How to Understand and Manage the Challenges of Remote Leadership

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An accomplished entrepreneur, business leader, executive coach, speaker, corporate trainer, Janet Fouts skillfully works at the nexus of technology, neuroscience, and mindfulness.

Her focus is on creating and executing effective human-centric strategies for leadership and relationship management, which opens the door for clients to live a more fulfilling life at work and at home.

With her seven books, two companies “Tatu Digital” and “Nearly Mindful”, Janet is associated with UCLA and Stanford, and many other institutions, ensure she is recognized as one of the Top 50 Marketing Thought Leaders Over 50 by Brand Quarterly Magazine, among other heavyweight players in the mixed media. Our topic today is how to understand and manage the challenges of a remote leadership challenge.

She has also spoken at conferences around the world, including at TEDx, and in this interview, Janet outlines: “How to Understand and Manage the Challenges of Remote Leadership”. Stream or download the interview below:

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Highlights from Episode 136: “How to Understand and Manage the Challenges of Remote Leadership”

Tell us a little about yourself, Janet, about your background and your area of expertise.

It’s kind of a long story, but, it started in the mid-90s running, a .com startup and venture funding, started a web development company. Then moved into social media, marketing, and management in the 2000s. Around 15 years ago, my partner developed breast cancer and that made me really come to the realization that I didn’t spend much time taking care of myself.

I’d been working remotely for 20 years. So that was something that was pretty comfortable, but I really wasn’t enjoying my work anymore. I really didn’t feel that it was fulfilling. I started exploring ways to take care of myself and not be so stressed all the time. That led me into a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, and that started my road to digging really deep into this mindfulness stuff, as some people call it. And really started finding it very fulfilling, and also helped me to help other people through their stressful times. That’s the really short version of a very long story.

When did people actually seriously begin to give the notion of mindfulness some credence?

It really has been for a long time. But those of us in the business world really have only been paying attention the last maybe 10 years, especially in technology. Companies, a lot of the large technology companies gathered this pretty quickly. In fact, I studied with the Search Inside Yourself program, which was started at Google by an engineer. I think that’s what really attracted me to that program was I have a very logical mind, not Spock, but I have a very logical mind and so having this program being created by an engineer at Google, made me go “Okay, maybe this could be something that I’m interested in.” And it was.

Tell us about some of the challenges that leaders face with this kind of remote working at remaining mindful about both ourselves, our workplace, and the balance between those.

This pandemic has been a blessing in more ways than we probably want to identify right now and one of them is that all of a sudden people are realizing. “Oh, life could be really pretty good.” Now, working from home is not as much of a burden now after 18 months, almost two years that it seemed like it was going to be. But it was very, very hard in the beginning for people to adjust.

I worked with companies that had absolutely no ability to work from home. They weren’t allowed to take their computers home and when they did take their computers home and still, they’re monitored to make sure everybody’s doing their job. That feeling of not trusting your employees is kind of typical in technology because of course: yeah, people do take stuff and tell things to other people and things like that. That certainly happens. But having a level of trust in the employees that they’re going to do the right thing starts with developing trust in leadership, knowing that our leaders are people who have a conscience that they do have the best in mind for the company, but also for the employees.

If it isn’t right now in this current day and age, people just leave and that’s what they’re doing. They’re not staying at companies that don’t respect their individual privacy and taking care of people. So we’re seeing a massive change in the way that people who work from home are being managed and leaders are stepping up. The leaders that are not stepping up are either getting fired or they’re losing people in a really big way.

So how do leaders address those challenges? The physical distance actually does have an impact, too, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. It absolutely does. If we don’t see people face to face, even though we’re seeing each other face to face over video right now that can be a segue, can be a way for us to reach people. It is no longer really appropriate to say, “Okay. Here’s the job, get it done.” And walk away. Asking people “How are you doing today? What is it that you need?” Then actually listening to the answer is one way that emotional intelligence and mindfulness come to play because we are really connecting with people on a different level, and it’s no longer just a job.

We understand now, that there are a lot of relationships in the workforce, whether you’re a leader or you’re part of a team, you have a lot of relationships and those relationships matter more than they ever did because we need that to be able to be a cohesive team, to be able to work together effectively.

The old thing that they used to say is, “Well if you’re not working here in the office, I don’t know what you’re doing.” Well, now they’re turning their work in from a beach somewhere, and that’s okay. It’s working. And it’s working because people still feel connected to the company, they feel connected to the manager. There’s a level of trust there. And we’ve actually been seeing that people are more productive now than they were when they were in the office.

Do you think communications have improved a lot in the last couple of years, as well?

Yes. Absolutely. Communication has improved in many ways. Some of it is that we have to communicate more. We used to rely on kind of wandering by somebody’s cubicle and having a conversation. We also used to be really annoyed by those conversations because “I was working when Joe came by and wanted to chat” and we don’t have as much of that now.

We have it on Slack. People are using Slack. Microsoft Teams has similar things, too. But it’s less intrusive and we can put a barrier up. A lot of the time that was wasted in offices where we were chatting or waiting for the next conference call or whatever that was is pretty much past. And now people are having smarter meetings that are shorter, more to the point, and less annoying. How many of us have sat in on a conference call where we had five minutes of conversation and it was an hour and a half conversation? That doesn’t happen as much anymore because people aren’t really very tolerant of that.

What communications tips or advice do you have for the leaders of organizations?

The most important thing is to actually listen. When I say listen, I don’t mean sit there and wait for the other person to stop talking so you can tell them what they need to do. Or interrupting people while they’re talking without actually listening to what they’re saying. And that’s actually a skill. It’s a very mindful skill that people are beginning to develop, but it is something that we need to work on – that capacity to simply listen to the answer and to allow more pauses in the conversation and not freak out when things get a little quiet for a moment. Because some people need to process what you just said and if you’re not being quiet and allowing them to finish their thought, then it’s interrupting and less gets done. So that’s one of the first ones that I think is, is the most important – listening.

The second one is, quite honestly, checking in with people, on a personal level and not allowing every meeting to just be all business, which may seem counterproductive. But, in fact, we actually, learn so much more if we meet with people individually or in very small groups to find out what’s going on. That’s where creativity happens, that’s where creative problem-solving happens is by opening the door to: Let’s just talk about this and just kind of spitball “What is it that we could be doing differently?” And asking your employees “What could I be doing differently that would help you?”

Can we learn to be mindful? Can we learn emotional intelligence?

Oh, yes. I’ll tell you that what I teach is what I call micro-dosed mindfulness. The reason I call it that is because there are so many misconceptions about what mindfulness is, what emotional intelligence is, and “Oh, how hard it is. And it sounds like I’m going to have to sit under my desk, on the floor, in the meditation with my hands in the right place.” It’s not true.

Mindfulness is very simple. It’s very small things. For example, one of my favorite examples is: you are answering an email or you are coding which is something that I used to do myself and when you’re deep in coding and someone interrupts you. It’s really disruptive and it can disrupt you for a long time. Not just a minute. So you’re coding and the phone rings. You make a decision. Am I going to answer this? Am I not going to answer? That’s the first mindful choice. Okay. I am going to answer it. I’m going to shut my window down for a moment. Take a breath and answer the phone and actually be in the conversation because we very often aren’t in those conversations.

We are annoyed because we were disrupted, we are thinking about what we need to be doing instead of this and that’s all very apparent to the person on the other end of the phone. So when we make choices, consciously, “I’m not going to answer this now. I can get back to them later”. When we shut our email off, while we’re coding, while we’re working, and then check it periodically, those are mindful decisions that are very simple and allow us to be fully present for the conversation and that’s easy. Anybody can do that. And that’s mindfulness. Isn’t that cool?

Show Notes

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