6 Competencies Every Remote Leader Needs to Cultivate

Stefan Palios

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Remote work has been around for decades, but that’s still very new in the context of the working world. Speaking with PACT News, Candace Giesbrecht, the Director of the Teamit Remote Performance Academy, explained the foundational research behind remote leadership and the six competencies every remote leader needs to cultivate.

Key takeaways:

  • Research shows remote leaders need additional skills on top of those required to lead a co-located team.
  • Remote leaders need to know which communication mediums to use, how to use those mediums, and how to manage distributed meetings effectively.
  • Further, remote leaders need to understand organizational principles, technology, and time zone management to be truly effective.

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When it comes to leading remotely, managers need an even broader skill set than leading in a co-located office.

Thankfully, experts in distributed working have been working to understand and solve this problem for a while and have identified key skills, traits and capabilities to help leaders succeed while working apart. Candace Giesbrecht, the Director of the Teamit Remote Performance Academy, is one of those experts.

Speaking with PACT News, Candace shared the six competencies that every remote leader needs to learn and explained why leading remotely requires “additional and different” competencies to leading in an office.

Grounding the competencies

Candace explained that the desired outcome of remote leadership competencies is “high performance,” including:

  • Engendering a sense of belonging, inclusion, and trust.
  • Identifying synchronous and asynchronous work processes.
  • Crafting norms so a team can move together toward its goals.

“When building teams remotely, you often don’t have the time or environment to go through all the stages of team building at a natural pace,” said Candace. “Leaders who have the right competencies can help to accelerate that team building phase.”

The research Candace cites comes from Drs. Laura Hambley & Thomas O’Neill, who began research in the early 2000s on what was then called “telework” or “telecommuting.” Their research concluded that not only was every in-office leadership skill required, remote leadership also required additional competencies and that the current process would not be sufficient.

Through the Remote Performance Academy, and with assessments and tools developed by Drs. Hambley & O’Neill, Teamit helps to assess, teach and coach the six core competencies for remote leaders:

1. Communication Medium Match

Communication Medium Match is the ability to choose the right medium of communication for the audience, message, and outcomes you’re hoping for.

For example, needing to update your team about something relatively important but not urgent. Do you send an email, a voice note, mention it in your next team all-hands, or call an emergency meeting?

Emails or voice notes can be great for information sharing, but falter when you need high engagement. Emergency meetings can be impactful, but only if immediate action is necessary.

2. Communication Proficiency

Beyond knowing which medium to use, Communication Proficiency is whether you are good at using the medium in question.

For example, that team update. You’ve chosen to send an email because you have no action items. But are you an eloquent writer? Do you use sub-headings so it’s easy to read? Are you being conscious of your tone?

“The stakes are super high with written communication when working remotely,” said Candace. “It’s much easier to misinterpret.”

Candace shared an example of a CTO she coached who had immense challenges writing update emails because he was used to calling team meetings in the office. He eventually created templates for different types of communication - bad news, good news, information sharing, etc. - so that he could templatize some of the core tone and structure while inserting relevant information.

3. Distributed Meeting Management

Meeting remotely is a different environment to meeting in a co-located office.

The biggest shift is knowing the right balance of asynchronous and synchronous communication for different parts of the meeting, which ties into medium match. For example, agendas and project updates can be sent ahead of time via email, Slack, or in shared documents (async) while people might discuss next steps together (sync).

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4. Organization

Organization is a competency focused on effective planning in order to empower work for yourself and your team.

Candace shared herself as an example here, noting that she is a visual planner. In the office, this wasn’t a problem - her colleagues could see her eyes moving around the room, seeking visual cues for her thoughts. In a remote setting, this could come off as not paying attention.

To help center herself working remotely, she got a large bulletin board above her desk where she can post sticky notes and other visual aids to help her think clearly while looking straight ahead.

Being an organized leader means not just understanding these nuances for yourself, but also for your team members - and enabling people to find differentiated solutions.

5. Tech Savviness

Understanding technology, said Candace, is the linchpin of successful remote leadership.

“Simply put, if you aren’t comfortable with figuring out tech, it’s going to be a problem,” said Candace.

She shared the example of one client who was “tech reluctant” and was used to other people managing technology in the office. Unfortunately, this reality won’t fly in a remote world.

“Distributed leaders don’t have the luxury of being tech reluctant,” said Candace.

One possible solution is to have documentation that helps the tech-reluctant with accomplishing basic tasks, but at the end of the day learning about tech is a core competency for all remote leaders.

6. Time Zone / Working Hour Management

The key to successful time zone management, said Candace, is being respectful, cognizant of the differences, and managing the implications of different schedules.

One example Candace shared is a client who is a data scientist. When COVID-19 pushed everyone to work remotely, her entire family was vying for a single home office desk.

As a result, she worked with her manager to build a new schedule that he endorsed: She would start work at 4 am so she could work quietly and claim the family desk for a few hours. Unfortunately, her boss also started inviting her to 4 pm meetings, not acknowledging the fact that she had started working 12 hours prior.

This is the kind of reality that managers will have to balance when it comes to time zones or working hours. It can’t be solely on the employee to advocate for themselves - managers need to look at the big picture.

Employees are empowered by managers

Employees are not powerless in this relationship, and there are separate / corresponding competencies for remote employees. However, managers are the key because they see the team holistically and can plan around larger issues. While managers are not expected to hand-hold employees, they need to ensure they are holding up their end of the bargain and becoming as adept as possible at all six leadership competencies.