Episode 124: Leadership First, Location Second: The Art Of Remote Leadership With Kevin Eikenberry
Leading remotely requires more intentionality in everything we do. When the world started to see remote work go into the mainstream, many leaders were at a loss for ideas on how to make it work for their teams. Some are even worried if they’d ever know if their people are really working or not. Remote leadership expert Kevin Eikenberry argues that this is only because they focus too much on activity rather than on accomplishment. To lead a remote team effectively, Kevin stresses, leaders must set clear expectations of what success looks like for the team. For people to be accountable, they need to know what accountability looks like, and it’s up to you, the leader, to make that happen. In this conversation, Kevin shares with us his best practices in engaging a remote workforce, fostering genuine interaction in the workplace, conducting effective and equitable hybrid meetings, and more. Join in and learn how you can be an effective long-distance leader.
I have a true expert in a topic that I believe applies to most, if not all, of us as business owners. As seven-figure business owners with teams that we are trying to lead in an increasingly virtual environment that brought an expert by the name of Kevin Eikenberry. He is the Chief Potential Officer of the Kevin Eikenberry Group, and he’s the Co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute.
He has spent many years helping organizations and leaders from all over the world be more effective. Inc.com has twice named him in the Top 100 leadership and Management Experts in the world. Pretty impressive. One of his books is called Remarkable Leadership. Another one’s called From Bud to Boss. I love that one. I want to highlight this last one, The Long-Distance Leader.
Before the pandemic even hit, he had already cofounded this Remote Leadership Institute. He saw this as being more and more of a trend or more and more of a reality in how we do work and how we build teams. He’s been in and around this remote or long-distance leadership game for quite some time. I’m sorry I have said so much, but welcome, Kevin, to the show. I’m glad you are here with us.
I’m glad to be with you. The more important than any of that is that I have been leading a hybrid/remote team for over a decade. Forget all the rest, if you wish, and we can talk about someone who’s been doing this for a while.
We love practical know-how around here and you are an expert by any definition of that term. I like the fact that you are somebody who’s been doing it for the past decades or so. Let’s talk about what it means to be leading people that you call remote team, virtual team, or dispersed team. I have heard all sorts of ways of talking about it, but let’s talk about what are some of the keys you’ve learned over the many years, either doing it yourself or working with others that have been part of the success of building and leading a team in that way.
Let’s start here that the reality is that leadership is leadership. Humans have been leading other humans and following other humans for a long time, long before we had the internet, email, Zoom, fax machines, and telephones. The first thing I would say is that think leadership first, location second. A lot of us still have a lot we can learn all of us. Still have a lot we can learn to be more effective leaders, so we can start there.
Yet there are some things we know about leading and we don’t want to forget that stuff. We don’t want to throw everything out and say what do I have to do now? The reality is leadership first, location second. Having said that, I would say that in order to be more successful with your team dispersed from you, whether it’s around your ZIP code or across the country or around the world, is we have to be more intentional about almost everything. If you want to compare it to when everyone came into the office and you saw them every day or regularly, now we have to be more intentional about everything. When we have conversations, how we have conversations, how we bring things to the table, how we collaborate and a bunch of other stuff.
I’m going to circle back. I don’t know if you see this as a simple concept, but the fact that you said leadership first, and location second is a great way to start this conversation. We have to lead. The fact that we do it in person or distributed over a ZIP code or across the world, it’s still leadership principles that we are dealing with. We have to learn how to apply them differently or be more intentional about it. I love that distinction.
We can work on you being better leaders and working on doing it when we are at a distance from people. One of the toughest things for many leaders as they sent people away or were forced to send people away is they felt like, how do if they are working? I know that many of you like me, as a founder, feel like maybe they can’t do it as well as me, or I have done it for 100 years and I need to make sure they are doing it too.
I would say this to you lovingly that you need to stop focusing on activity and start focusing on accomplishment. If you thought that you knew people were working when they were down the hall from you. You were sadly mistaken even then. Just because they looked like they were intently looking at the screen doesn’t mean that they were being productive, being highly focused or any of those sorts of things. I would say let’s get clear about what we want people to accomplish, have metrics around the process, progress and outcome of those things, and that’s where we should be putting our focus. Too many of us are too worried about activity and not focused enough on accomplishment.Stop focusing on activity and start focusing on accomplishment. Click To Tweet
I want to dig in on this because, like you, I have worked with a fair number of leaders and I see this all the time. You have leaders saying things whether they are in the office or in a remote work situation, they say things like, “If only I could hold my people more accountable or if only they were more ownership-minded. Why can’t I get people to do stuff?”
I think you hit it right on the head. It’s like, “What are we trying to have them do? What ownership are we giving to people?” What have you found in your own experience and as you’ve coached, taught and led other leaders, what have you found to be effective ways to get to that level of clarity where you can hand off something to someone with confidence, whether they are down the hall or across the world?
You used the longest four-letter word in the English language, which is accountable. If you tell someone I need you to be accountable, they almost always think about that as, “Uh-oh.” We only use that word when someone’s not doing what we want them to do. Let’s be clear about what accountability is. Accountability is people seeing that they can control and or influence an outcome and then taking action based on that ability, which means that we have got to be clear with people about what they can influence.
That all starts with setting crystal clear expectations and leaders aren’t very good at this, generally speaking. If I work for you, I need to know what you expect of me what success looks like. Until that, how can I possibly deliver? A lot of folks want to do good work. In fact, I believe that 95% of people want to do good work 95% of the time. If they don’t know what that is, then how can they deliver it?
One of the mistakes that we make as leaders is we ought to know. “I have told them.” That’s not enough. Mutually clear expectations. Not did you say it but did they get it? I’m having a conversation with a leader about that they have got a person that’s a problem. They’d like to get this person more on board. There’s a problem. There’s an issue. My first question always is, “Do they know what’s expected? Do they know what success is?”
That leader will say, “I don’t and neither do they.” Whether you have job descriptions or not. It’s not in your folks’ description to read your mind. That’s not in the realm of possibility. We have to be clear about what we want. Not to micromanage but to allow us to not have to micromanage. What does success look like? If you want them to take more ownership, are you giving them a chance to and do they even know what that needs? For the most part, we are not clear enough, so we can’t even get them clear enough.
I see time and time again a business owner or a leader saying, “I need a marketing person. I’m going to grab 3 or 4 job descriptions from the web, and I’m going to create a Frankenstein thing. I like this set of skills and this set of responsibilities. I’m going to post that out there. I need a marketing person,” and they think they know in their head what they want out of that role, but they haven’t done the work to do what you described. What are the expectations? What does success look like? That’s what we should be putting in a job description and then continuing that conversation when they get there to get it clear.
It’s on the front end, but it’s also once they are here and for many of you, you’ve already got the folks. How do I get them where I want them to go? We have got to have super clear expectations, and by the way, those run both directions. What does Brett expect of me as my boss, but also, what do I expect or need from him? Think about expectations, especially in a remote environment. As important as that is to start with, it’s even more important when we are not together every day. We need to give people a way to have a sense of what success looks like, and that means not only the what expectations, timeliness, quality and all that stuff.
Also, the how expectations. How are we going to do it? What is the frequency of communication? The way we are communicating all of those things, the process, in other words, and then lastly, although, probably firstly, the why expectations. Who is using this for what purpose? If I’m delivering this work, how does it fit into the overall business? Oftentimes, that’s where people get stuck.
Some of you started a business because you had a job before that and you never had a clue. You didn’t have a clue about like, “I’m doing this work, but I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know what it gets used for.” I can’t bring my intuition, experience and knowledge to it because I don’t have any context, yet we are recreating that for our teams as well. We have got to set clear what expectations, why expectations and how expectations. It’s even more important, especially the why and how expectations, when people are at a distance.
Every time you use a phrase like we need to set expectations, I think that sounds like a front-end type of activity. On the front end, we need to set expectations. Talk to us about the best virtual remote teams. How do they maintain that over time? What are some of their rhythms, processes, or structures look like to make sure that the ongoing shared expectation continues?
We ought to be setting them on the front-end and you use that when we are hiring someone. I would say to all of you that maybe you haven’t hired anyone in a while, maybe you’ve got the same team. If they are not clear, no time like the present, we can still make them clearer. Having said that now, to answer your specific question, I would say that we need to have a regular rhythm of communication with the team and with every individual.
As all of you are reading individually, I don’t know the size of your team or the specific nature, but I would say this. Are you having regular one-on-ones with your team members? Those that directly report to you. If not, start now. How often? Pens a little bit, but I’d start with think about once a week. Here’s the other thing. Every time you are thinking about an issue and you can’t see them so, call them up or you send them an email, then they feel like you are checking up on them.
If you’ve set as an agreement, an expectation, we are going to have a weekly one-on-one or we are going to have a one-on-one every other week, then people don’t feel like you are checking up because it’s expected. It’s now checking in. We should have a regular rhythm of communication across the team and individually, some people look at having daily huddles, all depends on the nature of your business. You need to be thinking about what are the kinds of things we need to be communicating about and what are the ways. What communication mediums are we using and what frequency are we using. For those, we need to have an agreement about that so that we can have a better chance of success.
I’m going to shift gears on us here a little bit. I love all of that. Set clear expectations, have ways of checking in and having ongoing dialogue around those expectations. Make sure they are current. I like that distinction. You are not checking up. You are checking in. When I’m checking in, I can be in more of a supportive and coach role instead of just across-the-table judgment role checking up on them.
If we have got clear expectations, there’s a better chance they are delivering, so we don’t have to do that anyway.
The expectation is the judge and not us that measures the judge. Let’s shift gears and talk about the reality of going for some people. I will use the terms fun or healthy team environment that they created when we were all in the office and how to maintain some of that or do some of that team or trust-building type of stuff when we are virtual. What are some practices you’ve used or you’ve seen that are worth sharing?
I will give you 3 or 4 things. Number one is if you do get your team together physically. When you do, you can’t focus on the work. You have to create space and time for that interaction. I’m using the word interaction very intentionally because it’s one thing to transact business. “I got a question. I know you are busy. Thanks.” That’s transacting the business. There’s a time and a place for that, but we have got to make sure that there’s room for interaction.
If you do get people together at some frequency. In our case, in a couple of months, it’ll be the first time in two years that we have all been together in the same room. We are planning very specifically to have time to interact, have fun, and reconnect along with all of the serious business work we are going to do. That’s the first thing.
The second thing I would say is think about the kinds of communication that we had when we were all together. One is we had these things that happened around the water cooler. in our case, we use Slack. You might be using Microsoft Teams or something else, but we have a channel in Slack called Water Cooler, which is designed for that fun. Teasing someone that their football team lost. Sharing a funny link. All that stuff that would have happened in the office that now can happen there. People can engage when they have time. They don’t have to engage every time if they don’t want to, but it’s there and that’s valuable and simple.
Another thing is, in the old days, if you had a meeting, people showed up in the conference room and what did they do? They started to chat. When it’s time for the meeting to start, we started a business. Now, we don’t start the meeting until the boss opens the Zoom or whatever, so don’t do it that way. Allow anyone to open the meeting space or make darn sure if it’s you, that it’s open early. As people arrive, they can do what they would naturally do anyway which would start to interact and chat. There are three things. Make sure that when you are together, that you are making time for that.
Number two, use things like a channel to facilitate that non-working stuff. Number three, make space in your meetings before they start to allow for that. Number four, put some time in your meetings for that stuff to happen. I’m of the belief and wrote a post that said I believe the new metric for meetings should be laughs for a meeting. If we have no laughter, then we are doing something wrong. When we were together in a room, it happened. Why shouldn’t it, couldn’t it, or doesn’t it happen?The new metric for meetings should be laughs per meeting. If we have no laughter, then we're doing something wrong. Click To Tweet
If it doesn’t, we have got to look in the mirror and say, “What are we doing that’s keeping that from happening?” This means that we have to model it ourselves, which means we need to lighten up and have a little fun in those meetings as well. The last thing I will say is when you bring new people on your team, I would strongly encourage you to add this to your process.
When new people join our team, the expectation typically within about the first two weeks is that they have an interaction with every other member of the team via Zoom or a phone call, but preferably using their webcams where they don’t talk about work. Thirty minutes. I want you to get to know everybody else on the team.
I want everyone else on the team to get to know you and not talk about work. If we also need to talk about work, because I need to know what Angie does. Then I schedule 45 minutes or an hour and we talk about the work stuff, and then we talk about the non-work stuff. I got no chance for people to get to know each other if I don’t almost mandate that.
I love that acknowledgment because leadership first, then location. We’ll go right back to what you said at the very beginning. It’s good leadership practice to help a new team member be onboarded. We use terms like onboarding, orientation, jumpstart or whatever we use. Part of that back in the meeting the office days was maybe the team goes to lunch and we all have personal time. That’s not happening. The leadership that needs to happen is what you described. What’s the virtual equivalent? What can we do in a remote environment that at least tries to mimic the thing we used to get when we were all together?
There’s one other thing that happens when you do that. You are sending a message not only to the new people but to everybody else. You are reinforcing that this, that stuff is important. If the boss is willing to invest that much time in it, and if the boss has one of those meetings too, yes. It shows through your action that this is an important part of the business.
Those of you rattled off so many great practical things to do to keep a sense of team at a team level. Let’s maybe go one level higher. Let’s say some of our readers have 20 or 30 people. Maybe the new hire doesn’t meet 30 people, but they meet with everybody in their functional team, or maybe you would say all the other people.
I can tell you. There are fifteen of us and it would still be everybody. There would be a point where it wouldn’t be everybody, but I would say that it’s the nuclear team, the work team. Probably strategically a few other people. There are always a few other people that they need to know because of their specific tasks. I would say at some point it’s not everybody, but it’s not four. It’s some strategic number bigger than that in your specific situation.
We are going to err on the side of including too many people than not enough.
I would agree with that. Yes.
If there are 30 or 40 people, have you seen some good best practices for keeping connections across the company aside from individual meetings? Have there been some fun group things that have happened during the pandemic anyway to help teams feel connected?
It depends a lot on the nature of where your people are physically located. We had some organizations that, even in the height of the pandemic, that we are still gathering like in a city park where they could still at least see each other, but they were all living in the same ZIP code-ish. You may not have that situation. What I would say is continue to look for ways for people to engage with each other.
The nature of your business will help you figure that out, but look for those ways, and here’s the other thing. You don’t have to figure this all out. You’ve got 30 other people living through this same situation like you are as the leader, so ask them. How would you like to? What would help all of you? What ideas do you have? You don’t have to burden all this on yourself because you are all living it together, and so engage the team to help you come up with those solutions for your specific situation.
In the process of engaging them, you are building the team by involving them. If you think about any other best practices that you’ve worked with businesses on over the past years or longer. You cofounded the Remote Leadership Institute. We have talked about expectations. We have talked about human interaction with real people. Those are great. Are there any other remote leadership areas or principles we should be thinking about?
Let me say something about meetings in the time we probably have. If you move your world back to a hybrid where some people are in the office with you, perhaps, and others are not. Then I would strongly encourage you to think carefully before you have a hybrid meeting where some people are in the conference room and some are on their webcams or on their phones.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting where you were out and about where half or more of the people were in you know that didn’t work very well. I would strongly encourage you to minimize the number of actual hybrid meetings you have and put the people in their offices, on their laptops and computers. That’s what we have done for years. That’s going to happen in this office. There’s a meeting of 3 or 2 of us will be here. It won’t be two of us in my office and one other person, it be all of us on our laptops. It levels the playing field and it allows all of us to still see each other. Please turn on your webcams if all possible. In the time we have got, that be good.
Not surprising to me, but it reflects a level of awareness in you and some of the dynamics going on out there, and this hybrid thing comes up quite a bit. You are right. If you got a core group of people together in a room and other people trying to participate from outside. We did that before the pandemic. We, meaning in our organizations, those types of meetings were happening a lot around the world and it’s hard to make it work. How everybody is so Zoom literate, so to speak. Why not?
Everybody dial in from your desk so that we have a level playing field. This has been fantastic. I know our readers are going to get a lot of practical things out of this. I’m going to say one more time what you started with because I think it’s fantastic. Leadership first, location second. We are still on a leadership journey. That didn’t change, but just some of the circumstances changed a little bit. Thank you for sharing that.
If people want to learn more about the Kevin Eikenberry Group or the Remote Leadership Institute or connect with you on social, how would they do that?
If you can spell my name, you can find me. It’s Kevin Eikenberry. KevinEikenberry.com for the business. KevinEikenberry.me for everything specifically related to me, and RemoteLeadershipInstitute.com. In terms of social, I’m most active by far on LinkedIn. I have had the good fortune of creating a number of LinkedIn learning courses for that platform. I spend a lot of time there. If you want to connect with me there, I’d encourage you to do that. If you do that and say, “I did this because I heard you on Brett’s show,” then by all means, if we get several people that do that, I will do a drawing and give away a copy of The Long-Distance Leader. How about that?
That’s all on you now. As the readers, make sure that you reach out to Kevin, connect with him and let him know that you heard about this from our show. One of you is going to get a copy of that cool book. Those of you want the book and don’t want to be in a drawing. You can go find it.
You can go to Amazon. You can go to TheLongDistanceLeader.com. If you are looking for something for your team, you can go to TheLongDistanceTeammate.com long-distance teammate.com, which is the book of four team members.
A companion book. That’s awesome. Thank you again very much, Kevin, for joining us. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
For all of you reading, please rate, review, and share and do all those things so that as many seven-figure business owners as possible can hear from Kevin’s insights on being a leader first in a remote work environment. Please join us again next time for another episode. Thanks for reading.
- Kevin Eikenberry Group
- Remote Leadership Institute
- Remarkable Leadership
- From Bud to Boss
- The Long-Distance Leader
- LinkedIn – Kevin Eikenberry
About Kevin Eikenberry
Kevin is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group and the Co-Founder of the Remote Leadership Institute. He has spent 30 years helping organizations and leaders from over 40 countries become more effective. Inc.com has twice named him in the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World. His books include, Remarkable Leadership, From Bud to Boss, and The Long-Distance Leader. His newest book is The Long-Distance Teammate. His blog has consistently been ranked as one of the most read and shared on leadership.
Want to listen to more? View all episodes here >