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Leadership in the Remote Work Environment

Today, a set of questions came across my desk from a reporter for a high-tech magazine. It piqued my interest, so I provided some input and later decided to turn the content into a blog on the topic of leadership in the remote work environment. The fundamental questions were, “How does leadership need to evolve to support a hybrid workforce? What qualities do leaders need to lead effectively in a hybrid environment? How does succession planning have to change to prepare future leaders for long-term hybrid work?”

For some background, I was an early adopter of remote teams and the use of tools to run those teams. Looking back to 2001, I utilized Information Work Space (IWS) to run military operations teams during the second Gulf War. I have also led geographically dispersed teams, and sometimes globally dispersed teams throughout my career to date.

"How does leadership need to evolve to support a hybrid workforce?"

Be Intentional. The first principle of evolved leadership in this space is that you must be more intentional about your leadership. You cannot wander by the desks of your team, meet them for lunch, or start a discussion at the water cooler. A lot of in-person leadership happens at these venues. Although the regular one-on-one between supervisors and their direct reports has long been a part of the corporate lexicon led by companies like Procter and Gamble, this approach needs to be utilized effectively. In the remote work environment, it is vital to schedule regular one-on-one sessions with your direct reports. If you have not been using the one-on-one model to have frequent two-way conversations with your employees and coworkers, start now. For hybrid work environments, this is best planned when you are both in the office. If meeting face to face is impossible, then host them on your remote collaboration tool of choice (Zoom, Teams, et cetera). Overall, regular one-on-one sessions are key to steering your team in all kinds of work environments, but it is especially important to be intentional with your leadership when working remotely.

Turn on the camera. Turn on the camera. Turn on the camera. Set a policy that requires meetings to be held "Camera on." This drives more focus and engagement in the meeting, and less wandering off for the sake of multi-tasking. Many people do not like this―do it anyway. You are the leader. Years ago, while working at P&G, I insisted that my team (contrary to the norm) conduct our team meetings via collaborative software (Webex), and that everyone have their cameras on. This was the case even when the majority of the team was sitting in the same cubi farm in Cincinnati. When I left, one of our South American team members said to me, "This is the first time I have felt like I was a part of a team." Hosting team meetings that included them, in which they could see everyone, and everyone could see them, was a big part of developing that sense of belonging.

Drive periodic in-person meetings. This is particularly relevant for the 100% remote environment. If at all possible, bring teams together quarterly. Fly people in, meet, go to dinner, and conduct some planned in-person activities. Be deliberate and systematic with your team building exercises. This can be relevant for the hybrid workforce as well.

"What qualities do leaders need to lead effectively in a hybrid environment?"

The 5 C’s of Leadership. These are no different than the leadership qualities essential to an in-person work model. My personal philosophy can be boiled down to the 5 C's, but there are many other excellent lists and books that consider the same principle. 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are two of the best. My 5 C's are: Character, Competence, Courage, Communication, Caring. The fundamental principles of leadership are unchanged in remote and hybrid working environments. People remain people regardless of where they are, and as rapidly as technology may evolve, it is important to remember that people change at a much slower pace.

Character. There is no substitute for good character. Although I have called caring the most often overlooked, character is the trait most likely to merely receive lip service. Every corporate HR mantra touches on it, but once the box has been ticked, the principle often falls away in practice. Character is a muscle. You must use it to build it. This is no different than going to the gym. Sometimes you will fail, but be deliberate, and it will grow. The most important muscle you can apply to strength training is integrity. No other single workout can do more to enhance your personal success in life, or as a leader. The first step in this is acknowledging that character and integrity really are important. I honestly think that if more people truly understood that character and integrity (which are inextricably intertwined in my view) are pivotal aspects of professional and interpersonal success, we would be in a much better place. Truth counts. Integrity matters for you, for your team, your family, your business, and your country. Our entire society is founded on the principle of people with integrity. Far too many people in too many leadership positions have disregarded integrity for the siren song of expediency, and even discarded the concept as old-think. There is such a thing as truth, and it is important to tell it.

Competence. Know your job, your organization, your business, your industry. Be deliberate. Build competence in your field. If you chose a new field YOU must build competence in it. I often hear the cry, “I am not the expert.” This is an excuse. Why the heck not? And if you know you are not an expert in your assigned areas of responsibility what are you doing every day to grow that expertise? This of course does not happen overnight, but if every day you make the excuse to yourself “I am not the expert” then you will never become one. Dig in. Be a lifelong learner. Clearly, you cannot know everything about everything, and recognizing and surrounding yourself with people who know more than you, and appreciating them, is important. Always be questing. Always be working to learn more. Become the expert. In hiring people today in the Cyber field I have told many that your deep experience does not matter that much. I have met as many deeply experienced professionals who are as clueless as those brand new to the field. Cyber re-invents itself every 5 years. Start today. In 5 years you can be an expert, and in 1-2 years you can be fairly competent. This is not rocket science, and even if it was… start today. Be an expert.

Courage. Cowardice abounds. Don’t be a coward. Cowardice abounds. Don’t be a coward. Courage is not something that we talk about a great deal. It can be a muscle you grow. Every one has fears and concerns. Everyone has that thing… they would rather not do. Deep inside they are afraid. That will hurt. That won’t be fun. Take heart. Build courage. Put your game face on and step into the ring. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” Teddy Roosevelt. The place where I see a lack of courage regularly is in the “tough conversation.” Leaders often must have tough conversations with their teams. Accountability conversations, or just where you are going to give them news you know they will not like. Exercise courage. Failing to have the tough conversations hurts you, your team, and your organization.

Communication. Perhaps the shortfalls I see in this area fall into two categories. The first is courage. If you communicate, someone might not like what you say. True. And the larger your team the more likely that is to be true. Communicate anyway. The second shortfall area is often in volume and technique. Some people are natural communicators. Some, like me, are not. It is a skill that can be learned. The only way to get better is to do it. Honestly communicate with your team with courage. They need to hear from you regularly.

Caring. John C. Maxwell wrote in his 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership “Effective leaders know that first you have to touch peoples hearts.” The way to do that is by actually caring. Steve Covey said in one of his books, ‘Love is a verb, not a noun.’ It is something you do not something you have. Caring is something you do. Do it. Care about your people. It shows. Care about them as individuals with their own life, hopes, dreams, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses. They are NOT things to be manipulated, managed, and inventoried. (Hint for my DoD CMMC friends who made people "things to be inventoried" in the latest #CMMC scoping guide. Absolutely terrible move, and we will NOT be doing that in the companies where I have responsibility. People will be treated with respect as people. Not just another laptop with a bar code) Care about your people. It will show.

"How does succession planning have to change to prepare future leaders for long-term hybrid work?"

Do succession planning. First most leaders are not doing any succession planning now. This will not likely improve under hybrid conditions. As a result hybrid or not leaders should be considering succession planning as a vital part of their responsibilities. From a military perspective, this was called "Train your relief." Be deliberate (back to the first principle). Be looking to bring along the next generation broadly to prepare them for future enhanced leadership positions as your relief and elsewhere.

Focus on the top 20. It is even more important in the hybrid environment to deliberately focus your time on the 20% of people who are most productive, rather than the 20% of people who cause most of your leadership challenges. Focusing on the later is very easy. Beware of that trap and, back to that first principle, be deliberate about focusing your time as a leader on that top 20%. This is more challenging in the hybrid environment. Overall the hybrid/remote work environment is a case study in the 7P's. Prior proper planning prevents [pitifully] poor performance. Exercising good leadership in a hybrid environment requires a bit more planning but the underlying principles have not changed at all.


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