven in our behavior to hang on to the habits that have led to success in the past. On top of that, it is especially difficult for managers to ask for feedback – because after all, they are the people who are supposed to know what to do. So, if you are able to step outside yourself and critically compare your own self-image with the image other people have of you, this creates the best conditions for a productive learning culture. That is why this fifth success factor is extremely important, both for your own development and for the successful development of your company. We can identify different levels on which we need constructive feedback:

  • Achieving better quality: improving efficiency, ensuring services are customer-focused, clarifying interfaces, optimizing processes, leveraging synergies, eliminating redundancies, etc.
  • Evaluation: comparing expectations and results.
  • Leadership ability: setting clear goals and achieving them, clarifying expectations and responsibilities, etc.
  • Lifeblood of the corporate culture: making the vision a reality, strengthening a values-based approach, dealing with mistakes, etc.
  • Strengthening relationships: getting other people actively involved, accepting and offering personal exchange, actively switching between the objective and the relationship levels.
  • Personal development: comparing how you see yourself with how others see you, anchoring behavioral changes and uncovering blind spots.

A successful project manager whose role in the company management had just been redefined wanted to gain a coherent view of the qualities others see in him before making a final decision whether to accept the new position. For this purpose, during one of our workshops he actively asked his colleagues to describe his strengths and weaknesses. As result, he gained a stronger sense of personal direction, as well as a constructive role within the company as a whole. What feedback would help you to move forward? Who would you ask to give it? The more confident your employees are with giving you feedback, whether good or bad, and that by expressing criticism they will not risk losing their bonus or being given a negative appraisal, the more frequently they will be willing to open up and give you their honest opinion. This fosters a mindset focused on learning and development which will have a positive impact, both on the workplace atmosphere and on your reputation.

Useful links

Harvard Business Review (März 2020) A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers

Harvard Business Review (April 2020) How Managers Can Support Remote Employees

McKinsey (März 2020) A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China

IMD (August 2018) Leading virtual teams: 4 ways to increase engagement when your teams aren’t face-to-face