Smart working will increasingly resonate with smart leadership in the future. This view is shared by Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, and Kevin Eikenberry, one of the world’s best-known executive coaches. In a book published pre-pandemic, yet turned best-seller during the COVID-19 crisis, the two researchers outline the traits of a new management figure: the long-distance leader.
Literally, a leader from a great distance. A figure who has become essential for the survival of companies and corporations toiling in an increasingly hybrid and agile environment hinging upon the formula of ‘smart enough, present only when needed’. What sort of characteristics and skills should a remote leader have?
Such questions are increasingly being raised in the labour market. Companies now realise the emerging strategic importance of the ability to lead teams comprising people working in different cities or countries, often in different time zones, but also teams in which only a few share the ‘old’ physical workspace. A space that has also become residual in strategic terms.
The disruption triggered by the 2020 global lockdown has also induced a deeper understanding of the concept of leadership itself. Leadership which, today, can be refocused on the so-called Three-O Model for effective leadership of remote teams.
The Three-O model consists of: Outcomes, Others and Ourselves. Every ‘good leadership’, i.e. every functional leadership, must factor in this three-pronged approach to effectiveness without neglecting the interrelationships between the individual components of the three O’s themselves. In other words, a remote leader can only achieve lasting and important results if he or she is aware of others, pays attention to their needs, and at the same time manages to build an “us” despite the distances and technological tools used by team members to relate, not only to each other, but also to suppliers and customers.
Things look fairly simple when everyone is working remotely. Things become more complicated when hybrid, only partially dislocated teams are formed. A remote team, Kevin Eikenberry has explained on several occasions, is in fact a group in which at least one member does not work in the same place as the others. All it takes is that single element to derail the old models of communication, relationships and shared choices. In a nutshell: the old leadership no longer works.
In both hybrid and full remote working environments, the new remote leaders believe that results are the key. Results expressed according to the acronym ‘SMART’, i.e: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-driven. For teleworking, measurability and feasibility (the realistic aspect of the results) are the most critical elements, according to Turmel and Eikenberry.
“A realistic goal, Turmel and Eikenberry explain, reaches the limit of what we think is possible. However, a plan can always be created to make it achievable”. The remote leader has the skills to create that plan. It all depends on at least four factors:
- past performance (“if last year one member of your team completed four improvement projects, another five or six might be realistic, but perhaps not ten”);
- the level of trust (employees with low self-confidence lower the threshold of achievable goals);
- the learning curve (the bar should be raised on the most recent performance, not on overall performance, because this is the only way to assess incremental improvements);
- the team’s worldview: a shared vision has always been the primary catalyst in every change. Yet at a distance, it becomes a crucial, if not vital, binding force.
A remote leader will always succeed in improving the team’ s performance by managing its complexity. How? Through a series of rules, which during the pandemic also proved invaluable in averting two of the most recurrent organisational pathologies in highly advanced contexts: individual burnout and strategic team overload. Turmel and Eikenberry list some of these rules. Rules which should become a must for every remote leader:
- think leadership first, then place;
- accept that managing at a distance means managing differently;
- understand that teleworking changes interpersonal dynamics, even if you don’t want it to;
- use tools and technology effectively, otherwise the tools and technology will use you.
Ultimately, Wayne Turmel and Kevin Eikenberry conclude, leadership itself has not changed much. However, the subjects have changed (i.e. the second and third ‘O’s’: Others & Ourselves) and, above all, the expected results have changed (the first ‘O’: Outcomes). It’s all about “doing the same things, but in a different way”, understanding the need for a paradigm shift from a “colocated mindset” to a “remote mindset” of leadership, where “remote” and “effective” are fast becoming synonyms.