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What's Different When Leading At A Distance

In (important) ways, leading is leading, regardless of where you and those you lead are located. In all cases, as a leader, you are moving toward a goal, and are moving in the direction of that goal with and through the efforts of other people. And yet for all the ways that leadership is the same, there are nuanced differences that need to be understood and acted upon if you want to get great results and have people who feel good about their work and the working environment.

'Little hinges swing big doors' (a quote from W. Clement Stone) - this idea is a profound truth in life and applies directly to leaders of remote workers. This article is about some of those nuanced differences - differences that like a hinge, can make a very big difference in your results.What's Different When Leading At A Distance

  • Intentionality

    One of the things the proximity and frequent face-to-face interaction provides is the chance for serendipity. When you see someone in the parking lot or when you pass them in the hallway, you are reminded of and provided with opportunities to say or ask things of others - and they will have that chance as well. When your team member is in Sioux Falls or Singapore and you are in an office in South Jersey, none of that happens.

    As a long-distance leader, you must be more intentional about the things you want to share and need to share with your team members. You must also be intentional about providing time and space for your team members to share with you, too. Remember, they can't see your office door open, so they may not know you are available, or they 'don't want to bother you'. This is just one example of the need for greater intentionality as a leader at a distance - to be intentional about creating space for conversations.

    The need for intentionality extends to the other four ideas that follow too.

  • Communication

    When you are face-to-face with someone, you have the full complement of cues and clues to improve the chances for communication success. You have body language, posture, and the fullness of 'how people look' as they communicate with you. At a distance, unless you are using a webcam (which is recommended, but isn’t always practical), you lose the richness of the body language, and must rely on the words and the tone and intonation or 'how they say it' to receive the message. Of course, if you are only sending email, some of that is lost too. The bottom line is that when you are leading someone at a distance, not only might there be fewer chances to communicate, but the chance for miscommunication grows significantly. As a remote communicator, you must be aware of these risks and make sure you are using the best communication medium for the situation you are facing. Chances are, you need to move past email more frequently and more quickly than you might do naturally.

  • Coaching

    As a leader, you have a responsibility and opportunity to coach those you lead. It is a critically important part of your role. Doing it with a virtual or remote team member can be a challenge. Time must be set aside, care must be taken, and the communication challenges mentioned above must be considered.

    While most leaders don't do enough (or frequent enough) coaching to start with, this is typically truer when coaching remotely. While everyone wants to know how they are doing and how they can improve, often those working apart feel even more disconnected and are wondering how they are doing or how what they are doing is being used and appreciated by others. Long-distance leaders must take their coaching role more seriously and put that seriousness into action - by scheduling more coaching with their team members.

  • Clarity (the need for it)

    One of the biggest things missing in the workplace today is clarity. We need more clarity on the goals, the expectations, the policies and procedures, on nearly everything. Employees everywhere typically feel in the dark about more than one thing necessary for them to be fully successful, this means that those who are remote will be more oblivious than everyone else.

    Leaders must work hard at creating clarity on the work, the work outputs, and all of the expectations they have about how people work, when they work, and what success looks like.

  • Relationships

    The fact is, people choose to follow those they know, like and trust. Building 'knowing', 'liking', and 'trusting' is harder when you don't see people. Absence, at least in this case, rarely makes the heart grow fonder.

    Leaders of remote teams must spend more conscious time working to build their relationships and trust with those they lead. This is important work, made far more important by the distance.

    Do you know about your team members' passions and interests and family? Do you know where they want to go with their career and how they see you helping them? Can you both comfortably talk about more than just the work and the weather? If not, start here - it will start to help in the other areas mentioned here (and others unmentioned), too.

All five of these things are important as a leader of a team just outside your office door too; and yet, each takes on a different and more important meaning when you don’t see your team members regularly. If you are a leader of a team (or team member) at a distance, think about these ideas, determine which could help you improve, and get started. Notice that the first idea is intentionality. Get intentional, take action, and you will start to get new and better results.

Author Credits

Kevin Eikenberry is an expert in developing organisational and individual potential. The Kevin Eikenberry Group is a learning consulting company that provides a wide range of services, including training delivery and design, facilitation, performance coaching, organisational consulting, and speaking services. For more, visit his website at: www.kevineikenberry.com.

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