Everyone that has been managed or led from a distance might recognise this: either you are happy because nobody is looking over your shoulders, or you are unhappy because you have no one to directly appreciate what you are doing. As a manager or leader you might have the same challenge. Either it is easy because people at a distance are more or less forced to work independently, or you are bugged by time delays, local managers or colleagues that have more influence on your employees, misalignment with other people in the team that are more in the direct physical space than you are, or simply the challenge of not being able to motivate or get credibility as a manager or leader so that your staff members perform to your expectations.
Remote leadership challenges
Remote leadership is a growing concept in global economies, global company structures and matrix structures. Companies create structures for some security or efficiency reasons, and then create the org chart to govern the performance. The challenge for global leaders is to lead from a distance—from a physical distance. This immediately rules out continuous physical and face-to-face contact: things like a quick meeting, a hello, a chat at the coffee machine, a chat about how you feel, and a continuous appreciation for and proof of how time is filled and how results are achieved (or not). And yet everyone treats this as if it is a small hurdle or challenge that just requires some more Skype calls. Wrong! Remote leadership has to be tackled as something way more serious upfront. It has to be guided, mentored, coached and trained. Usually this is partially done only after the damage —like a lack of motivation, a lack of performance and a lack of results— has already been done. It is then we realise that remote leadership is the ultimate test of style flexibility and that we should put at least twice as much effort into human contact for the relationship to work, in order to achieve the desired results.
Remote leadership has at least three aspects that need to be trained: 1. Rapport and intense personal relationship building through various ways; 2. Appreciation and the ability to really facilitate motivation in someone; and 3. Influence and leverage, including stakeholder management of local, informal influencers.
Rapport with your staff at a distance starts by realising that you need to have a very strong personal relationship for the work relationship to be effective. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you become friends, but it does mean that you are able to fully understand who someone is, what their drivers are, why they are on this planet, why they are in this job, why they are in their relationship, how their family is supporting them, and most of all how the two of you connect at various levels: in mind-set, beliefs, norms/values, culture, emotionally, in behaviour, in communication, and in interests and hobbies. The only way to really get things done better is to have a very strong, informal personal relationship and faith in each other. This relationship is based on full trust from the start. There is a simple reason for this. When you cannot see each other daily, physically and intuitively, the first channels of input are usually email, phone, and sometimes a Skype call. For this relationship to work from both ends, you need a lot of trust. And that sometimes comes slowly— it takes time. But this is time that you need to work on, invest. This is not time spent sitting and waiting for the relationship to work by itself, or to work because of hierarchy or formal positions. Remote leadership starts with a leader that really wants to connect with someone at a distance. If that willingness is not there, the process is going to be painful and the results will be disappointing to disastrous. Investing in trust through building a really personal relationship requires willingness, ability and repeated efforts that go beyond what you do for your regular staff member in the same office building. You need to start thinking about efforts that require 5 to 9 times more input than your average nearby relationship. Trust brings more trust and great results. And this is work!
Appreciation and motivation are the second main aspects to work on as a remote leader. The motivation for someone to go beyond 100% depends on many factors. But one thing that stands out in many experiences that we have had in our careers in HR and Learning and Development is that people usually don’t stay for a job, but stay for a leader. Obviously the type of job plays a role, but that is usually a given. Much more important is the influence of a strong leader that is able to facilitate motivation through a strong “WHY”. Everyone motivates themselves, but a strong why provides them a reason to stay in the job they like and are good at. When a leader is able to explain the intentions and whys for the company, for the team, for the service, for the job and for the person, that person will show more loyalty and motivation that he or she would do without that strong why. With a lack of a strong inner why, people usually move onto the next job, the next company or the next manager. When you have a strong leader with a strong why that appeals to a person’s inner why, you have motivation; a motive for action. And that brings results, and most of all work pleasure. When the trust is there too, there is mutual input on direction, performance and process.
Why is it that so many people have followed global leaders in the past? Some of these leaders were considered good, and others bad. But the leaders had tons of followers: people that were inspired by them; people that followed the dreams of other people, simply because it related to their dreams, to their motivation, to their intention of being in this world, or to a strong need they had at that moment. A remote leader needs to have a strong why and needs to be the CIO, the Chief Intention Officer, or whatever name you want to give this. He or she also needs to appreciate what people on the other side of the world are doing, who they are, and what results they are producing. The remote leader needs to pay attention to appreciation, reframing the motivation frame to make it more intense, including compliments, appreciation, intention alignment and ensuring trust is maintained despite the distance. Again, this needs much more work. In fact, when people talk about spans of control, remote leaders may need to double their FTE count for one remote colleague, or double their efforts—which in the end gives the same result.
Lastly, the remote leader needs to be able to influence. Strong influencing skills are required to be able to have more credibility, authority, and leverage towards various stakeholders. What is often forgotten is that when people have a remote leader, they by definition lack certain human needs that need to be fulfilled and are by definition influenced by people who spend more time around them: local managers like country managers, former managers before the matrix or organisation restructuring, or simply colleagues from another department or the same department who are closer by. A remote leader must be able to influence all of them, because it is fairly easily for your staff members to take direction, doubt, or even orders from someone that is physically closer to them. Even with a longstanding history of trust, there is a risk that people start to change loyalty for small things or big tasks. They just do some extra stuff for a local manager or start to slow down a project in order to keep their job, out of fear for their own job, credibility or career.
A remote leader should be able to have influence through formal and informal channels. Both are important in order to get influence. Influencing can be done through principles of rapport, authority, social proof or reciprocity. Remote leaders should be trained, coached and experienced in top influencing skills in order to protect their employees at a distance from influences within the company that are more local, in order for their team to perform well. That requires networking and travelling as well. Remote leaders should keep fighting for their tools and budgets such as travel budgets, should keep protecting their team so it can stick together and maintain its governance structure, and should implement all their inclusion skills in every meeting, Skype call, and project start. Without inclusion principles in behaviour, in meetings and in motivating others, your employees at a distance are just employees on the org chart and nothing more. Fighting for this influence, both formally and informally, requires experience, intuition, vision and a very strong desire to get to know people, their drivers and how you can leverage these.
Everything is a negotiation in the good sense of the word, and the enjoyment should be in the process, since this is a continuum. A remote leader is someone that is able to influence any other country manager, matrix manager or colleague in a way that has the optimal style flexibility and cross-departmental credibility. In negotiations and relationships you should be able to be the good cop or the bad cop, in an excellent way. You need a level of rapport that makes you likeable to most people, even though, overall, one third of the people in this world will like you, one third won’t like you, and the remaining third won’t care.
Rapport skills should be at a level that you are likeable by most, even though one third of the people in this world like you, one third don’t like you, and the remaining one third don’t care. As a remote leader your levels should go up in a way that have power in the good sense of the word, and that puts the word manipulation into a perspective where everyone in this world is doing it with great intentions. Most of all, this should happen in a way that the integrity is kept and trust is strong—trust through rapport, appreciation and influencing.
What it boils down to is remote leadership through rapport, appreciation and influencing. Sooner rather than later, remote leadership will come into a new creative field that will make all former leadership books and models sound like amateurs.