In February 2020, I accepted an assignment as the Interim CEO of a leading scientific professional society. The Board President and President-elect were looking to me to keep the 130-member staff engaged and calm until the new CEO came on board, ensuring that valued society programs continued to operate effectively.
I knew there would be some challenges in leading the team. Transitions are always unsettling. This one had a number of elements that were raising stress levels – an effective and popular CEO was retiring, and the team was worried about changes I might make as well as changes the new CEO might institute. In addition, the Board was ready to adopt a visionary strategic plan, and employees wondered what their role would be in the society’s future.
But the stressor I did not anticipate was the COVID-related shutdown. My assignment, which ran from March 29 to August 14 occurred entirely virtually. I never met any of the staff or Board leaders in person. I asked myself how could I develop employees’ trust and engagement when I could not walk down the hall to greet employees or hold face-to-face meetings with them?
While Zoom and other video conferencing tools can provide face-to-face interactions, that is not the only tool that a new leader – or any leader – needs in order to connect with employees and earn their trust.
It will come as no surprise that a guest blog on The Grossman Group site will say the most important tool in the leader’s toolbox is communication. But how to communicate? This is what worked for me, and I believe can work for others.
6 Tips for Stepping into a Role Without Meeting Your Team Face-to-Face
- Be vulnerable. On the first day on the job, I began my all-staff email by saying “This is a scary day for me.” And it was. That admission resonated with employees who were dealing with many fears of their own and demonstrated that I am human.
- Share some personal parts of your life. When I introduced myself at the first all-staff meeting, of course, I talked about my priorities in my time as Interim CEO and how we would work together. But the most popular part of my presentation was the pictures I showed of my family. For employees dealing with many family issues while working from home, it was a way for them to relate to me.
- Listen and keep listening. I began my assignment by meeting individually with each senior team member to learn about their responsibilities and challenges. Then I held open office hours, inviting all employees to “drop” into a zoom call to introduce themselves and chat a bit about their work. We used breakout rooms during all-staff meetings to give everyone the chance to contribute ideas. Throughout my time on the job, I received suggestions from staff members. We could not implement all of them, but I could respond to every suggestion so employees would know they were heard. And I did.
- Listen for more than just work issues. New leadership creates a transition for both the organization and its employees. William Bridges, in his book, “Managing Transitions,” emphasizes that leaders must allow employees to express their anxieties about being in transition without judging them. Senior staff and I discussed Bridges’ perspective that employees whose fears have been heard will be more receptive to plans to move beyond the transition stage. I encouraged them to listen to the concerns of their teams. But it was not only uncertainty around transition that was raising staff’s fears. George Floyd’s death deeply affected many employees, and we gave them space and multiple forums to process those feelings.
- Give employees a voice. Once the Board had approved its strategic plan, the team was charged with developing a multi-year implementation plan. Senior leaders could have developed the plan, but I wanted as many employees involved as possible. I felt that a variety of viewpoints and ideas would enrich the plan, and I thought that if employees were involved in developing the initial draft, they would be able to see their role in implementing the ambitions of the strategic plan. I asked for volunteers, both in leadership and team member roles; eighty-four of the 130 employees participated in the planning. They appreciated the opportunity to have a voice in the society’s future and reported they found the work a professional development opportunity.
- Say thank you. Whenever an employee made an extra effort; for example, working until midnight to accept proposals for the annual meeting, I wrote a thank you email and often got a reply thanking me for acknowledging that effort. Those thank you notes and responses to them helped to create a connection with individual staff members.
My experience is by no means a one-off. While not all future leaders will spend their entire time leading an organization virtually, they might start in a new role without having met their staff. Leaders at all levels will continue to decide to leave a position for either personal or professional reasons, and new leaders will take their place. Even when it is possible to return to the office, many employees will resist returning to the office. They have gotten comfortable working from home and proven they can be just as effective in getting the job done as when they were in the office. In person meetings with employees may no longer be an option.
The world of work may have changed forever, but no matter the channel, the importance of two-way leadership communication will never change.
Which of these tips, if applied today, will help you lead and engage your employees virtually?
Get 8 key strategies to help you lead and communicate with heart – and guts – to motivate and engage your employees when you download your free copy of the Leading With Heart ebook today.