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How to Lead from a Distance

May 14, 2020
By Wayne OlsonMay 14, 2020,

With our lives - business and personal – having been thrown into disarray, setting priorities, and defining what’s truly important all of a sudden has a different feel to it.  Attributes that were rarely considered before – how the health of others impacts me, how my health affects them – are now front and center as we try to keep our companies moving forward.  To make matters worse, for many organizations creating and sustaining priorities has never been an easy exercise; tap-dancing around the pandemic only adds an extra degree of difficulty.

How to Lead from a Distance

Difficulties in Teamwork

I’m sure many of you have attended your organization’s annual planning events and come away with your prize: the obligatory 3-inch thick ‘Strategic Plan’.  In the binder are some really nice-looking graphs, SWOT analysis, organizational priorities, the works.  All in all, a very slick production.  And where was that shiny document a week after the session?  A month?  Three months?  All have the same answer:  sitting on the shelf in your office.  Untouched.  

But didn’t it feel great to get everyone aligned, even if you knew deep down things would start devolving into chaos before you even returned to the office?  Why is that?  It could be due to ‘shiny object syndrome,’ or the tendency of people – and, hence, organizations – to careen from one priority to the next based on whatever is in front of them at a particular point in time.

As a leader, you have the responsibility to bust through this cacophony so that your teams stay focused on what’s important.  Are there tools available to help?  Of course.  Here are a few – all from the University of Many Scars on My Back - to consider trying out.

Watch Your Altitude

In my experience, this is the biggest trap for a leader.  If your priorities are too granular (too low of altitude), they will have the appearance of being inconsistent.  Worse, they won’t be memorable.  Consider the difference between these two priority statements:

  1. It’s crucial that we expedite the new wizbanger subsystem components from supplier XYZ within 3 weeks.
  2. Staying on track with the game-changing new wizbanger product is crucial in order to replace the revenue and profits from the wallcrusher product that will be discontinued next year.

Which priority can you copy/paste from day-to-day, week-to-week?  Which is more memorable?  Which one empowers the team to take ownership?  Make sure you’re flying at right altitude when communicating priorities.

Explain the Why

It never ceases to amaze me how many employees don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Trust me on this one – people are showing up to meetings and taking actions in a complete fog.  I was part of an intense organization-wide effort to define several key corporate priorities, then cascade them down to all employees.  Over a many-month period, the priorities were reviewed in-depth at all-employee meetings; they were posted onto walls; they were pasted into employees’ bonus plan goals.  It was an excellent effort.  But after all, when it came time to initiate meetings and identify specific actions, more than a few employees showed up and declared, “why am I here?” Good Grief!  So, take the time to explain why the wizbanger is such an important product.  Use the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) method to connect the dots so that everyone is on the same page.

Readjust & Reinforce

It’s rare that a priority ends up exactly how it was envisioned.  The launch customer may have changed; a new requirement was introduced late into the design, etc.  These things happen; but left unchecked they will cause bitterness within your team.  (People are okay with change as long the thing that’s changing doesn’t change.  Are we clear on that?)  Keep teams flexible by embracing your role as the real-time, proactive conduit for events that affect priorities.  Find different ways to reinforce the top priorities.  That invigorating meeting about how all the cost centers are being updated for next fiscal year?  That’s right – during the meeting drop a line about the wizbanger.  If your team sees that it’s a clear priority for you, it will more likely be a priority for them.

Clarify What You are Not Going to Do

This is the hardest one because it sounds like I’m encouraging you to say ‘no,’ or ‘that’s not my job.’  Not true.  What I am suggesting is that you get ahead of the curve by acknowledging other worthy initiatives, and to stage those priorities in a manner that leads to success for all of them.  When the CEO starts salivating about a new enterprise-wide productivity software package (which wasn’t resourced because it wasn’t part of the “The Plan”), make a pre-emptive strike to acknowledge the value of the software, and provide a simple timeline showing when it can be worked on while still staying true to the other priorities.  If the CEO wants it sooner, document what it will take to get it done in parallel to the wizbanger.  See the difference?  The good software idea isn’t being rejected; it’s being embraced in a way that allows it to get done without sacrificing the previous commitments.

As with most tools, you may need to use these in combination to achieve the desired result.  Hopefully, with these simple techniques, you can keep your teams on track and focused on what’s important, even if you have to continue your virtual leadership for some time to come.


About Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

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