I wrote previously about the challenges inherent in the common contemporary dynamic of leaders and their followers often working together without being co-located (see “Does Distance Leadership Beget Virtual Followership?“). How do we follow well amidst the temptations and challenges of laboring out of site of our superior (and our colleagues)?
This question also needs to be examined from the other side of relationship: what can distance leaders do in order to facilitate following with excellence? What are the unique challenges and opportunities that they can address in order to make the most of being remote?
A first question may be: what do distance followers need? Truly, the necessary inputs from a distance leader are no different from those needed from the one that sits in a chair just down the hall. As always, followers need trust, communication, and feedback. They need assistance with accessing resources and the removal of roadblocks.
But how does a leader provide and nurture these things from a distance? We’ll look at these facets across a multi-part series of blog posts.
Consider trust. Often times, trust is established and maintained through shared experience, seeing each other in action, observing the alignment of one’s words and deeds. Responsibilities reliably (and excellently) fulfilled, integrity, honesty…all of these things, once acknowledged, contribute significant deposits into the leader-follower joint account of trust at Fidelity Bank.
But how do you engage honesty and integrity at a distance? For me, no situation of distance leadership-followership will be optimal without opportunity to occasionally be face-to-face.
I’ve just returned from annual meetings with my colleagues and boss (hence my recent silence on this blog)…all of us spread across an entire continent. Although we have very regular conference calls, the opportunity to be in a room together for 3 days of discussions (as well as sitting around the lunch & dinner tables) brings out a level of honesty, understanding, and relational connection that is essential for us to function well the other 51 weeks of the year. Coupled with occasional in-person visits with my boss, and a few other working group/project connections with my peers each year, and we’ve been able to encounter adequate sustenance for our distance dynamic to continue to provide a healthy and effective working environment.
I have also experienced the other scenario: a lack of regular face-to-face connection. Moving once from a co-located situation to a distance one, where the result was not seeing my boss in person for a year, gave me the experience that, although a level of friendship was able to be maintained, the working dynamic wilted. We didn’t have the regular flow of connection, the just-in-time correspondence, that enabled me to meet and anticipate needs.
Some of this will be impacted by personality preferences; some people are more geared toward maintaining relationships (even at a distance), while others gravitate to a de facto “out of sight, out of mind” pattern. If you have a preference for written communication, or a special enjoyment in talking on the phone, maintaining meaningful relationship across miles and time zones will be easier for you.
If you have a crisis-oriented personality (or role), then whatever is right in front of you is most likely to get your (excellent) attention, and off-site relationships will be engaged only when they develop a crisis of their own (or when your task app reminds you to check-in with them!).
Another essential element of establishing trust at a distance is asking, and answering, specific questions. Distance followers may be out of the information loop at time, so be forthcoming with organizational news and ensure that off-site isn’t last-to-know. Be responsive when followers ask you questions. Connecting at a distance may be somewhat rare, and a hardship to organize, so when calls take place, or when emails finally get replied to, be sure to reply to what your followers are soliciting from you without assuming what they do, or should, know. If they get any sense that you’re holding back during one of these precious interchanges, trust will suffer.
At the same time, your intentionality in asking specific questions of your followers will help you to develop trust in them. Checking in on task accomplishment, goal achievement, morale, challenges, interpersonal dynamics (which are no less important, but often far less obvious, when everyone isn’t co-located), stewardship/use of resources, health and pacing—and then listening to, taking note of, and acting on their answers—provides a depth of connection and opens real opportunities for you to apply your leadership position toward overcoming hurdles and creating opportunities for your followers.
As always, the creation and nurturing of trust is intertwined with communication. We’ll explore a distance leader’s opportunities to enhance excellent followership through communication challenges in Part 2 of this series.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).
Links to other posts on this site: Blog Post Index