Leading in a virtual world: Advice from the Athena community

It’s been just shy of one year since the world went into Covid-19 lockdown. What many of us thought was temporary — working from home, non-stop Zoom meetings, and a whole new perspective on work-life integration — has become our new normal. While the business world has marched on, virtually, many leaders are left wondering how to maintain connection and oversight with their teams and colleagues through the screen of a laptop or phone.

Members of Athena and our executive leadership coaches have shared reflections on how leaders can command a room and maintain a sense of executive presence, virtually.

Jenna Lange is the founder and President of Lange International. She’s been coaching and consulting executives in high stakes communication skills and strategies for over 15 years, and is now addressing the virtuality of executive presence in the workplace for her clients.

She emphasizes that choosing to go camera-off versus camera-on is important for you as a leader, but also important to observe across your team. As she explains, “ 56% of people are doing something else on conference calls. Cameras on, and that number goes to 4%.

Athena coach Hillary Wicht, who specializes in voice and presence, points out that it’s still important to “show up” virtually . And, sometimes your office tech gear can make or break the connection. Teams still need to hear — and feel — trust, connection, and honesty… even if it’s just over video.

“It is not enough to just have the technology tools,” Wicht said. “We have to know how to use them, and we have to know what aspects of our own communication tools can be leveraged and the best ways to do so.”

When your tools are squared away and you have an audience, as leaders, you still need to inspire confidence and motivation in your team. That means avoiding phrases that can make team members think twice about your confidence or abilities, such as “I sort of think,” or “I’m not sure.” Elbaum shares simple tips in her podcast to fight the urge to use these phrases, including practicing in a mirror and paying extra attention to your choice of words.

In a recent Virtual Salon, Athena member Katelin Holloway (founding partner at Seven Seven Six) discussed what it means to lead teams remotely. Importantly, remote work has shifted employee expectations and the need for leaders to look beyond the screen and what they “see” to check in on employees’ health, happiness, and safety in an entirely new way.

“The thing that you need to do right now is lead with empathy and compassion. So you need to think first about the health and safety of your family. Second, the health and safety of your organization. And that includes psychological safety,” Holloway shared.

In the early days of Covid and remote work, there were few frameworks for how to remotely manage teams, which are often globally dispersed with workers managing their own personal challenges like child care and homeschooling. Many organizations were completely new to the concept of wholly remote and rushed to implement the right tools and infrastructure to make it possible. Holloway noted that communication is key — and that you cannot really over-communicate in this unprecedented time.

“ Whatever you were doing before, double it when it comes to communication. So, if you were meeting for an all-hands meeting once a month, let’s make that twice a month-every two weeks,” she said. “If you were meeting weekly, continue to do your weekly Friday all-hands, and maybe have a little pulse check in order or open office hours for people to come together.”

Holloway also suggested doubling down on documentation. Remote may mean there could be more confusion. Things can get lost in communication; lost in a text or a phone call. Document everything from processes to meeting notes to ensure everyone is clear and on the same page.

Now that we are approaching one year, many are finding that Zoom is what we make it. Approaching calls with enthusiasm and focus is a start. But you can also make your home office environment engaging for those you meet with by ensuring your lighting is bright and natural, if possible, and positive. Clear away the clutter and hang meaningful pictures in your background, even if it’s your children’s artwork and family photos. Approaching each call with a sense of empathy and camaraderie will go a long way.

Also, be respectful of time. Avoid extending meetings too long and show that you understand that people at home are likely navigating a minefield of distractions. Paying attention to time and getting to the point of the call will surely be appreciated. A meeting agenda may help keep you on track.

And, be aware of your room and your background. Your Zoom “background” is akin to your professional wardrobe. Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward by eliminating unnecessary clutter and background distractions.

Finally, know that technical hiccups come with the territory. If you experience audio challenges or poor connections, laugh and smile your way through it. An old fashioned phone call — ear to ear — serves as a welcome backup.

Originally published at https://athenaalliance.com on January 28, 2021.

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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