Remote CxO leadership: Insight into how to lead widely distributed teams
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Remote CxO leadership: Insight into how to lead widely distributed teams

Sam Forsdick — March 2021

Since the pandemic has forced many millions to work from home and other remote locations — a trend which is likely to continue beyond current lockdowns — how can business leaders best manage their dispersed teams? Speakers at the Global Peter Drucker Forum provided insight into cultivating the leadership skills now needed for the new world of work.


The Global Peter Drucker Forum leadership panel:

  • Donna Flynn, VP, global talent at $1.5bn furniture company Steelcase
  • Guy Ben-Ishai, head of economic policy research at Google
  • Tammy Erickson, award-winning author and keynote speaker.

Q. Is it a contradiction in terms to ‘lead remotely’?

Donna Flynn, Steelcase

I don’t think that’s a contradiction at all. Many leaders have been leading distributed teams globally and regionally for many years across companies of all sizes. However, this year with the pandemic, what we’ve seen is a forced tipping point to what is an extreme state of remote work and remote leadership.

“Donna Flynn, VP, global talent at Steelcase =
Donna Flynn, VP, global talent at Steelcase

I have been leading globally distributed teams for about 10 years now and I have learned that it requires a different set of skills, when compared to leading teams of people who you see every day in the office. It is harder in some ways, but I think these are skills that will be increasingly in demand.

There are three skills I would highlight. One is to be intentional; being clear with your team and connecting with them is important because you don’t have the opportunity for serendipitous encounters.

Secondly, you need a sixth sense for emotional intelligence [that enables you] to build trust remotely. You need to see into the emotional landscape of a team and know when to dive in.

Then thirdly, remote leaders need to help their teams manage their energy, both collectively and individually. Wellbeing is a top-line requirement for leaders to be thinking about, especially today, as we are all experiencing video fatigue, a lack of connection and just the constant extended hours for globally distributed teams.


Guy Ben-Ishai, Google

By definition, leadership is about being present. Therefore, if you’re not present, by definition — and it may be just a semantic one — you cannot really lead.

The inability to interact with your colleagues and your peers in a more personal way can make leadership more difficult. So, I think that there is something, at least in the abstract sense, that makes the distance and the remoteness difficult aspects of leadership.

If you think about the number of dimensions of uncertainty and risks that organizations are currently facing, the real definition of leadership is to manage these risks. It is so important to lead during these trying times, that the distance or the remoteness [has to] become secondary.

We all seek that human interaction, and the frequency and number of people that you interact with is actually really important. So there are a lot of challenges when it comes to remote work, where that aspect of interaction is just missing.

Tammy Erickson

To me, leadership is really expressed in the way that you focus your time and attention. What I’ve found, from looking at leaders over time, is that the most successful ones are really good at identifying the activity within their organization that should have their undivided time and attention. This changes over time and from business to business.

“Tammy Erickson, author and speaker  =
Tammy Erickson, award-winning author and keynote speaker
Going back 30 years, businesses were primarily competing on efficiency and production scale. As such, the activities that leaders needed to worry about were standardization and conformity [to processes] and so on.

To lead such activities, you really have to be able to see people or at least monitor people in some way. So, if you’re coming from that perspective, remote leadership would seem like an oxymoron.

However, I believe that the vast majority of the activities that will make your company stand out today are not ones that have anything to do with conformity to a standard; they’re activities about thinking, digging deep and tapping your discretionary effort.

I don’t think leaders have to be physically present at all to create that sense of passion and excitement. If you plan to compete based on innovation, sensing trends and so forth, you can create a fantastic environment without ever being physically present.
Q. What new work practices have you developed to improve remote work?

Donna Flynn, Steelcase

It’s important for us to show [personal] vulnerability in this situation of crisis management. About a month ago, I shared a story with my 200-person global organization about the days I’ve had that were really difficult during the crisis, where I woke up and felt helpless. Stories like that, and how we get through those and overcome them, can be very powerful.

I think another key ritual to reframe here is the famed 10 minutes of ‘lost productivity’ [that occurs] at the beginning of a meeting. Those 10 minutes when you’re connecting your technology and having social interaction are actually really important, even more so now. To have that informal connection, the opportunity to share stories and let that human side come out really benefits teams.

My teams have used different methods to approach that social informal connection. It doesn’t always have to be a coffee chat. Another thing we’ve done is have text-messaging buddies and share pictures from our homes or daily lives in order to get a peek into the other parts of our lives away from the video lens.

Tammy Erickson

Most of us come out of a tradition that prioritizes efficiency. We think a great leader is someone who starts a meeting on time and jumps straight into the agenda items. We have such a bias around efficiency and productivity that we aren’t thinking about our role as one that is about creating an environment of discretionary effort.

I think that a leader’s role today has four key parts: 

  1. You need to disrupt and give people time to absorb new ideas
  2. You need to intrigue your team
  3. You need to connect your team
  4. And you have to engage them through a sense of identity and purpose.

As leaders, we have to recognize that our role is no longer about driving efficiency, it’s about creating positive environments. And one of the ways we create those is by providing time and facilitating human interactions.
Q. What is the future role of the office?

Guy Ben-Ishai, Google

From internal surveys that we have conducted, some people really enjoy the new situation, and they would be hard pressed to unlearn it. For example, in that survey I found myself saying that I don’t want to go back to the office because, as much as I appreciate the in-person interaction, spending the time with my family, during the times that I otherwise would have been commuting, is invaluable.

This question may become more challenging a year or two from now when some parts of our workforce are eager to get back to the work environment while others are eager to stay home and maintain the situation we’re in now.

“Guy Ben-Ishai, head of economic policy research at Google =
Guy Ben-Ishai, head of economic policy research at Google 

Having said that, working in an environment where there has been a deliberate effort and tremendous resource invested towards maintaining a unique culture is valuable. I think that it is felt by the employees, it’s felt by everybody at the firm. And for a company of any size, if you lose your culture, you start losing your identity.

Tammy Erickson

The work we do today [from out-of-office locations] requires people to behave like adults and it requires us to treat people like adults. I don’t think companies should ever, in the future, worry about the question of whether people come into the office or not. Just tell them to get their work done. If they want to come into the office, fine. If they don’t, then fine.

These are the types of schoolhouse issues, like the time you have to be in, that the company shouldn’t have to worry about, we’re all adults.

I personally believe that over time, we will increasingly be paid for outcomes and shift the reward scheme away from being based on tenure. In this way you’re recognizing the fact that those who produce great work are going to reap better financial reward.

However, the reality is we don't yet have the social safety nets in place to support the future of work.

Donna Flynn, Steelcase

Moving forwards, I think the office will become even more important as a space for building culture, for building connections and for hosting high-value collaboration, innovation and collective creativity.

There’s going to be some people who will choose to go to the office every day and there’s going to be others who only go to the office for very specific activities. As leaders, we need to be very conscious about designing our teams for these cadences of presence and build the conditions for collective innovation and creativity. The office will continue to be key for hosting that, but it’s not going to be the only host.

The office will continue to be a key location for building culture because space shapes behavior. Shared values, shared goals and shared purpose, bring a sense of meaning. So, that’s a key thing for leaders to think about.

• This panel was hosted at the 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum.

First published March 2021
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