How can business leaders practice classic methods like management-by-walking-around, engaging closely with workers, when everyone has to keep their distance? Can “remote leadership” be as effective as the in-person kind? We are finding out. Managers are adapting as fast as they can. Tacy Byham, CEO of DDI, heads a global leadership-consulting firm that helps organizations hire, promote and develop leaders. From Day One talked with her about the keys to success in virtual leadership. Exceprts:
From Day One: In this vast new experiment we're having with remote work, what are some of the new challenges for leaders?
Tacy Byham: Leaders need to understand how to optimize leadership in a virtual environment. They need to understand how to maintain morale and engagement. They need to understand how to help their teams stay strong under pressure and under stress and avoid burnout. Employees will have a variety of responses. On the one hand, some workers can be exhilarated because they don’t like to meet to people face to face. But on the other hand, you can have loneliness, isolation, difficulties communicating and collaborating, and then a ton of distractions.
So it's quite a pivot that leaders have to do. It's very different from walking down the hall and being able to interact with people. The good thing is technology. We certainly never could have done this five years ago. The more you dive in and use all the features and opportunities that technology can provide, the easier the transition is going to be.
You mentioned burnout. Who are the prime candidates for that, and what are the prime causes?
It’s increasing demands on individuals, particularly if you're a in a high-performing role or in a function like technology. That’s where people can be burnt out–and on their way out. Back in 2018, Gallup did a survey and found that two thirds of full-time workers experienced burnout on the job. Wow! And that was in 2018.
What it comes down to is both individual factors and organizational factors. On the individual side, we have the overachievers, the Type A's, the people who say, ‘I'll just fit that in.’ And they're more likely to burn out than others. One the organizational side, we’ve worked with a researcher and found the top stressors. No. 1 is poor leadership. No. 2 is lack of organizational caring. No. 3 is the negativity of coworkers. This just gives you an idea of the top three. Another one is poor communication. Since we’re all working virtually, that one is probably rising up higher on the list.
Besides the challenges of remote work, what are some of the advantages of what we’ve discovered about people’s adaptability, as well as the new tools and techniques for working?
One of the advantages that I'm seeing is that we are breaking up the preconceived notion that an individual had to be geographically located near your office to be on a team. So the talent pool is broader and richer than it's ever been. It just breaks up and takes down barriers. We've proven that we can do things virtually.
Another advantage is employee development and a focus on growth. Which, of course, for an individual, is an engagement factor: What's my career path? Where am I going? How are you helping me grow with respect to assignments and opportunities? Informal learning does not need to end in a virtual world.
A big part of our business has been helping new leaders step up to take on new roles. In fact, we pivoted 12 years ago to offering training in a virtual environment. I would say pre-COVID, about 20% of our leadership training worldwide was in the virtual classroom and 80% face-to-face. Now those numbers have completely flipped.
Is the virtual classroom as effective as live training?
In fact, we have recent success stories that people are more engaged and got more from learning in a virtual environment than when we were still doing it live. I would say it’s because we've designed virtual learning to require focused attention. You're actually very much engaged and involved.
We make sure that we follow the principles of behavior modeling. Let’s say you're learning to delegate. You will see some positive and negative examples associated with that. We break down what delegation is: recognizing the opportunities for you to delegate, having the delegation conversations, making sure that you follow up and provide the right support.
And then we actually have people practice. Anytime people actually practice something, it helps them to gain confidence and competence in that skill. I equate it to my son learning to drive the car when he was 16. He passed the written test. He played video games about driving. But you don't just hand him the car keys. You get in the car and help him practice.
You’ve also developed a virtual-reality inclusion experience. What is that like?
You go through the experience, you're trying to pitch your idea and other people are talking over you. Other people are interrupting you. You can see that there's an in-group and an out-group. It's full of microaggressions. If you just listen to the whole thing, it is amazing, the memorability of it. You could talk till you’re blue in the face about how women don't always have a voice at the table. But when people experience it, they get it.
We call it the empathy-generating machine. Because when you step into that, you really understand what it feels like. We’ve had men who said, ‘I know I've done that, and I am now so remorseful and apologetic,’ and it's a wake-up call around that. We've had women who've said, ‘I never realized I realized that was happening to my peers, I will do better to help them.’ But we've also had underrepresented women who have said, ‘Oh, my God, that is my life,’ and they broke into tears. So it's the experience itself–and then what do you do with it? So after that, we teach what inclusion really should be. We teach what ally roles are associated with that. We help people practice.
It's very powerful. And it's really safe. You're able to simulate the conversation and the feelings and all of that, but you’re doing it on your own. It’s okay to make mistakes.
Once people have those insights, now can they put inclusivity into action?
Technology is an incredible way to help with inclusivity. Virtual facilitators can work in ways that help quiet people have a voice at the table to share their incredible ideas. Also, I love things like virtual whiteboards, such as the Miro Board, to share and develop ideas as a team.
It takes preparation to be inclusive. Facilitators need to plan time for interactive discussions. For example, each participant would draw a pitch deck for an idea, then they would import their ideas right into the virtual white board. After that, the facilitator offers a voting exercise for the team to share which ideas they like and ask questions. This gives structure to the team’s discussion. It removes situations where someone is put directly on the spot. Instead, you’re collecting everybody's best ideas. It really creates a sense of inclusivity, which is vital because people want to feel like they have a voice.
How can a remote leader strike a balance between providing support for workers and maintaining expectations on productivity?
You know, it's funny, I was having a social-distancing walk with a friend and she said that before COVID-19, she was only able to get approval to work at home once a week, on Fridays. Her commute was not easy. She said, ‘I loved being home on Fridays. And I was always accountable on my team and all that, but it was literally a fear of management that people would not be productive if they weren't able to see them.’”
And we flipped all that. As a leader with your team, you need to have a clear set of OKRs [objectives and key results] that cascade down to your team members. Then, if you as a team member are meeting the results, I am able to give you the freedom you need to get your work done. And I think that's what people are craving.
My chief legal officer has two little kids at home. She has to help them with online learning for the next nine weeks, so there is going to be times where she is going to have to step away. Yet I know what her objectives and key results are, so I don't really care how she manages her day. And that makes her super happy to know that she has that much trust and freedom. You can give people the freedom and that will help lead to their gratitude and engagement. And take away some of the burnout, by the way.
What advice would you give to new leaders taking the first steps in management in a workplace that's virtual?
If you're a newly minted leader, I would make sure you're clear on what you want to accomplish in the first 90 days. And it starts with a discussion with your manager who has promoted you. I would want to frankly know, ‘OK, you looked at a number of individuals and you selected me. What do you see as my strengths? What do you see as my watch-outs?’ Because you want to know that what you're bringing to the table and understand your responsibilities and accountabilities directly from your manager. We included a helpful interview guide in our book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others, for you to have that conversation with your manager.
Once when I was newly promoted, I decided to write a one-pager on me, a personal mission statement to share with the team. I had made several moves within the organization, but coming back to supervise my old department, there was a fixed image of me from eight years ago. I got the idea of the one-pager from Doug Conant, formerly the CEO of Campbell Soup.
My one-pager included how I like to work and what you can expect from me. For one thing, I want a pulse of what's happening with people around the office. So I had to make people on my team aware of that, so they didn't read anything into it negatively.
How have your own leadership methods evolved during this multi-faceted crisis?
Technology has helped us so much. I don't think I have ever used the team chat as much as I have done. And you've got multiple channels open. For example, I found out that Annie on our team, who is just a rock star, had moved from Toronto to Montreal and she’s super busy. So I just reached out to her and suggested we have a virtual cocktail some night. In the past, I might have sent an email or whatever, but I think the instant gratification that you can get from this creates a way to for people to have those good social connections.
One other tip: the best, best meeting practice is that I've set my meetings to be 25-minute meetings and 50-minute meetings. It used to be because I needed walking time to get back and forth between meeting rooms. Now we still need a break.
With overlapping crises in terms of health, economy and social justice affecting workers, how would you advise leaders to talk about these things with their workers?
Now more than anything–in fact, Michelle Obama said it–we need empathy. But you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and actually have the conversations. So, step into it.
Facilitate an open dialogue. You can actually bring in an external facilitator if you don't feel up to it. But not talking about something makes it worse, in my opinion, so I would step in and have those conversations.
Also, as leaders you need to open your minds. You have to look at things from a different perspective. I'm listening to White Fragility, which I can't believe I never did before, when I take my walks around the neighborhood right now. And man, that's eye-opening.
Talk to your teenagers. College-age students are so tapped into the challenges today. You can learn from them. Even if you don't feel like even channeling your own concerns with the people you lead, you could say, ‘Well, my son thinks this,’ and that's a safe way to step into it. So again: broaden your thinking, listen and be courageous–and have the conversations.
Steve Koepp is a co-founder of From Day One. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time