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3 Guiding Principles for Leading Remote Teams

As the Covid-19 crisis has swept across the globe, many teams are quickly pivoting to remote work and collaboration. At ConantLeadership, our small but hearty team went from being a close-knit group of contributors who are accustomed to seeing one another in the office every day to a group who works from the safety of our own homes overnight.

Hearteningly, in a time of great uncertainty, we are finding ways to manage the complexity, preserve our camaraderie, and continue to get work done in a timely way. It’s a learning process. While we’ll continue to course-correct and adapt on-the-fly, there are three guiding principles for leading remote teams that have served us well in recent weeks. Perhaps they will be helpful to you too.

Honor People

At ConantLeadership, honoring people is at the core of our entire suite of leadership behaviors. It’s about listening. Without first demonstrating to people that you value their perspective and specific situation, it will be difficult to compel them to value the agenda of the enterprise—in times of prosperity or uncertainty.

This is a crucial guiding principle right now. As people’s lives have been suddenly upended, their routines have drastically changed in new and stressful ways. Many employees are now working from home with young children in the house who require home schooling and care (myself included), others may have spouses who are suddenly finding themselves out of work reducing their household from two incomes to one, some may have family members who become sick or may even get sick themselves, and an overwhelming number of workers are now managing untold anxiety and even grief about a unique threat that requires precautions that are unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s a lot. But work still needs to get done.

Leaders must listen carefully to their teams and adapt, proceeding with a “people first” approach.

Things that are working for us:

  • Honor people with your time and attention (to whatever degree is feasible within your own hectic, new daily life). Let people know you are available to them for check-ins and communicate when you will be on email or looking at slack or basecamp.
  • Create flexibility around people’s schedules – especially those with young children in the home or elderly parents living with them. Be responsive to team members individual situations and collaboratively develop new systems that allow space for this new paradigm.
  • Lead with listening. Allow and encourage candor. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Assume good intentions. It’s best to regard your team with respect rather than suspicion as a default.

Overall, at ConantLeadership, we believe leaders must be both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. To influence your team effectively and get stuff done, the “honor people” principle is paramount.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

When the daily connection of face-to-face contact is severed, it’s important to show your team you are still paying attention. It’s helpful to implement practices that allow for increased communication—both with your team and with whomever you report to as the leader too.

We have a saying at ConantLeadership that “clarity is next to godliness.” People need to know which way to go; there must be clarity about the shared direction of the enterprise. As the routines and structures that allowed for that direction to be expressed regularly in-person are collapsing, it’s wise to implement new routines so the message doesn’t get muddied or lost.

Here are some ideas:

  • Daily team check-ins. We have implemented a daily 10AM zoom call so everybody can see the familiar faces of their colleagues. These check-ins are crucial to keep us on track with work tasks and goals. But equally as important, they provide an opportunity for leaders to see how everybody is doing on a personal level (see principle one).
  • Daily check-ins with the “big boss” (or bosses). It’s important to stay connected with your boss too. It gives you an opportunity to continue to talk about and express the high-level direction from the executive level to the team and keep a free flow of information going in every direction—up, down, and sideways.
  • Expand your technology repertoire. Of all the times in history for a pandemic to render us all remote, this era is the best equipped to support it. The amount of tools to facilitate team communication is limitless. We use zoom for check-ins, slack for messaging, and basecamp for project management with our third party vendors. Some of these we were already using but are using them more (zoom) and some are new to us (slack) but they have all been useful. Use technology tools. They work.

Think of this as the over-arching idea: When complexity increases, communication must increase relative to the degree of complexity. What can you do to increase and enhance your communication practices? Do that.

Grow or Else . . .

Our Founder, Doug Conant, writes in his new book The Blueprint:

“The rapidly changing business environment is competitive and unforgiving. What is tried and true today may be obsolete tomorrow. What is innovative this week may be passé the next. That’s why the best leaders, and organizations, understand that they must either grow or die. It’s a Darwinian world. The competition is fierce and unrelenting. The pressures are unceasing. How can you keep up? If you are not constantly evolving, you are withering toward obsolescence.”

He wrote this before a pandemic raged across the world, with the following close to the paragraph, and it’s even more salient now:

“As a leader, you owe it to your stakeholders to use every tool in your arsenal to remain vibrant and competitive, to thrive in the face of adversity, and to deliver high performance in an enduring way.”

This has to be the guiding idea for every business. And now, we are being forced by circumstance to bring this idea to life. We think of it as an opportunity (albeit it not an ideal one).

With restraints on what is possible, creativity has to blossom to work around the obstacles. Many business are quickly adapting. Gyms are shifting to virtual workouts, therapists are transitioning to telehealth sessions, learning and development companies are finding ways to create virtual experiences. At ConantLeadership, we’re brainstorming ways to bring our leadership resources to an even larger audience by developing new digital offerings and products.

Now is the time to innovate. Find news ways to generate income. Fan the flames of ingenuity. You really don’t have a choice!

Here are some guidelines we’re using around this principle:

  • Be radically curious. Actively solicit new ideas and be genuinely open-minded. Discuss and kick things around. Nothing’s off the table.
  • Listen, listen, listen. (Notice how each guiding principle in some way circles back to the first, “Honor People?” That’s by design. Honoring people creates the conditions for you to communicate and to innovate. It’s the foundation for every other leadership behavior).
  • Remain operationally diligent. In our office, the difference between a good idea and an outcome that actually executes on that idea is always a timeline. Once you’ve agreed upon a new product or path forward, make a timeline with clear deliverables for who’s doing what.
  • Be flexible. Once you have a plan for an agile approach to today’s changing circumstances, be both diligent and nimble. Expect things to proceed as planned and hold people accountable. But also be ready and willing to course-correct as the need arises. One thing we always know about a plan? It will change. (But we’re still going to get where we’re going, even if we need to troubleshoot a new map.)

With these three guiding principles—Honor People; Communicate, Communicate, Communicate; and Grow or Else—we’re trying to create an effective way to lead newly remote teams in the face of adversity. They’re working for us so far. But we can always do better.

What’s working for you? Let us know in the comments. We’re all in this together.


Get started on your Blueprint leadership development journey with a free chapter here: https://start.conantleadership.com/the-blueprint/

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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