Wayne Turmel and Kevin Eikenberry wrote a new book, The Long-Distance Leader, with 19 rules for remarkable remote leadership. This interview focuses on the connections between long-distance leadership and employee experience & engagement based on the book. It is a cool book that will really help you bear the demands of leadership from a distance.
After all the research and writing that went into your new book, what most stands out for you?
I think there are two things that standout. First, only 28% of managers are worried that people are actually “working,” when they’re at home. The fear that people don’t work hard without their manager standing over them isn’t well founded and most people are coming to accept that.
The second thing is that most of the concerns managers have is about their own effectiveness. “Am I doing everything I should? Am I giving and getting the appropriate feedback when I’m not bumping into people in the break room or seeing them at meetings?” The amount of self-doubt and second-guessing that goes on is surprising and causes a lot of stress for people who are already under enough pressure.
What role do you see remote leaders playing in employee’s experience and engagement at work?
One of the themes of the book is that leading remotely isn’t THAT different from leading a traditional team. Managers must engage employees and create good working relationships. The challenge is that we must be more intentional about it. We can’t walk past someone’s cubicle and see them banging their heads on the monitor so we can ask, “is everything okay?”
As leaders, we must make sure we’re really getting a good sense of how engaged people are, both with their work and with their teammates. Whenever you have a coaching conversation (okay, first you have to HAVE coaching conversations) are you asking open-ended questions that allow you to get a sense of how people are feeling about their work, or are you simply focusing on task completion?
“How’s it going?” will just get you a one-word answer that may or may not tell you something useful. Asking, “what would make things better for you?” or “how can I (we) support you?” will help raise issues that can be addressed early.
What are the challenges of the remote leader to engage employees?
There are several, but when it comes to employee engagement, the number one factor is the nature of remote work itself. Many people like working at home, or at least away from the office, because they can “get more done.” In one sense, that’s true—studies show that people who work remotely are more productive. But what they’re working on is THEIR work and tasks. Collaboration, brain-storming and team commitments take a back seat. People control what they can control, which is themselves and their work.
One of the biggest challenges for Long-Distance Leaders is ensuring that employees understand the big picture; how their work impacts the company’s vision and that of their teammates. Then they should help create an environment where people are aware of what’s happening outside their own little bubble. What’s everyone working on? Where do their teammates need help and what resources can you offer the individual that will make it worth reaching out and building good relationships between them and the others on the team?
This stuff is critical, but rarely happens organically. It requires some structure (team building exercises, sharing information equally) to succeed.
Rule 11 in the book states “building trust at a distance does not happen by accident.” How do leaders build trust strategically at a distance?
Trust is built on three things over time: Proof that we share a common purpose or goal, proof of competence on both sides, and proof of positive intentions and motives. So much of what good leaders do happens by instinct and is based on subtle visual cues. We see someone in a meeting and say, “Oh, Sharon, nice work on that Jackson account.” We see them show up early or leave late, we can see them interacting with their co-workers.
When we work remotely, there is less visible interaction. Leaders need to create opportunities for the team to gather the supporting evidence that underlies trust. How do they know that Sharon is really good at her job? If Bob never contributes on team calls, how is anyone supposed to know that he’s really a subject matter expert on X?
By intentionally helping people gain visibility to the larger workings of the team and organization, you can build trust. If someone does a good job, don’t just tell them when you’re one-on-one, share it with the team. If someone asks you a question, direct them to Bob, because he knows more about that topic than anyone else.
What are 3 good questions good leaders can ask themselves to develop their remote leadership?
One of the models we use in the Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership is the “3-O Model,” So let’s take a question from each of the O’s.
Outcomes: If we start with the desired outcome for the organization there is a simple 2-part question to ask. “What is it that needs to be done, and if distance weren’t an issue, what would be the right way to tackle it?” Start with first principles. Under perfect circumstances, what would be the right way to address this question or achieve this outcome? From there you can figure how to do it virtually.
Others: What is the appropriate way to communicate with the others involved in achieving this outcome? Often our first choice for a communication tool isn’t the right one. If I need to coach someone, should that be a webcam call or an email? One is easier and less confrontational, but probably isn’t right for that circumstance.
Ourselves: What do I need to do in order to be more effective working at a distance? This one is tricky because we are used to putting ourselves and our needs last for the good of the team. Servant Leadership is honorable, and it can often mean we work hard and not smart. But if I’m not getting enough sleep, or I am intimidated by certain technology (and thus avoid using it… webcams are a good example) am I working with one hand tied behind my back?
In the book, you talk about leadership being a verb or action. Can you recommend 2 actions a leader can take to successfully engage her remote employees?
Only 2, huh?
Create opportunities for the team to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Share the spotlight in meetings, conduct “get to know you” exercises and delegate some of the work so that you create the chance for people to work with, and get to know, each other.
Don’t let work become strictly transactional. Too often we find outselves in a hurry, or not wanting to interrupt their “real work.” As a result, we focus on the task at hand and don’t take the time to get to know people and what’s going on in their world. Remember to take a moment to ask relationship-building questions about their personal lives, their families, and how they feel about their work. Write a note to yourself if you have to. When you’re eager to get a call done so you can move onto the next one, it’s easy to forget to build bridges.
Can you sum up some final words or encouragement or education to help remote leaders enhance their own engagement while having a positive influence on the engagement of all their remote employees?
Rule #1 for Remarkable Remote Leadership is: Think leadership first, location second.” If you stop and take a breath, your path is pretty clear. Think about WHAT you need to do as a leader, whether you’re in the same place or not. Then, given your circumstances, HOW can you be as effective as possible? The answers will become clear, even if the actions to achieve them aren’t your natural (or even first or second) instinct.
I think the book itself is quite remarkable and helpful for all of us who lead remotely. I highly recommend it and believe it will have a strong positive influence on the future of work as we accelerate into the year 2020. Thanks Wayne.
Thanks, David. Kevin and I are grateful for your support of the book.