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Remote Leadership

Reflections From The Centre For Army Leadership Conference - March 2021

Remote Leadership Post – 3

This month, The Centre for Army Leadership hosted a virtual conference on the topic of ‘Remote Leadership’. The event brought together senior leaders from academia, the military and the corporate world from across three continents, to share their views and lessons on how best to lead remotely. The pandemic has sent a shock wave across the world, threatening our ways of working, but also throwing up opportunities. Few believe we will return to ways of working exactly as before; more likely, we are moving toward some form of hybrid arrangement, different for different sectors. What does this mean for our leaders? How can they best develop a positive communication culture at reach today, and learn and adapt to face the threats and seize the opportunities of the future? The adoption of new technology, systems and tools is the first, essential and relatively straightforward step. More challenging is how to lead remotely and establish mutual confidence and trust over distance. Here, Skarbek outlines some of the key points raised, sharing the challenges outlined, the implications considered, and some thoughts for better ways of working in the future.

Disruption Is The Law Of Tomorrow

Resilience, defined by General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith KCB CBE ADC Gen, professional head of the British Army, is the ability to absorb a shock, adapt and then re-emerge even more competitive – a quality of great value in a pandemic. He set the context for the day by reflecting on the integrity and resilience of our food supply chains, our digital infrastructure, and our public health services. All things for which to be grateful. But, emphasised that the litmus test for leaders of tomorrow will be the ability to navigate the new inescapable reality: the unrelenting pace of change, supercharged by an accelerating technological revolution. There is the challenge to keep apace, but also, on a positive note, the liberating and democratising effects that can be harnessed. He highlighted the example of Kate Bingham, Chair of UK Vaccine Taskforce, who successfully established an international collaborative consensus to deliver the ambitious vaccine programme without physically meeting any one of the people she was dealing with, in a timeframe that 12 months ago would have been thought impossible. Communicating in the virtual world has expanded our reach exponentially, but, he suggests, requires discipline to get right. Greater attention to clarity of message is needed for everything: vision, purpose, freedoms and constraints, and risks tolerated. Then it is a matter of trusting people to get on with it. What leaders must not do is use digital proximity to micromanage and in so doing stifle momentum and initiative. At the end of the day, leadership remains and always will be a human endeavour.

Collective Command

Resilience was a theme also picked up by Major General Nick Borton (DSO MBE), sharing his recent experiences commanding the UK’s warfighting division. His advice: spread the load, and get plenty of sleep. ‘The scale, complexity and intricacy of the modern divisional fight is simply too great for one person to digest in totality,’ he says, ‘and therefore a traditional Monty-like approach to command, with a commander at the centre and master of all he surveys, just doesn’t survive the context. A modern fight requires a more fluid and collegiate approach,’ described as ‘collective command’, as relevant to an increasingly complex, dispersed and remote business environment, as the British Army. Collective command calls upon the collation of the very best expertise and advice of those around you, as well as clear delegation of decision-making to them. Essentially, it means asking your team to help you do your job, though not, importantly, surrendering authority. Critical decisions still lie with the commander.

Always Punish Negligence; Never Punish Mistakes

It’s how to get to this point of trust which is the challenge. Preparation, planning and communication have never been more important in setting the scene for a new project, or initiative. And your people need to know you well enough to challenge you if they are going to be of any value. What the military historian Richard Holmes called ‘the bonds of mateship’ still need to be built, and ‘commanding remotely mustn’t mean being a remote commander,’ says Major General Nick Borton. Allowance to make mistakes and learn from them is critical, ‘so never bite people’s heads off however offbeat the solution, and don’t rush as a commander to always tell them the right solution. Hold your tongue and see what they come up with. Even if it’s mostly right, or good enough, that’s probably better than your own imposed solution,’ says Major General Nick Borton. And have the humility to admit that sometimes you might be wrong. Today, he concludes, commanders should probably avoid saying, ‘what I want to happen is…’ and instead say, ‘what do you think we should do about this?”. Encourage and trust your people to come up with their own solutions.

Finally, he says, rest is key to successful command. ‘My Chief of Staff used to say to me, Sir, we only need you to make a handful of big decisions, so go and get some sleep so you’re fit to make them when that moment comes. So, I did.’

Remote Working Is Here To Stay

In a recent twitter poll asking how many days people would like to work remotely in a post-lockdown world, of the 25,000 responses, only 4% said that they wanted to return to the office full-time. Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director Military Digitisation for the Ministry of Defence, notes that remote working, most likely in some form of hybrid arrangement, is indeed here to stay – and looks at both opportunities and threats this provides. The first opportunity, in the military context, is to expand the tenets of mission command across the whole of the defence enterprise. ‘If we’re honest with ourselves,’ says Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, ‘while this may be prevalent on operations, we have often struggled to embed mission command in our larger institutional headquarters and the enabling organisations of defence.’ In the spirit of never wasting a good crisis, this is, in his view, an opportunity the military must seize. The second opportunity is as relevant for a soldier, as it is a lawyer, or indeed any office worker able to work remotely from home: that, to put back some balance in the John Adair action-centred leadership model of task, team and individual. Or, as Major General Tom Copinger-Symes puts it, ‘balance our split identities as soldiers and crown servants on the one hand, and as mothers, husbands, sons and lovers on the other.’ Painfully aware that any hope of work life balance has been knocked a kilter for many people this last year, with worries about health and finances, and home schooling thrown into the mix, he nonetheless sees opportunity here if we can structure our future ways of working sensibly.

But here lies the first threat, too. People’s home circumstances are extraordinarily different and the remote working experience only amplifies them. Some people have thrived this last year. Generally speaking, for those who are a bit older, with space enough to dedicate a corner of their home to work, ample Wi-Fi, a supportive partner and opportunity to spend a bit more time with the kids – it’s been a blessing. Whilst for others, maybe younger, maybe living alone, eager to socialise and yet captives in a small flat, this last year has been desperately isolating. That gap, between those established in life, and those just starting out, is difficult to close across Skype or Teams. Likewise, it is hard to establish bonds in newly-formed teams. And we should be aware, too, of the very real and present cyber threat. As we adapt to these new ways of working, our threat surface is increasing.

So, what can we do about it? There is need now more than ever for conscious, persistent and deliberate over communication to ensure the glue of mutual understanding holds strong. We need to master the tools we have at hand, and create space for two-way communication that is so critical. Ironically, the new medium of meeting, on Zoom or Teams, can favour the introvert, happier to express a view quietly but effectively in written form in chat, rather than speaking face to face. Notice this and pay heed to their views. Notice, too, if someone repeatedly unblocks and blocks their microphone, but never speaks out. Invite them to share their thinking. And enjoy the new-found intimacy that is part and parcel of our new virtual lives: the guitar in the corner, the broken mug on the desk, the picture on the wall, offer new routes to richer conversations that otherwise might never have come about. Prioritise these conversations. Make time for the little moments before and after meetings where you can break through the professional into the personal life. A little humanity goes a very long way. And finally, GEEK UP and WISE UP! Understand your digital environment and protect yourself and your family. Digital platforms are not going away, and failure to do so may mark you up for extinction.

5 Keys To Thriving, When Working Remotely

Dr Sara Perry, Associate Professor of Management at Baylor University, has been conducting research in the area of remote work and wellbeing of employees and leaders, since December 2019. From examining the dynamics that have developed over the course of the study, Sara offers 5 key recommendations to thrive when working remotely:

  1. Autonomy: Allow employees to figure out how to get their work done in their own time – this helps to avoid the risk of ‘burnout’. Try not to micromanage from afar.
  2. Proactive Communication: Ongoing two-way performance management builds trust – share outcomes, results and productivity. Avoid technology domination (too many Zoom meetings) and overscheduling.
  3. Boundaries: Have a clear transition time between tasks to allow yourself to compute information and defrag appropriately. If possible, find space in your home that you can dedicate to work in order to create a clear separation between work life and home life. Set appropriate expectations for yourselves, your co-workers and your families.
  4. Know Your Needs & Resources: What needs are met in the office that with a bit of creative thinking can be replicated at home? Things like virtual coffee chats are a great way to maintain social interaction and can help towards boosting innovative thinking. Equally, people who use their breaks in the day for self-care and non-work goals tend to better outcomes.
  5. Individualized Consideration For Each Remote Worker: Everyone is different and has different needs. For example, not everyone wants autonomy to plan their day as suits them. If someone is low in emotionally stability, then think of offering structure to help them get their work done.

Whilst true that many leaders have been forced into this remote way of working this last year, having to adapt to new communication tools and best practices; one thing remains the same. Leadership is a human endeavour. Using technology to support your leadership approach, but not allowing it to dominate will be crucial for success in the future. Ask yourself, ‘Why should anyone be led by me?’ Are you doing the uttermost to provide the best environment for your team? Have you taken the time to understand people’s individual needs and to ensure all voices have been heard? Do people in your team feel safe to challenge you, offer better solutions than you have come up with yourself?

Leaders must never be complacent. And there must be an element of self-discipline to resist falling back into old ways, when finally we see some normality return back to our lives. A growth mindset and continuous learning from successes, failures, errors and misjudgements will help to create a cultural change for success and produce high performing teams able to anticipate trends and relentlessly innovate to stay ahead of the game. Understanding the importance of different skills, personalities and thinking styles within your team – being a conductor to bring together the full bandwidth of cognitive diversity – will allow institutions to ‘win’ in a competitive world.