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Perspectives On Remote Leadership

It’s London, May of 2019, and I’m sitting at breakfast with my colleagues. In just a few short hours, I’ll have to start making my way to Gatwick Airport so I can fly back home to Atlanta (A story for another time). It’s a quiet, contemplative breakfast as we consider the future of our social media presence. Finally, the word is spoken: influencers. From then on, we were to assemble a diverse team to help shape SETL’s media presence and overall message. I would be the one to lead this team, but the only issue was how to lead such a team, let alone remotely.

Before my current profession, I was a public school teacher for six years. Managing things is what I do, right? Right…? Truth be told, there are a few differences between teaching adolescents and managing a team of very busy adults. Accountability expectations are certainly different, despite the potential lack there of in both demographics.

As teachers, we expect our students to bring pencils and pens to class, but we have them in our desks “just in case.” As managers, we expect our teammates to bring the supplies they need. Without it, productivity as a whole suffers and it’s their job to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Another aspect that differs is the level of understanding and independant time management of complicated tasks. Children need clear instructions, broken into extremely specific steps when directed towards accomplishing a task. It goes without saying that doing the same to adults is condescending and absolutely unnecessary. 

Though there are basic, apparent differences between the two groups, there are strikingly similar characteristics. Many teachers and managers may struggle with maintaining authority, fostering a safe space, and promoting productivity overall. Through my experiences, here are a few of my managerial observations that just might help you.

A little humor goes a long way
Serenity in the office courtyard

Usually, in meetings, there’s an overall attitude that sets the tone of the team. As my teammate, Laura, mentioned in her own article about Team Building,  tone can dictate the level of trust and even affect the respect your colleagues give you. This, in turn, affects the level of cooperation, attendance, and productivity for your team. My advice is to add a little *office* humor in the mix. Take the edge off by joking a little, showing off your sense of disdain for the mundane. 

The acknowledgement of the daily grind through humor can boost the overall tone and make it a more enjoyable meeting. When forced to choose, your work colleagues just might prefer your meetings over other conflicting ones, resulting in a higher attendance rate.  By inviting others to indulge in such humor can help create a safe space for those in your meetings (more on why that’s important later). Your teammates will often come away with positive vibes and will be more naturally inclined to think of your meetings and activities in a positive, forward thinking manner.

At SETL, we use Teams for video conferencing. Sometimes, if it’s been a long week, or if the overall mood seems down, I’ll start my call a little early and play “waiting room” music for those who choose to gather early and lightly jam to the sounds of generic bossa nova. Sure, it’s corny, but in the end it puts a little smile on everyone’s face. This isn’t an everyday occurance and the music doesn’t last longer than a few minutes, but it’s a small, random event that sparks a smidgen of much needed verve. It serves as a small introduction for the day and really helps set the tone not just for the meeting, but even for the rest of their day.

Show A Little Vulnerability

Let’s all just be honest. Sometimes when we view others in a position of power, we can sometimes forget that they’re just human. Tell me if this person sounds familiar to you: they can seem detached or distant, sterile, and maybe even seem cold or insincere. No flaws to be detected, no mistakes made, no cares given. They don’t fraternize with anyone in the office and you aren’t even sure if anyone would. They’re just a wall…until one day they seem a little off. It could be that their eyes are red, their clothes disheveled, or they are unprepared for the day (a rare occurrence). Maybe they have less energy, or they take those long pauses like you used to see your aunt do, as she would stare out the kitchen window. 

Freaking you out at the most and ever so slightly alarming at the least is this apparent, unexpected show of vulnerability. It’s unnerving because the façade they have built is gently crumbling, as hints of their humanity and imperfection trickle in. Regardless of our feelings toward this person, curiosity always gets the better of us. We ask if they are ok, as we truly want to know. If we are lucky they will open up to us, however it’s really up to them and how embarrassed they may feel at showing and sharing their problems.  

When it comes to me, right off the bat, I show my humanity. I open myself up to show my teammates what type of a person I am and what I expect of them. I show them a little of my family, I don’t hide my flaws, I fully and outwardly accept my mistakes, and feely offer support. I am not perfect, nor do I expect them to be. Sometimes I may have issues at home and I know they will too. I put my best foot forward when it comes to my team and do the best of my abilities. I expect that they, in turn, will do the same. This level of vulnerability builds trust, fostering a safe atmosphere for your teammates. They may not have a connection with you, but at least they feel free to be honest and creative with you and the rest of the team.

I will say, as a cautionary word, not to overshare or go into unwanted topics. Do we need pictures from the vacation plastered all over the meeting board? Nope. Is it nice to hear (briefly) about how your kid took their first steps the other day? Yep! Generally, if HR won’t like it, don’t say/do it. 

Your Meeting, Your Vision
On my way back, I had a layover at the TWA.

Authority. We all want it when we have to delegate, but struggling for it can be embarrassing, gaining it the wrong way can make us look like scheming tyrants, and realizing we have lost it usually takes the observations of a third party. The line between commanding authority and just spinning our wheels can be pretty thin at times. As it turns out, difficult class rooms and board rooms have similarities. 

First, both have a leader and that isn’t always the designated person at the front of the room. The difference between the classroom and board room is that it’s expected in a corporate setting, while in the classroom it’s an unacceptable situation. Why is this the case? Purpose. The purpose of a teacher is to lead students to an understanding and though you may have helpers or group leaders, all of this is at your instruction. In a corporate environment, teammates can emerge as leaders in your meetings. Once again, its the purpose that helps facilitate this. A meeting should promote colleagues coming together to solve problems or accomplish tasks. Is there enough room for more than one leader in a meeting? Yes, in fact everyone in that meeting should be a leader. They should all be contributing and participating like what a leader would, because in the end it’s a team effort. No one person should be pulling all the weight…in an ideal world. 

Another difference in authority, while we’re comparing teaching to a corporate meeting, is time management. This particular idea took me a little while to understand. Let me explain: imagine you teach in an American public school. You have five classes, each with thirty-five students in your charge. You must MUST know everyone’s first and last name (perfect spelling isn’t optional), you must grade them on 2 or more scales, and you absolutely must make sure they turn in all the assignments you issue, or else it becomes an N/A. Not good. For anyone, this is a lot of pressure. As their teacher, you absolutely must walk around the room to make sure they stay engaged, you must check your grade books to make sure they have completed and turned in their assignments, so that you can rightly justify passing or failing them at the end of the year, and you must make sure they are constantly working in class when given free time. Student free time isn’t free. It’s a misnamed morning activity with a high cost and built in expectation that more work is being done. All of this, in itself, is micromanaging. You have no choice in the matter, as this is exactly what is expected of you as a “good teacher.” Doing this to adults is not only unacceptable and it’s a waste of your time and theirs. Maybe my example is a little extreme, but let me just point out there’s a trust factor involved. You can trust adults more than children, you can trust your coworkers more than adolescent students, and you can trust that micromanaging is an extremely annoying waste of time for everyone involved. The temptation WILL come, but have a little faith and patience in your team. That will help build up trust in all parties involved. 

Intrinsic Authority

So maybe a few people on your team aren’t listening to you. They won’t take your cues, they make repetitive disruptive arguments, they aren’t prepared, or they just plain don’t do the work. All of this really can undercut how your team views your ability to lead. How can you overcome such a show of disregard? Establish your intrinsic authority. 

Intrinsic authority, how I’ve come to understand it, relates to the basic privileges and anticipated duties that come with the job or position assigned to us. They are what enables us to do our job. For teachers, this is easy. They can assign grades, administer tests, call parents, and even report issues to the proper authorities when necessary. But what about managers? Let’s examine what that role generally entails: setting goals and expectations, planning agendas, assigning roles, and generally having the final word on important decisions. A great way to get your members back on track, in terms of responsibilities, is to re-establish your goals and expectations for the group. At the start of a meeting (any meeting), go over what you expect clearly from each member. You could even make a presentation on the current purpose of the meetings and have each person examine their role in the group for further engagement. Encourage them to commit to that role and express what they can produce as part of that team. Also be sure to remind them of this commitment by several means, from formal reports to verbal updates. Their progress, or lack thereof, will build a reputation that can follow them from group to group.

Another aspect of power lies therein with the ability to set the meeting agenda, as well as the rules around topic inclusion. Naturally, you, as the chair of the meeting, decide what topics are the most or least important. Am I suggesting petty exclusion, based on individual performance? No. That’s not acceptable in any way and can be detrimental to the team as a whole. What I am suggesting, however, is that you do have the power to directly address certain issues with either a hard or soft approach. A hard approach would be to formally place the topic on the agenda, which I suggest you make available to everyone on your team to view, devoting a great amount of time to this particular thing. The benefits of such are that clear arguments are made and a definitive position or decision is taken within the group. Sometimes a hard approach is not always the best option. Particular topics may be sensitive to certain members and require another member of the group to ‘finesse’ it into the opening moments or closing statements of the meeting. Though you probably find the issue to be extremely important, your role as a mediator than enforcer could be the only way to make positive ground with as little friction as possible.

The last aspect to securely fasten yourself as the head of your group and to keep the peace, is to assign particular roles. I must admit, I don’t really do this much anymore, because I don’t feel the need to. I did in the beginning, where organization was absolutely necessary. It was not really so much chaos, as it was instead the clashing of intent. Too many people were doing the same thing. Over time, my teammates have fallen into roles they much more prefer and fill in where there may be potential gaps. Roles can be tricky, though. Assigning a role can determine the attendance of someone who would rather not be around. Do you find this person’s attendance to be helpful or disruptive? Do you have to depend on this person for their knowledge or skill set? Playing with roles not only establishes your role as a leader, it also has the potential to fasten or discard attendees with a single decision. Weigh your options carefully.

You Made It 
Buckhead in rare form.

You know, when I made it back to Atlanta, I was so thankful for just about everything I had experienced up to that point, save for maybe a few regretful things (I missed my connecting flight from a layover in JFK). By the time I made it back home, I had it in my head and heart that I would be the face behind the curtain. My main goal as social media manager is helping my influencers shine, all the while bringing SETL’s wonderful message to the world of a fast, secure, and permissioned blockchain for financial applications and infrastructure. Only now have I gotten around to writing an article, and this comes after interviewing members of our board for SETL-Cast and helping facilitate the creation of videos for our blog, SETL Insights.  I never thought that my previous experiences would aid me in my current position, or that I would be proud to discuss them in such a public forum, so thank you for taking the time to read and consider my points of view and relations to my newly-gained experiences. I hope that this has been most helpful for you, and if I can offer one last word of advice, it’s to be consistent and give it time. No fix is ever immediate, nor its effects ever fully able to be observed as fast as we would like. With whatever techniques for managerial style you choose at the end of the day, don’t give up and have faith in your team.

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