Virtual Leadership Begins with Real Self-Awareness

Jason McRobbie

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic set in, employers still have many questions. This updated question-and-answer style guide provides responses and considerations for 24 common concerns including vaccine mandates, returning to work, layoffs, and terminations. Download your copy.

With so many having risen to the surface in the past two years alone, naming the greatest challenge facing leaders in the virtual era is, well, challenging. In fact, as leadership expert, author and presenter Vanessa Judelman has discovered over the course of innumerable conversations and training sessions, the primary hurdle remains one of self awareness— accompanied by unprecedented shifts and ongoing, unpredictable change.

Key Takeaways

  • Motivation is not something a leader can create in others, only the environment in which it can flourish;
  • The successful creation of that environment in a virtual/hybrid setting is increasingly hinged upon a leader’s self-awareness—the first of the ‘Three Pillars of Leadership’;
  • Clear goal-setting has been challenged by unpredictable change, requiring new leadership mindsets and training.

SuccessFinder empowers HR teams with in-depth behavioral insights for predictive hiring and talent management. We’re obsessed with helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential.

Be sure to follow along on LinkedIn for content you don’t want to miss!

The Newfound Burdens of Leadership

If you are reading this as a leader, Vanessa Judelman, president and founder of Mosaic People Development, not only feels for you—she knows things are tougher than ever.

“I honestly think this is the most challenging time for leaders in the past 20 years. Prior to the pandemic, they had to deal with the four generations at work, the constant change, heavy workloads, really high expectations. Those things didn’t go away,” said Vanessa. “Then you add on everything else since the pandemic—managing a hybrid team, fatigue and mental health, supply chain issues, recruitment as a result of the great resignation, holding people accountable and motivating them in this new virtual plan.”

She points out that motivation is not something a leader can create, but most definitely nurture the environment for with clear communications and management processes within which motivation can thrive. This holds as true in the virtual era as with brick and mortar, albeit with a required shift in leadership mindset as prior paradigms collapse.

“The world of work has changed and I think what is expected from leaders has changed too. If you go back 10 years ago, leaders had a corner office, it was very top-down, it was my way or the highway and leaders demanded loyalty. That model doesn’t work,” said Vanessa. “If you look at the traditional traits of leadership, they have changed so much in the past two years alone particularly. There’s no corner office now. There is no command and control approach. Instead, leaders need to be collaborative and caring. You can’t demand loyalty. You need to create engagement with new models.”

Three Pillars of Leadership Begin With You

As for creating those models in the virtual era, Vanessa points to the ‘Three Pillars of Leadership ‘which continue to hold firm from her book, Mastering Leadership: What it Takes to Lead in Today’s Fast Paced Change.

“I always talk about leadership in terms of the three pillars and I know some leaders who have mastered these pillars: to know yourself, to manage your team, to lead your business. Leaders who are functioning well in those three pillars are soaring, but they’ve all put in the work into that first pillar,” said Vanessa. “So the leaders who have self-awareness—who know how to leverage their strengths and build teams to mitigate their weaknesses, how to manage those teams, how to coach and give feedback—they have just adapted really nice into virtually leading their business. They actually do know how to manage change and execute strategically.“

Self-awareness aside, resilience and grit are the attributes she finds they all share.

Unfortunately, too many are thrust onto the “lead my business” pillar without self-awareness and Vanessa compares this to a teenager being given the keys to car without so much a driving lesson.

Another common challenge, The flip side opportunity is for leaders to pull their primary attention from the task/results side of the business equation back to the team/people.

“There is a continuum of focus from task to relationship and many leaders function on that to the task orientation. Now in this world we’re in, I am telling them they need to bump up that people focus. It’s become so much more important in this virtual world where you’re not just bumping into someone in the hallway now. So every leader I work with I am encouraging them to up that relationship side and think of what that looks like for them—because it looks different depending upon the leader’s personality.”

Leaders, Please Step to the Goal Line

And while this is exactly the opportunity that people professionals have been gearing for, there is one key roadblock to getting those new modes and models moving.

“This might surprise you, but most leaders don’t even know how to set goals.  I did a workshop  with a group of leaders yesterday and asked them to do a five minute exercise—to write down what they are paid to do. Without a clear focus on that, well…” said Vanessa. “The truth is, with everything that has happened, I hear a lot of ‘I don’t know.’ Leaders aren’t focused on the right thing, so they’re overwhelmed because they’re not prioritizing.”

“In those cases, I tell them to have a good conversation with the board or executives they report too, because that is a question that needs answering,” she added. “If you don’t know what you’re paid to do, you can’t set goals and if you can’t set goals that are aligned to the organizational strategies because those are changing so rapidly, it can be tough to motivate or lead effectively.”

Learning to Manage Transitions (and Listen to HR)

Vanessa points to the value of William Bridges’ book Managing Transitions for those seeking to up their effectiveness and help understand and lead in trying times. 

“He talks about endings, neutral zones and new beginnings—the three psychological phases of change. So every change has an ending where you let go of something there is a lot of emotion and stress around that. Then you have the neutral zone where people are getting used to the new way and then you have the new beginning where people start feeling more comfortable with change,” Vanessa said. “Executives don’t know that! They don’t know there’s this bell curve of emotion; that it’s normal; that they need to manage people through this change.”

And while managing those periodic changes in the past has always been daunting, Vanessa points to the curves of Covid-19 being more akin to a roller coaster leading to what she calls change fatigue—and an opportunity for leaders and organizations to grow in the right direction.

“I think a lot of organizations lost their way in the fight to simply survive. Business models have had to adjust and it takes time to change. If you think about it, the research shows that 70 per cent of organizational change fails and, again, executives have not traditionally been trained on how to lead change. They’re not trained how to communicate change, how to articulate the old versus the new way. That needs to change.”

“The virtual/hybrid worked is here to stay. When I think of the challenges facing leaders, I think not only of the great expectations of their organizations, but also managing their hybrid teams, which is a completely different way of working. Not only do you need to identify your core goals and objectives, you need to roll them down to your people, you need to hold people accountable virtually,” said Vanessa. “What I also see is a huge opportunity from an HR perspective to provide the development needed for leaders on how to manage these hybrid teams and adjust to the new norms.”

Tech and People Network is a unique peer learning network for People and Culture professionals in Canada’s tech sector. We provide tech sector data, mentors, industry experts and an inclusive peer community. Become a member today!

The Motivation Behind Self-Awareness

Fortunately, like any muscle, self-awareness can be exercised and developed. Unfortunately, it has not always been a trait nurtured in the past paradigm of business as normal.

As for three simple exercises you can put to use today as a virtual leader to build those muscles, Vanessa encourages you to remember that:

While you can’t motivate other people, you can provide the environment for motivation;

What motivates you at work will not necessarily motivate others; and

Asking people what makes work work for them is invaluable—when acknowledged and acted upon.

And while all of the above may seem like common sense, Vanessa uses a DISC management tool with the leaders she works with that never fails to open their eyes and minds to the diversity and varied motivations which thrive within all teams.

“Leaders have great strengths, but not many of them are psychiatrists and I tell them that’s okay,” Vanessa said.  “Putting real tools in their hands can make all the difference.”

“In a hybrid model you just need to be much more deliberate with your efforts. You need to put systems and processes in place and them flow naturally—from onboarding to development—and you need to let people know and share your goals. This creates the environment we are looking for,” said Vanessa. “One of the best ways to build high trust for leaders is clarifying your expectations with your team and not enough leaders know that or how to do that. So, that’s also very motivating for people when they know what they do and why. Then they can fly.”

Nurture the Ties That Bond

The answer is perhaps as unsurprising as it remains challenging. Getting to know people on a more human level.

“Connecting with people outside of work, outside of their work persona, is really, really important to building trust. Finding commonalities is a great starting point, which is why the most common Slack channels are pets and babies,” said Josh. “Everybody loves dogs and babies, but that is just scratching the surface. What are the other opportunities?

Josh encourages you to explore within your own diverse teams. “Is there someone in your company passionate about Honda Civics or a particular type of car? The more specific, the fewer people, but the more passionate they are going to be.”

Creating scenarios for people connect in an asynchronous world is as critical to culture as bridging the traditional silos that can evolve in any growing organization.

“Relationships. This is how you do it. Smaller companies have taken to this and in larger companies it is happening in smaller departments first because everyone at the CEO level is panicking about everything else,” Josh said. “They’re not necessarily seeing this yet, which is why I am trying to ring the bell real loud.”