If you work for a virtual boss, the burden for making the relationship successful fall on you, the direct report
Posted on The Leading Edge: July 20, 2007 at 1:45 PM
More and more leaders are finding themselves in virtual boss/direct report relationships. Separated in space and often in time (zones), they struggle to communicate effectively, stay aligned, and achieve desired goals. It's all too easy for difficult-to-close gaps to open up when you are working virtually—in assessments, priorities, and expectations. Keeping this from happening is the central challenge of remote leadership.
Dictionaries list two quite distinct definitions for the word "remote," both of which can apply to the challenge of dealing with a virtual boss. One meaning is "operating effectively from a distance," for example using a remote control. This is of course the primary objective in a virtual boss-subordinate relationship: to have coordination and control work as well from a distance as it does up close.
The other, less benign, meaning of "remote" is "distant or unapproachable." Sometimes the black-hole boss is the problem. Try as you might, you really can't pin her down and get direction from her—in person or electronically.
More commonly, though, it's the direct report who doesn't make enough effort to make communication work across the distance. Particularly at risk for falling into this trap are those leaders who have a strong independent streak and a burning desire to prove themselves. They relish the opportunity to operate remotely and to chart their own course. So they don't put out the effort they should to get feedback and direction from their distant bosses.
This is, unfortunately, akin to sailing by dead reckoning when you are out of sight of land (in the days before GPS, naturally). You may navigate effectively and end up at the desired destination. But if you lack a reference point and get off course, it could take a long time to figure it out, and you may have a lot of distance to make up when you finally do.
What does it take to make remote leadership work? Here are some basic guidelines:
1. Find a way to spend some face time with the new boss early on. As soon as you know you are taking on a new role with a virtual boss, secure a significant block of time on his calendar. Regardless of how far away you are and how much you feel you need to do back home, force yourself to spend some time in the same room. Because there is no way you can make a personal connection and lay the foundation for a strong working relationship solely through electronic means.
2. Discipline yourself to choose the right modes of electronic communication. Email and instant messaging have revolutionized business communication, but they can never convey the sorts of contextual cues and emotional subtleties that are exchanged in conversation. Bias yourself toward electronic conversation and away from messaging in virtual relationships. Pick up the phone more than you would if you were located nearby. If you can't talk in real time, make more use of voice mail.
3. Find windows of opportunity to check in with your boss. You and your boss are both busy and it's all too easy for an "out of sight, out of mind" dynamic to creep in. So take the time to figure out your boss's routines and identify times when she is more likely to be available. One accomplished virtual manager I recently spoke with described how he arranged calls when his boss was in the car on the way to or from work.
4. Discipline yourself to make the connection. Think of yourself as having 100% responsibility for making the relationship work with your virtual boss. Force yourself to take the initiative to reach out regularly. Put reminders to do so into your calendar. Above all, keep in mind that the consequences of getting disconnected, and going off course as a result, will mostly be borne by you.
Have you experienced particular challenges in dealing with virtual bosses? Do you have suggestions for how to make remote leadership work?
HARVARD BUSINESS ONLINE RECOMMENDS:
Organizing for Innovation: When Is Virtual Virtuous? (HBR Classic) (Collection)
Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger? (HBR Article)
How to Communicate with Telecommuters (HMU Article)
The Personal Side of Time: Mastering Work-Life Balance (HBS Press Chapter)