Maintaining alignment when all-remote as a leader

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When you think about how the online environment has enabled a myriad of decentralized activity to emerge — it makes complete sense when you consider that it’s the nature of the digital medium itself. Anyone can get started on their own online, and they can consciously choose to be a nomad or part of a larger tribe. There’s no value to being a nomad besides the therapeutic value of talking to yourself (I’m talking from experience here <wink>), and yet there’s a whole lot more value from connecting with others. This latter value that gets achieved when leaving the cocoon of ourselves is something that John W. Gardner described so perfectly as an outcome of aging:

You learn the arts of mutual dependence, meeting the needs of loved ones and letting yourself need them.

John W. Gardner

Being in an all-distributed environment is something I’ve been accustomed to as a way of life thanks to being exposed to electronic media in the 1970s. But figuring out how to lead at scale in an all-distributed environment is something that feels both a lot different and a lot same than in my past experiences as a leader. What’s identical in an all-remote environment is what Marshall Ganz says about leadership:

Leadership is accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Leaders accept responsibility not only for their individual “part” of the work, but also for the collective “whole.” Leaders can create conditions interpersonally, structurally, and/or procedurally. The need for leadership (a need often not met) is evident when encounters with the uncertain demand adaptive, heuristic, or innovative response: past practices are breached, new threats loom, a sudden opportunity appears, social conditions change, new technology changes the rules, and so on. 

Marshall Ganz

What’s different is that the only reason that all-distributed companies are possible is because of the technology itself that has “changed the rules” as Ganz points out is an impetus for the need for leadership itself. Let’s pause on that thought for the moment: the paradigm of remote work itself is changing at the same speed of technology, too.

So it’s important to not expect it unusual at all that every week there will be a new digital tool that’s being tried out by your team as a means to improve the work environment. It’s because there are so many tools out there today that seem to be making money off of the fact that the work paradigm itself is being rapidly transformed — otherwise it’s unlikely that something like WeWork could be valuated at $20B+. And that’s just for the physically built environment; I believe that GitHub was worth way, way more than its comparatively smaller $8B valuation and sale to Microsoft.

Sherry Turkle’s 2012 book title, “Alone Together” has always said it so perfectly for me. When we’re working in an all-distributed manner we’re technically by ourselves and yet we’re with everyone that we know (and don’t) all at the same time. And something about the close yet depersonalizing aspect of the experience lends itself to problems that we’re still dealing with as a society. For example, when asked why cyberbullying is easier online, Dr. Turkel responded,

It all stems from the same thing — which is that when we are face to face — and this is what I think is so ironic about Facebook being called Facebook, because we are not face to face on Facebook … when we are face to face, we are inhibited by the presence of the other. We are inhibited from aggression by the presence of another face, another person. We’re aware that we’re with a human being. On the Internet, we are disinhibited from taking into full account that we are in the presence of another human being.

Sherry Turkle

It’s this phrase “face to face” or “F2F” that I’ve been wondering about in a world where image avatars can represent our faces. This goes for all platforms, of course. We can see your face (or not) — and we don’t know what to read from it any given moment of time. An avatar makes you frozen in a moment of time — and so the expressive value of the photo goes to zero. We tend to look to the photo avatar (at least I do) when reading something that is emotionally complicated — and it’s impossible to find anything in it. For that reason, for a long period I set my avatar to a cat and more recently to a dipped version of my face. Why? Because I’m questioning the value of the avatar as a means to communicate anything useful.

Having led at the scale of low thousands, an important takeaway I’ve had is that you’re always leading remotely in that case. And so you rely on mass communications to get a point across. Consider the emails that leaders (myself included) can labor so intensely over to communicate in perfection through their words — only to find out that nobody really bothered to read the memo. It’s not that different when leading remotely and posting an internal Slack message or private blog post to try to align a small group of people who you have no daily contact with — the fact is that most will not read it, too. Why? Because there’s an intangible value to an IRL (In Real Life) interaction that doesn’t get replicated in a NIRL (Not In Real Life) interaction.

What is the solution? My guess is that it’s some combination of Gardner, Ganz, and Turkle’s insights for now.

  • Via Gardner: Foster mutual dependence.
  • Via Ganz: Foster conditions interpersonally.
  • Via Turkle: Foster F2F-like** presence.

Another solution, implicit to this blog post, is I’m figuring it out loud here. Thanks for dropping by! —JM


** Note that this is where design and technology can get a lot done. For example, I’ve taken to personally authoring videos the way in the industrious manner that YouTubers are teaching us new things.

Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash