Strategy, Innovation & Leadership LAB

Effective Leadership from Home

April 13, 2020
leadership-distance

Ten practical tips for leading at a distance.

‘In times of crisis, leadership is essential’
– this is a platitude we have all heard many times before. The question is how we should lead during this Corona Crisis, since many of us are sitting at home.  Plenty of advice is circulating on how to work at home, but little guidance seems available on how to lead from home. Therefore, let me give you ten practical tips on how to shepherd your teams at a distance.

As always, adapting your leadership approach to the new circumstances needs to start with a thorough understanding of the specific new leadership challenges you are facing. There are three key challenges that will affect how you need to lead:

  1. The Connection Challenge. You lead by influencing people and you influence by connecting and communicating as richly as possible. But sitting at home you are going to have fewer possibilities to interact. There are going to be fewer meetings, fewer brief encounters, fewer opportunities to walk around, wave and chat. At the same time, the interactions you will still have are going to be less rich, because communicating via (video)calls or email limits the transmission of important information such as feelings, intentions, doubts and resolve. Not meeting face-to-face narrows the bandwidth of communication, focusing on the exchange of facts and arguments that can be articulated in words, while reducing one’s ability to express emotions such as sympathy, hope, confidence and frustration. To make things worse, the people you are trying to connect with at home will often be distracted, by nagging children, sick relatives, empty cupboards and unstable wifi. These attention drains will not only make them less focused in the moment, but also more exhausted in the longer run.

effective leadership

  1. The Change Challenge. You and your team are in a new situation that will require all of you to change your behavior. That will not be easy. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it requires a lot of work. It starts with the fact that the changes you need to make are not of your own choosing, but are thrust upon you by the circumstances. You and your team probably don’t feel you are improving, but only coping – hesitantly accepting the suboptimal new way of working, but missing the good old days. Yet, the longer it takes to deal with the loss of the old and fully embrace the potential of the new, the more difficult the change will be. At the same time, learning new behaviors will be frustrated by old habits and routines, compounded by the fact that it is often not entirely clear which new behaviors will actually be most effective. Still, you will be under time pressure to change as quickly as possible.
  2. The Uncertainty Challenge. Your task as leader has always to guide people through uncertain circumstances, but the perceived level of uncertainty is currently much higher than before the start of the crisis. Until recently, you and your team were dealing with uncertainties such as the level of economic growth, customer acceptance of novel products and the impact of new technologies, but these are all issues you have dealt with before. You were uncertain about the outcome, but less uncertain about how to tackle them. That is now different. None of us have dealt with a Corona Crisis type calamity before. That creates an unclear situation, in which you and your team don’t thoroughly understand the nature of the problem. It also means you don’t have a fixed set of potential actions you can fall back on – the possible solutions are unknown. At the same time, your team will sense that there is a high risk of things going wrong and your organization being negatively impacted. All this together will have triggered a high level of anxiety in your team, but probably also in you.

Ten practical tips for leading at a distance

Given these challenging conditions, here are ten practical suggestions how you can adapt your leadership approach to have the highest possible impact from home:

  1. Enrich your communication. To bridge the physical distance and avoid potential miscommunication, you will want to enrich your interactions as much as possible. So, avoid narrow bandwidth channels like email in favor of videoconferencing, communicating often and on a regular basis. Sending a short confirmation email afterwards, to summarize key points, can also help to prevent miscommunication.
  2. Strengthen your connections. Besides the actual physical distance, your team might experience more psychological distance from you, as you are busy and might be difficult to read. So, make sure to connect at the human level, showing interest in their difficulties, worries and hopes, while also sharing your own. It takes more time and explicit effort to maintain a close relationship from home.
  3. Enhance team interactions. As you struggle to keep up communications from home, you can easily resort to ‘hub-and-spoke interaction’, with everyone only speaking to you individually. So, ensure that there are also plenty of opportunities for team interaction, to exchange information, brainstorm together and coordinate actions. It will have the added benefit of strengthening your team spirit and confidence in each other.
  4. Stimulate team learning. Learning new ways of working from home and new ways of communicating at a distance, is not a straightforward process of implementing new procedures. All new ways will need to be developed on the fly – it will be a matter of learning-by-doing. To speed up this learning process, you can stimulate your team members to exchange insights and ‘best practices’.
  5. Facilitate team change. The longer you and your team members have worked in the old ways, the more deeply embedded will be the existing routines, and the more difficult it will be to change your ways of working. This will undermine people’s confidence that change is possible. So, you need to challenge and encourage people to accept the frustration of practicing new behaviors, constantly giving them constructive feedback.
  6. Face the brutal facts. Your team members will not be inclined to go to all the trouble of changing their ways of working if they are overly optimistic that everything will go back to normal in a few weeks. So, while remaining positive about the long run prospects of reverting to face-to-face interaction, you will want to emphasize that working as a virtual team is a reality that will be with us for a long time.
  7. Emphasize the adventure. With all the inherent uncertainty, your team will be in need of some confidence that the journey will eventually end well. There will be pressure on you to name the ‘final destination’ and explain the steps necessary to get there. Don’t give in. Instead, emphasize that the team is on a voyage of discovery together. The destination is unknown, but you trust the crew and look forward to the adventure.
  8. Emphasize the opportunity. Naturally your team will see many risks in working virtually, not to mention all of the challenges in the outside world. While largely true, you need to focus your team on seeking out opportunities as well. Moreover, your response doesn’t have to be perfect, for as long as you adapt faster than your competitors, you have the potential of coming out of the crisis ahead them.
  9. Emphasize the stakeholders. As you all face the uncertainties outside and physically isolate yourselves at home, it is easy to succumb to inward-looking behavior. Yet, this is a crucial moment to be there for your customers, suppliers and partners, instead of worrying about yourselves. So, you will want to mobilize your team to focus on serving others, which in itself will give them a stronger sense of purpose and pride.
  10. Stimulate broader leadership. Last, but most importantly, leading at a distance works best when your team doesn’t meekly follow, but steps up to proactively take responsibility for initiatives and team wellbeing. So, you will want to stimulate your people to rise to the challenge and also exhibit leadership. This will strengthen the team in the short run and help grow leaders for the organization in the future.

All of the above should enhance your ability to lead from home now, but are good practices to keep up even after the Corona drama will have passed. ‘Never waste a crisis’ is again a useful motto to keep in mind when considering all the things you could improve.

Ron Meyer is Professor of Strategic Leadership at TIAS School for Business & Society, Tilburg University and at Antwerp Management School, University of Antwerp. He is also Managing Director of the Center for Strategy & Leadership. He writes a monthly blog, Meyer’s Management Models: Insightful Tools to Kickstart Your Thinking (www.c4sl.eu/publications), for which this is an extra edition.

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