How to Project Confident Leadership in a Remote World

Leading from behind a screen doesn’t have to feel awkward

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Over the last year, digital communication has become the bedrock of our work lives, whether we like it or not. With the global pandemic forcing many of us into long-term remote work arrangements, we can no longer fall back on physical body language to showcase our best traits and distinguish ourselves from our colleagues. Whereas we used to score points with our innate charisma or a freshly ironed suit, it’s become harder to subliminally communicate our best traits — what I call “executive presence.” How are we supposed to convey confidence and integrity over video calls without looking like a try-hard?

This issue was illustrated by a recent meeting I had with a client, a leader at Johnson & Johnson named Kelci. Kelci had gotten some tough feedback from her team around morale issues. In her review, her boss commented that Kelci’s “empathy was weak.” When Kelci and I first met and began talking, I kept my eye out for the standard, universal markers of subpar empathy: an inability to understand the needs of others; proficiency (or the lack of it) in reading and using body language; poor listening skills, a failure to ask deep questions. I was confused. Kelci was fantastic at all these things. So what was going on?

The answer had less to do with Kelci and more to do with today’s tech-reliant workplace. Instead of being low in empathy, Kelci, like nearly everyone I counseled, didn’t know what empathy meant any more in a world where digital communication had made once-clear signals, cues, and norms almost intelligible. A strong tone of voice or approachable body language didn’t cut it anymore. The digital world required a new kind of body language.

For example, Kelci believed she was doing everyone a favor by keeping her emails brief and succinct. That’s not how they were received by her team, who found them cold and ambiguous. Kelci canceled meetings at the last minute with no explanation, which made her teammates feel disrespected, as though Kelci’s schedule mattered more than theirs. During strategy presentations, Kelci would glance down repeatedly at her phone, making others feel she was checked out. I could go on, but I won’t.

All of us can cultivate and convey the characteristics of a strong, empathetic leader from the comfort of our homes. It just takes some practice. The trick? Enhancing our communication skills with strong digital body language, and leading by example.

Read messages carefully and respond consistently

Leaders with a strong executive presence are present, calculated, and careful. Online, this means double-checking all written digital communications, and treating the virtual ones as if they were occurring in person. It means sending clear messages with a clear ask, and not confusing brevity with clarity. It means understanding that sometimes a phone call is more efficient than a string of “urgent” emails.

It also means being courteous about responding, no matter who you owe a response to. Remember: in a digitally-reliant world, the slightest pause between messages takes on an almost operatic meaning. Try your best to respond quickly to timely messages, or consider responding to a message by alerting the sender that you’ll be responding thoughtfully at a later time.

Create a digital community to connect with team members

Sam’s Club, the membership warehouse of iconic retailer Walmart, employs over 100,000 associates in retail stores across the country. Communicating and engaging with this many associates was a challenge. Sam’s Club turned to Workplace from Facebook to create a digital community to improve communication.

Storytelling is an essential part of Sam’s Club’s culture and team members now share their stories through Workplace. There is a company-wide group called ‘Sam’s Club Shout-Outs’ where senior leaders frequently congratulate standout associates. Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, regularly participates a company-wide Q&As that are live-streamed via Workplace, giving every associate in the business the chance to ask him a question personally and feel that their ideas can have an impact.

Digital platforms, such as Workplace, allow leaders to connect and interact directly with their teams.

Serve as a facilitator, not a monopolizer, of team discussions

In digital meetings, executive presence can make itself known in obvious ways — the skill a leader shows by facilitating constructive discussions, for example, or the way she sidesteps the common pitfalls of digital platforms, like people talking over or lecturing one another, or falling prey to offline distractions.

A strong executive presence is communicated through a leader’s ability to prepare for and oversee effective meetings remotely. A good leader will send out brainstorm topics before a meeting time so that attendees can prepare their own contributions. They will ask team members to bring their top three ideas to the meeting, so as to avoid running over time without coming to a consensus. They might consider asking their team to split into virtual subgroups using platforms such as Workplace Groups to discuss ideas beforehand. That way, their team will use the call time to discuss ideas that have already been effectively pre-screened.

Acknowledge individual differences

Like any in-person workplace, the digital office can be monopolized by whoever speaks first or loudest. What’s more, we find it harder to interrupt each other because of the awkwardness of cutting someone off while on Zoom — somehow it feels worse than doing so in person. Executive presence means taking strides to solicit ideas from all members of your team. It means stepping in if your extroverted team members have hijacked a discussion or project while making it clear that everyone is responsible for honing the skills to problem solve on their own.

Above all else, strong executive presence online means a capacity for empathy, no matter the distance. It is about demonstrating your expertise in a way that is authentic to you, and exemplary to your colleagues. Leading by example and facilitating digital connection through technologies such as Zoom and Workplace improve the overall community and communication, team members. A good leader acknowledges individual differences among team members and caters to those needs for the sake of the greater good, knowing that empathy among teams creates space for employee engagement, better work product, and increased innovation.

Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st-century teamwork and communication. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on Linkedin.

Keynote Speaker on 21st Century Teamwork and Innovation. Author, GET BIG THINGS DONE and DIGITAL BODY LANGUAGE (ORDER HERE: http://bit.ly/3avbJkg)

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