Wendy Rose: “Situational Leadership is a key skill in leading remotely”

It’s very easy for a sort of cultural imperialism to set in, so that it’s the same person or people going out of their way to accommodate the others; getting up extra early, working very late, being available on religious or national holidays for example. I would suggest being absolutely ruthless about doing everything possible […]

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It’s very easy for a sort of cultural imperialism to set in, so that it’s the same person or people going out of their way to accommodate the others; getting up extra early, working very late, being available on religious or national holidays for example. I would suggest being absolutely ruthless about doing everything possible to minimize anti-social working hours and to share those out when it’s unavoidable. Not to do so runs the risk of resentment building up.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Rose.

Wendy is a London, UK based leadership and executive coach specializing in working with senior leaders when they are experiencing the joys and paradoxes of personal, professional and organizational change. She has coached leaders from over 40 countries across 5 continents — many of them remotely. As an International Coach Federation MasterCoach with a background in psychology and over 20 years’ experience she is well placed both to share her own lessons of working remotely and of helping her clients to lead their dispersed teams successfully.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I did my first degree in History of Art and in my 20s worked as the private curator for a multi-millionaire art collector, shipping his Picassos around the world — from yacht to Swiss hideaway and back again — and being on-call 24 hours a day. In many respects it was my dream job. I was responsible for incredibly valuable and beautiful works of art I had only ever seen in books — and once slept with a Cezanne under my bed!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not very funny but a landmark moment for me….One night I was working late (yet again), responding to a last minute request (again) to check on something in his London penthouse (again) when the burglar alarm failed to set (again) meaning that the street would very soon be filled with police vehicles (umm yes — again). In that moment of all the alarms going off, I made a decision. I left by the back stairs and walked away from the flat, passed all the police cars converging, the sirens and the blue flashing lights — and went home. The next day I handed in my notice. I learned that however much someone is paid and however ‘wonderful’ the job appears, you cannot own an employee and the importance of respecting their private life. All people have their limits.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

As above. Being paid a lot, having a seemingly fantastic job doesn’t, in the end, make up for being treated with disrespect. Especially as an entrepreneur or CEO it’s important to recognise that everyone is motivated differently; what you’re doing is possibly less compelling to those who are further away from the senior leadership team.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

About 20 years of working remotely with my senior leader clients and of helping them work out what works for them and their teams.

Many of my clients have been leading dispersed team for many years across multiple geographies so there are the complex issues of different languages, time zones and cultures to navigate. Some of my experience flows from that and some from my own experience of being part of a geographically dispersed team for a global leadership development organisation.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

  1. It’s very easy for a sort of cultural imperialism to set in, so that it’s the same person or people going out of their way to accommodate the others; getting up extra early, working very late, being available on religious or national holidays for example. I would suggest being absolutely ruthless about doing everything possible to minimize anti-social working hours and to share those out when it’s unavoidable. Not to do so runs the risk of resentment building up. One of my clients was leading a team where the dominant culture was to work Monday-Friday. When he took on a new report based in the Middle East, his PA forgot to avoid Fridays when arranging team meetings — so often it’s about reminding all those involved, not just those obviously present in the meetings.
  2. Linked to above, it should be obvious (but is often not) that language is a hugely important factor. When there may be people working in their second (or even third) language perhaps with poor technology, a slow internet connection, images that freeze, people talking too fast or making in-jokes, it’s very easy for some on the team to feel excluded and find it harder to contribute. Tips? Speak slowly, simplify language, cut down on linguistic idioms, check frequently for understanding, use visuals, make sure eyes and mouths are visible for lip reading and validation. This is particular challenging in a virtual call because much of our body language is not visible and this means we have to work harder and ‘fill in the gaps’. It’s one of the reasons that zoom calls are so tiring. Remember to look at the camera — not at your image on the screen — and smile!
  3. Disengagement is a real problem when all the meetings are virtual. The good news is that there are several very practical things that leaders can do to increase engagement. When one person is ‘in charge’ (leading or managing) the power can very easily feel too much in one direction (ie on transmit) when the meetings are virtual. A simple way around this is to take it in turns to chair or facilitate the meetings. It’s good experience for team members, grows skills (and is therefore good for succession development) and encourages broader contribution. There’s no reason why the ‘leader’ of a team always has to lead. One of my clients was terrified to ‘let go’ in this way but, in fact, when she did she enjoyed being able to contribute to the discussion in a different way and found it liberating — plus it gave her insight into the facilitation skills of her reports which she wouldn’t otherwise have seen. I want to bring in the advice of one of my current clients here; Matt Spencer. Matt’s a highly experienced EMEA region MD and leader of remote teams — in his last position he was leading a team of 10 country managers all located in different locations. “At first I tried 1.5 hour Zoom meetings, which was half of time we would schedule if it was in person but the feedback from the team was not positive. I then read an article that concluded that most people using video conferencing don’t stay engaged for more than 40 minutes at a time. So my solution was to take the full agenda for the face to face team meetings and break it down into individual Zoom calls of 30 minutes each. I would then spread these calls across the entire month typically using Mondays and Fridays when most people were not travelling. I then ensured the 30 minutes was always adhered to. Anything that required more time would simply be taken off-line, often by a subset of the group. This approach made the calls much more punchy and succinct. And by having more, smaller, calls people were not just more engaged on each call but also the number of calls meant they saw and spoke to their colleagues every week instead of once a month. Working from home can be a lonely business for many people so by providing more opportunities to see and speak to colleagues can really help. In addition, I encouraged the team to attend each call but it was not made mandatory. I found this worked well and the team respected it. If you have the right people and you provide valuable content on each call then people will attend even when it’s optional. Recording the Zoom call is also very useful for those who are unable to attend.”
  4. Situational Leadership is a key skill in leading remotely. Being equal is not the same as being fair. Some of your team may love having more freedom and be very self-motivated. Others may be missing the office banter and the opportunity to pop into your office several times a day. Be alive to these differences and to the fact that it may change over time. Hands-off and remotely supportive will be effective when a report is experienced, competent and confident. If the situation changes, or what they are given to do becomes more complex or challenging, or if they’re feeling any sort of anxiety then be ready to flex your style and be more hands-on for a while until they find their flow again.
  5. Building trust is massively important for any successful team working remotely or otherwise. HBR published some interesting research recently indicating that managers working remotely are having a hard job trusting their teams: https://lnkd.in/gcfs-iQ . One fascinating statistic here is that while 36% of male managers reported having little confidence in their remote-working employees’ skills in the previous week, only 15% of female managers did. What could account for this difference of female managers appearing to trust their workers so much more than their male counterparts? Do an honest audit of your own trust levels for each of your team members and rate it on a scale of 0–10. Then ask yourselves some searching questions: Why do I feel uneasy? What do I trust and not trust them to do? Do they have the skills and resources to do what’s required of them at the moment? Have I been clear about expectations and timelines? Am I putting off having an honest conversation with them? Am I a bit of perfectionist and need to loosen my control? Have I been too hands-off and distracted? Do a gap analysis of where you rate each person on the trust scale now and where you’d like them to be. What’s in the gap and what action do you need to take to close the gap?

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

See above!

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

There are a handful of guidelines that work well when giving feedback whether co-located or virtual. The Center for Creative Leadership https://ccl.org has a useful tool for doing this called SBI:

Be Specific: ‘When you were presenting your report in this morning’s meeting…

Focus on the Behaviour: …..I noticed that you appeared to be reading from a script and your eyes were down rather than on the camera….

Name the Impact: ….as a result we didn’t have good eye contact with you and I thought your argument lacked impact as a result. Were you aware of that?’

Other things to bear in mind are:

  • Give feedback as close to the event as possible, don’t ‘save it up’ for a performance review.
  • Focus on the behaviour and its impact not on labelling the person (‘You’re always late….’ ‘I thought that was rude…’ etc)
  • Give 3x (some people say 5x) as much positive feedback as developmental — but not all at once!
  • Create a feedback-rich environment so that giving and receiving feedback isn’t a big thing, it’s just something that happens
  • Actively invite feedback on yourself so that you know how it feels
  • All feedback is subjective; it’s one person’s opinion and says as much about the feedback giver as the feedback receiver.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I would only advocate giving developmental feedback by email in two situations. Otherwise, verbal is far preferable.

  • Unless the feedback is part of a serious performance management process (in which case you may need to document correspondence).
  • Or it’s done with a very light touch ‘Thought your presentation wasn’t as strong as usual this morning — wondered if you were reading your notes as I couldn’t get eye contact with you. Your thoughts?’

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Yes, definitely talk about how you’re going to do it. Name the pitfalls and concerns. Don’t assume that it will all come right in the end given enough time and practice — it probably won’t! Talk about what best would look and sound like. Discuss, review, try things out. Have the courage to highlight what’s working and what’s not. Some may love it and some may hate it, so listen and be respectful and curious about others’ experiences. Mix up the nature and style of the contacts to replicate as closely as possible working together on site:

  • aim for some meetings that are formal with an agenda and actions
  • some that are informal and creative with brainstorming and blue sky thinking
  • some that are specifically to review how things are going and how people are feeling
  • some that replicate random watercooler moments (this is the most difficult to do remotely)
  • some that acknowledge positive business news and team successes
  • some that are purely non-work such as having a virtual lunch together, a meditation or yoga session, celebrating a birthday or doing the equivalent of a pub quiz,

Again Matt has some useful experience that’s relevant here and draws a distinction between managing the individuals and managing the team as a whole — both are needed. “The main challenge I found was in generating a close bond with each individual to the same level as is possible when you manage someone who you physically see every week in the office. In the latter you get much more facetime over coffee or a drink after work. The alternative was to have weekly calls but that was not very practical and would have felt like micro-management for them. Plus, my diary struggled to support 10 Zoom calls every Friday. I would try and communicate with the team members in other ways in between the fortnightly calls. For example, sending a quick message, via Slack or WhatsApp, to see how things are going and asking if they need any support, as opposed to messaging them because you need something from them eg their latest forecast.”

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

See above!

Plus, very many people are still in shock and that does strange things to us mentally, emotionally and physically. Psychologically it makes it hard to be optimally productive, think clearly, be creative and make decisions, so be kind, give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt, look after each other’s mental health. Pay attention to your intuition; if you feel uneasy about a colleague’s mental wellbeing don’t dismiss your feelings. Check in with them and ask how they’re doing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like people not to be afraid. I don’t mean that people should be reckless or commit crimes because they’re not fearful of the consequences. I mean that I think most of us hold ourselves back from being guided by our intuition and taking a risk, because we’re afraid of what people will think of us or what might happen. Because of that we stop ourselves from being the best version of ourselves. I don’t claim to have cracked this myself. Like most people, I’m a work in progress.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love this one by Apollinaire which is linked to the above point about how we hold ourselves back through fear of failure, judgement or rejection:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, We will fall!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

Guillaume Apollinaire

Thank you for these great insights!

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