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Remote leadership: making long distance work

Being an impactful leader requires paying attention not only to effective management, but also to effective relationship building. Good management stems from the physical contract between you and your team; the actual undertaking of the task. The psychological contract, however - how we are with each other - deserves equal commitment, and it is from this that powerful relationships are built. How well do you really know your team?

As a remote leader, the need to concentrate on the psychological contract is amplified, as the ability to build a good relationship face to face is minimised. You might be an Operations Director leading multiple construction sites where site teams are local, but you are based in a headquarters. How do you build a mutually respected partnership if you only see your team four times a year, know nothing about them as people, what makes them tick, and what motivates them?

Technology can go far in helping to maintain relationships, and remote leaders should take advantage of this. But alone, technology is not enough; the leader has to practice their behaviour more. The first, and most important, part of this is ensuring people really feel listened to.

Whilst this may seem obvious, often leaders are not as tuned in as they should be. It is important to create a more disciplined setting for listening. This could be simply checking yourself, to be sure you are in listening mode. Or, it could be shutting a window to cut out traffic noise, or turning your mobile to silent.

Sharing the same environmental experience is also crucial. There should be no exceptions to this - if the person on the other end is sat at a quiet desk, you shouldn’t be on the move in the car, or with a group gathered around a phone. A shared environment creates more intimacy for listening. If you appear distracted, people will not be convinced you’ve really heard them.

Remote leaders need to use interaction more effectively, and ask meaningful questions. In business, we have a tendency to follow a conversational routine that is entirely task-focused. The ‘hello’ is followed by the trivial and almost mechanical ‘how are you’, and then we instantly move on to the task. Not only does this fail to show genuine interest, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Each conversation should be personalised and allow time for meaningful exchange – so if you ask “how are you?”, then be sure to ACTUALLY hear it.

Being present virtually, and truly paying attention, is instrumental in building connection remotely. Leaders who have crafted this practice find that it also allows them to maximise face to face interactions with their team – as if being remote didn’t matter at all. Ultimately if you want to lead effectively, you need a sense of the personalities and the culture that makes up the organisation – so pay attention to, and work, your psychological contracts.

Virtual Working

Question - How “Present” are you really?

Steve Holliday
Leadership & Organisational Change Specialist, Lacerta Consulting Services Ltd