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Leading From Afar
Don't let distance infringe upon effective leadership.
Posted Feb 16, 2010
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Remote Leadership Defined

In general, leadership is the ethical influencing of others to share a common purpose and achieve desired outcomes.  Traditionally, leadership influence was accomplished through face-to-face interactions. Today's leaders must master the art of ethically influencing people when in-person contact is minimal. Reduced face-to-face contact and increased use of technology make it more difficult to establish and maintain trust: The foundation of any influential relationship. 

Critical Skills For Effective Remote Leadership

Remote leaders should be people who have demonstrated success in leading traditional workplace employees to achieve desired outcomes using democratic leadership methodologies. Otherwise, significant training, development and practice will be required to groom an autocratic leader, who uses control and a directing leader behavior. Ultimately, leaders who employ this hackneyed leadership paradigm will struggle, be frustrated and frustrate others, and likely fail as a remote leader.

The Over-Delegation Trap

Due to an assumption that all virtual workers want autonomy and/or are worthy of the delegation of tasks, there is a tendency to over-delegate. Although remote leaders have to remain aware of the need for autonomy in the virtual work place, they have to balance this need with the specific task at hand. However, not all employees will have the level of motivation and competency for every task to completely warrant delegation. Making an accurate assessment of motivation and competency is critical to the application of the appropriate leader behavior and this assessment should be a collaborative process with each individual and each task.

Empathy

A large part of building relationships and establishing trust has to do with unconditional listening, which can be described as disengaging from all other thought to permit a comprehensive understanding of both the content and emotion of someone's communication. One method to begin practicing empathy is to repeat what the other person has said to their satisfaction. Because there is little or no opportunity to observe the nuances of body language, listening becomes a very critical skill for remote leaders — "listening" to both verbal and text-based communication. Remote leaders should become self-aware of their ability to be empathetic. Finding an emotional intelligence self-assessment online can provide quick feedback about one's ability to interact effectively with people and their emotions.  

Guidelines For When To Use What Technology

Technology is the key to geographically dispersed working arrangements. While technology is only a facilitator for strong, established leadership practices, the lack of the appropriate technology can negatively impact virtual employees' ability to produce results. Fisher & Fisher believe that the lack of an appropriate technical infrastructure will "kill" a virtual team.  Leaders have to utilize the proper communication medium for each interaction. For example:

  • Real-time video communication should be used when there is a need for rich communication.
  • Real-time audio or text-based communication should be used when there is urgency for input, feedback, etc.
  • Email or discussion boards can be used as a means of communication to recap the content of other forms of communication and when a response is not urgent..
  • Virtual employees should be aware of the time zone of others before initiating real-time contact.
  • If possible, leaders should refrain from the overuse of text-based technologies in order to reduce misinterpreted communications. In general, leaders should encourage employees to think first before communicating via text-based technologies, especially before transmitting, thus enabling virtual workers to act as their own conflict managers.

The following technology usage expectations should be considered and conveyed to virtual leaders and followers:

  • respond to voice mail within twenty-four hours;
  • respond to email within forty-eight hours;
  • keep schedules and calendars updated;
  • concerns and conflicts with team members are to be expressed directly to the team member via real-time video communication if face-to-face interaction cannot be coordinated;
  • lessons learned during the course of business activities can be shared with teammates and the team leader via non-real time technologies like email or discussion boards; and
  • use email to document significant actions and to summarize contact for added clarity.

Conclusion

Leading people from a distance by leveraging technology as a primary means of communication to inspire alignment and desired outcomes must involve democratic behavioral philosophies. However, remote leaders must still assess the competency and motivation of each task being assigned to every individual. Distance does not necessarily equate to complete delegation. Also, the use of technology to replace face-to-face contact can create new and different sources of inter-personal conflict — conflict that can be avoided if the right technology is used at the right time for the right reasons, along with some simple usage guidelines.


  1. Verma, Nidhi. Making the Most of Virtual Working. WorldatWork Journal, 2005.
  2. Fisher, Kimball and Fisher, Mareen. The Distance Manager. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill , 2001.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dinnocenzo, Debra. How to Lead From a Distance, Dallas, TX. The Walk The Talk Company, 2006.

About the Author

Shane Sims (shane.sims@us.pwc.com) is a director in the forensic services practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a former supervisory special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He advises clients on matters including insider threat, cyber, and data theft investigations, eDiscovery, cyber security, and the gamut of frauds. He has a bachelor's degree in computer science, a masters degree in leadership, is a CISSP, and lives the remote leadership experience daily.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on Comments at the top.

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