Crossing the waters of a new leadership role in the remote environment

It’s the end of May 2022 and I am sitting on a plane as I am writing these words. Immediately after they allowed us, I opened up my bag, got my laptop out and started working. Let’s do a mental exercise and go back to 2020. I had the classic go to the office job and if you would have told me that one day I will be working on the go and outside of the office building I would have said that’s impossible, my job just can’t be done like that as I work with people. I had two reasons behind: 1. The belief that the job could be done only in person and 2. The belief that I couldn’t concentrate.

I know that working remotely is nothing new under the sun, but let’s just imagine how many people just like myself and maybe yourself were suddenly introduced to another way of working when the pandemic hit. While this way of working comes with many challenges for everyone I would like to draw the attention to one category of people: leaders. To go even further, leaders that are still new in their role. They are the people who are still finding their way through, still discovering who they are when they have other people under their guidance, and they are doing it remotely. Why do I think specifically about them? I would resume it in one word: insecurity. 

I believe that remote work facilitates the way insecurities can creep in your thoughts, especially for new leaders. To name a few reasons:

  • There is a lack of instant nonverbal feedback;
  • Feedback via email is not the same with the in-person one;
  • Body language and facial expressions are harder to read;
  • There is no organically engagement in discussions where one can ask for feedback. Daniel Pink’s intrinsic motivation theory talks about how good feedback guides our actions to self-regulate and respond to inner and outer expectations or maintain perspective about what’s valuable to accomplish;
  • Spending so much time alone can create an overthinking spiral;
  • The “I am not good enough” thought appears more often;
  • We usually have many mechanism to search for validation of our emotions/feelings/opinions, things we usually do unconsciously and with much more ease in the ad-hoc, in-person conversations;
  • What’s happening in the remote space is that these discussions don’t take place naturally and you have to plan them, which in consequence makes them something easier to skip because they are not on the meeting agenda;
  • The fear of putting hard topics on the table without knowing how to contain other’s emotions around the matter;
  • Leaders “don’t see” how people are doing, so addressing performance issues needs to have a new reasoning;

Some common insecurities can sound like:

  • “I am an introvert”;
  • “I am younger than some of my subordinates”;
  • “I just got promoted”;
  • “My teammates are better than me”;
  • “I have a hard time delegating work”;
  • Someone is more innovative than me;
  • Someone has a stronger network than I do;
  •  Someone is liked more than me;
  • Someone is smarter than me;
  •  Someone has a faster pace than me

Some common consequences of these insecurities can look like:

  • Freezing instead of making decisions;
  • Avoiding confrontation;
  • Obsessing about past choices;
  • Not knowing how and what and when to communicate;
  • Challenges in forming relationships;
  • Anxiety or shyness;
  • Inability to see strengths;
  • Inability to advocate for needs;
  • Difficulty with emotional regulation;
  • Feeling or acting defensive;
  • Being reactive

If you are someone like me you would probably say all the above applies to me too or to everyone else. While that is true, I think that someone that is a new-leader can be challenged in ways, that go extra layers. My invitation to you is to read the next part with this thought in mind: the new leaders have to navigate through all of these remotely.

Layer 1: self-awareness and self-management 

I think many of us have experienced a new relationship: that moment when we feel like our partner is a mirror reflecting ourself back to us, when we constantly have to confront our fears, insecurities, patterns of thinking, and beliefs about life and ourselves. We know it is not as simple as it looks in the pictures people post on social media. Sometimes it is uncomfortable and messy.

Being a new leader is not very far from that. It challenges one to take a closer look at her-/himself and if one is not willing to, well, the internet is full of bad leadership stories.

The leader’s behaviors, actions, decisions, and how they relate to others, all these aspects will be observed by everyone and sometimes it may feel like a leader is some sort of a superhero. Or supervillain depending on the met or unmet expectations. And the expectations from a leader can be endless. Just to paint a picture, Sergio Caredda did a great job and had an open review on leadership models where he collected more than 120 models.

Invitation to reflect on:

  1. Knowing your values. Knowing your triggers. Knowing your emotions. Knowing your limiting beliefs. (self-awareness)
  2. Acting with integrity. Acting from a space of values. Owning your emotions. Managing the response to triggers. Challenging the beliefs.(self-management)

By being self-aware and knowing how to manage yourself, even if you find yourself in the role of a newly promoted leader, you can now act from the space of knowing how to act in different situations and how your behaviour influences your tea. You will be able to manage your behaviour, thoughts and emotions in a conscious and productive manner.

Layer 2: the leadership role seen as a new job that one has to leran how to do

This new role comes with a whole new mindset. Going from the individual contributor role, where one probably rocked (hence the promotion), to a role where now the same person is expected to coach, engage, have difficult conversations and motivate others — often during times of change and pressure – is rarely a jump that happens from a Friday to the next Monday.

To add, there are the proper technical skills you need to learn and apply. Just to name a few:

developing individuals and teams, managing budgets, decision making, active listening, offering feedback, identifying and filling skill gaps, workforce planning, managing the individual and team performance, managing stakeholders of many kinds etc. 

Remote work also comes with new requirements such as: building a framework for life-work balance, creating a sense of belonging and learning how to accommodate employees’ lifestyles.

Invitation to reflect on:

  • observe, know and own your team’s dynamic. It will help you navigate the team’s waters, knowing a team dynamic framework helps;
  • Make sure your 1:1s are purposeful;
  • Ask for feedback and listen to it. If possible without commenting on it. Remember that the received feedback is your team’s gift to you;
  • Have a strategy and set smart objectives;
  • Create small chunks of work so your actions become manageable and the feeling of progress has the chance to show up;
  • Ask for help from a mentor, coach, or a people specialist if you have one in your organization;

Layer 3: building trustful relationships

Great leaders are savvy for establishing and maintaining mutually satisfying relationships characterized by positive expectations. They can gain support, commitment by offering it too.

With remote and hybrid work one can’t count on bonds to form as a side effect of having lunch together, a hallway conversation, or staying for a beer after work because these situations simply don’t exist anymore.  

Invitation to reflect on:

  • Planning for time spent just for the relationship building;
  • Making room for social capita in your team: look for ways to decrease workloads and balance resources so people have time and energy to make workplace relationships a priority;
  • Encouraging and rewarding team members supporting each other: this enhances the team spirit.
  • Making meetings intentional and also social;

Security of the self results from something that comes over time and is a product of hard work with the own persona. Committing to choosing to do the right thing for you and what you believe in takes courage and strength to show up first place, and then walk the talk. And the good part here is that you are not alone. Asking for help might seem like a weakness, and it’s not. Throughout my experience, I’ve seen most new leaders thrive when they allow themselves not to know it all from the beginning,  to detach themselves from the expectation of having it all together and reach out for help so that the new ride becomes a fun journey for everyone involved.

As my plane was landing I was just reflecting on how every journey has a destination and how the journey can be with turbulence or without but how important it is for us to be our own person as much and as often  as possible when we enter the plane, throughout it and when we go off it. I would encourage you, the new-leader to bring yourself to work!

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