It’s the Little Things That Make (Or Break) Remote Leaders

It’s the Little Things That Make (Or Break) Remote Leaders

This is a contributing article by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel.

Kevin Eikenberry is founder and Chief Potential Officer of ​The Kevin Eikenberry Group.​ He’s been named one of’s Top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World, and is the author of several books, including ​Remarkable Leadership.

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder (along with Kevin)  of ​The Remote Leadership Institute​ and the author of many books, including ATD’s ​10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations.

​Kevin and Wayne have created the definitive guide to success for remote leaders, ​The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

Leading a remote team across miles and time zones can feel like an entirely different job than when everyone is located in the same place. It’s not… but it sure does feel like it. In ​The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership we talk a lot about how the job of leading people and projects is more the same as traditional management, but the differences matter in unexpected ways.

For example, if you go down the list of behaviors good leaders should exhibit, distance doesn’t really matter. Need to coach employees? Check. Need to set goals and expectations? You bet. Communicate effectively and often? Sure. As we point out continually, ​what we need to do doesn’t change based on where our people are located. The difference lies ​in how we do it.​ That’s where little differences have out-sized consequences.

Are you on the right side of the road?

We use a fun example in the book to make this point. If you’ve ever driven in the UK (or if you’re British and risked your neck on North American streets) you know that it is not that different from driving at home, except that the little differences can get you killed.

Taken in total, driving anywhere in the world is the same. You have a car with all the same equipment—except the gear shift is on the “wrong” side, but you can handle that with a little practice. You still have to get in your lane and move in the same direction as everyone else. Sure, it’s not the direction you’re used to, but the road is marked and as long as you drive so you can read the signs you’re fine. What’s the problem?

The challenge lies in our having to think about and re-examine activities we do unconsciously. For example, on London sidewalks (at least in tourist-y areas) they have little arrows painted on the ground and a reminder that traffic comes from “this way.” Why? Because too many people have stepped off a curb while dutifully looking to their left…. Only to get hit by a bus coming from the other direction. Those travelers knew there was traffic, they knew to look for it, but they unconsciously looked the way they were used to, rather than take new circumstances into account. When you pull out of the parking space in Brighton, which way are you looking?

Don’t assume. Be intentional.

The same happens when working remotely. We know that we need to clearly communicate goals and expectations. Still, when we tell this to someone face to face, we not only transfer the information to the other person, we can gauge their reactions, which further dictates our own actions. If they look confused, or angry, we may need to adjust our message or reword the request. When we send an email, though, we have no way of knowing how it was received. We sent it and we go on our merry way, unaware of potential misunderstandings or the long-term impact on the reader.

We may delegate a task, assuming that we will monitor performance the same way we always have—by checking in periodically. But asking a question verbally, and getting an oral as well as a non-verbal response, is very different than sending an email and getting a one-word answer. We may think we’re still communicating clearly, but the small differences (email vs face to face) can have a huge impact on our success.

In ​The Long-Distance Leade the first of 19 rules is “Think leadership first, location second.” In other words, you need to be focused on your role as leader and what has to happen to get the desired outcome. This doesn’t mean that the fact that you’re working remotely is unimportant. Far from it. It does mean, though, that if you have your priorities in line, it’s easier to stop and be mindful of how working apart from your team can impact your success, and what you’ll have to differently.

After all, if you aren’t intentional about how you and your team work together, and assume everything is the same as it’s always been, you’d better watch out for that bus coming the other way.

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