How to Cultivate Remote Leaders - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How to Cultivate Remote Leaders

How to Cultivate Remote Leaders

By Jody Greenstone Miller


Because we’re working in a new age, and it’s time to adapt.

By Jody Greenstone Miller

Jody Greenstone Miller is the CEO and co-founder of Business Talent Group.

Work is about more than face time. Thanks to telecommuting, flextime and virtual collaboration, the days of employees being expected to show up all day, every day are long gone. Last year, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, and 31 percent of employees worked outside the office four to five days, up from 24 percent just four years ago.

While positive on many levels, work fulfillment, which requires renewed challenges and growth, can be harder to ensure for remote workers. So how can we effectively manage remote workers and provide the mentoring and development to help them grow into real business leaders?

The good news is that many answers are already close at hand. In fact, you might say they’ve been waiting for us to appreciate them for years. That’s because managing remote workers is a lot like managing your parents — they’re mostly brilliant, sometimes frustrating and always full of potential. Consider the following:

It Wouldn’t Kill Ya to Visit

This may seem obvious, but you need to be present in someone’s life to cultivate a relationship. Tools like Slack, Gchat and Trello are helpful for maintaining momentum — and serving as a virtual watercooler — but you’ll need to see and hear your remote mentees in person before you can build a relationship. And that’s important, because it sets a foundation for everything else that happens at a distance.

… it’s easy to misunderstand someone’s intent when you are not talking face-to-face.

At BTG, the company I co-founded and where I serve as CEO, almost 50 percent of our senior management work remotely. In-person events often feel like high school or college reunions, with people being thrilled to see each other. Stanford professor Pam Hinds’ research suggests that these good vibes also make us more productive. Bringing remote teams together for occasional in-person meetings helps boosts relational coordination, responsiveness, respect and problem-solving — even after they return home.


Give Them Space

Nobody likes a micromanager! More to the point, no one does their best work when someone questions their every decision … or their ability to choose the path that’s right for them. So go ahead and let people know what you need them to deliver, then trust their judgment and get out of the way.

Don’t Panic

When someone’s not in front of you, it’s easy to construct morbid fantasies about the mistakes they’re about to make. If you’ve dropped out of touch for a while, does it mean something bad has happened? Does an offhand comment mean someone’s trying to undermine the company’s strategic direction, or are they surfacing a well-intentioned concern? At BTG, we remind people to “assume positive intent” — to assume, even when a co-worker seems to be making a mistake or dropping the ball on a critical task, that we are all working toward a shared goal.

Of course, there are times when good intentions are not enough. That’s when you need to take active steps to make peace before the rumors turn dark, mostly by picking up the phone and speaking candidly about what’s causing the tension.

Operate on a Need-to-Know Basis 

In business and in life, it’s usually best to be frank. That’s not to say there aren’t times when you should selectively edit the details. If straightforward feedback about, say, someone’s communication style will help them be more effective at their job, go ahead and say something. If you know they’re just going to worry when you admit you were out past 3 a.m. … you might keep that to yourself.

Start a Book Club

Almost all business leaders are avid readers, and there’s now a growing body of literature about how to make remote work work. Start with Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Hansson’s Remote: Office Not Required, a book that offers advice to help both managers and employees collaborate successfully. Virtual teams expert Hassan Osman’s Influencing Virtual Teams contains psychological tips for increasing employee engagement. And David Rock’s Your Brain at Work leverages cutting-edge scientific literature to help readers improve their focus and productivity.

Reading these books gives you a chance not just to learn from the experts, but to facilitate important conversations with your mentees about collaboration, teamwork and more.

Use Selective Hearing

We all say things we regret. What’s more, it’s easy to misunderstand someone’s intent when you are not talking face-to-face. So when one of your remote employees speaks out of turn — or seems to — do yourselves both a favor and don’t hold a grudge.

Operating at a distance means you have to think a little harder about how to make things work than you would in a traditional office environment. So if you’re trying to help your remote managers develop and grow their skills and blossom into the remote leaders you know they’re capable of being, make sure they know that you’ll always be there when they need you. Then stand back and let them do their thing.

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