How leading in isolation has made me a more present CEO

Learning to lead from afar.
Learning to lead from afar.
Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
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Like many others, I’ve found myself in the position of adjusting to a foreign routine of remote work during this strange, uncertain, and turbulent time. I feel fortunate to work in an industry that allows me to work remotely. And similar to many CEOs and business leaders, my responsibilities in guiding employees, customers, and our shared community have rightfully taken on new layers and complexities.

As someone who thrives from the daily routine of taking morning calls on my drive to work, meeting with various colleagues in-person throughout the day, and as an entrepreneur who built a company from its startup roots based on the idea of creative, collaborative interaction, leading in isolation has been a jarring and humbling adjustment.

I’ve been tasked with recalibrating my leadership practices and translating shared company values in new ways and through new mediums. I’ve had to redefine the way in which I communicate as a CEO from a completely different position of solitude. And in doing so—ironically—I’ve come to learn how to be a more present leader, valuing qualities we should all take on in this climate, and perhaps more importantly, when we start to rebuild. There’s more to learn, and a long road ahead, but here are some strategies we can immediately put into practice—to everyone’s benefit.

Be vulnerable

We typically relate to one another’s hardships as we’ve gone through something similar in the past in various forms and at different phases of our life. Yet one of the many troubling things to define this pandemic is its uniform impact on all of us in one way or another—and of course to some, more devastatingly so.

Acknowledge we are all in this together; admit that things are difficult, or that, simply, you’re having a tough day. That you’re feeling scared, frustrated, lonely, sad, bored, or worried. Like your team, you also miss your friends and loved ones. You’re worried about a neighbor who is ill. You wish you could see other people, eat at a restaurant, go to church, enjoy a concert or a movie. You’re also having a hard time implementing homeschooling to your teenager.

Share how you’re coping and feeling with employees, in whatever way feels right and authentic. Doing so gives employees permission to do the same—and lets them know their feelings are valid. We’re all operating in a new reality. The more you acknowledge that fact with vulnerability, the more employees will trust you and open up themselves. As a result, people can then focus more clearly on the important work ahead.

Provide moments of humor when you can

It’s impossible to sugarcoat the devastating effects of this pandemic—and I don’t intend to. But we all still need humor. Particularly when everything else may feel grim and hopeless. As much as organizations are keeping an unwavering focus on business goals and results in a time like this, regardless of industry and role, it’s up to leaders to inject levity when we can. I’ve learned how to do this by poking fun at—who else?—myself.

The other week, I took a few minutes to share a video message to employees about remote meeting protocol and proper attire. While I was talking to my team, my wife zoomed out to show the PJs and slippers accompanying my button-down shirt. I’m a lifelong entrepreneur in tech, not a stand-up comedian, to be sure. But the point lies in the effort you put forth to bring a little joy (maybe a chuckle, if you’re lucky) to employees.

Show self-deprecating humor simply for the sake of pausing from our collective anxiety for just a moment. Things are serious right now. That is undisputable. But that doesn’t mean things have to be serious every moment of the day. As CEO, you are the one that can set that tone and provide those moments. Why wouldn’t you?

Put empathy into practice

Many business leaders write about the importance of leading with empathy. Now is the time to truly put the principle into practice. An employee may be stuck trying to calm a crying baby before a conference call. Perhaps some employees are out sick themselves or caring for loved ones who are ill. Many are taking social distancing on by themselves. And ultimately, and unfortunately, people are scared. This is the moment to walk the walk when it comes to empathy.

It’s simple. Be present by taking the time to see how employees are doing at the beginning of a call. Give your team the appropriate amount of understanding, patience and flexibility to focus on such priorities at home. Ask yourself: Am I practicing patience with colleagues? Am I using the right tone to acknowledge the very real hardships so many are facing? Pausing for such questions will make you a better leader and one with genuine empathy. And better yet, others will follow your example.

I’ve never before found my leadership values to be challenged in such a direct way. While I’ve always believed empathy and trust to be vital characteristics for any successful CEO, the past couple of months have presented moments where I had to examine priorities and situations in a different light, with those qualities foremost among others. Leaders must also recognize that the pivotal role of empathy is not going away any time soon. As businesses reopen and as we welcome employees back into the office, this switch will not turn off. Things will not be the same as they were before; the same goes with employee expectations. The work/life balance has been forever challenged, and leaders who recognize this and operate accordingly will thrive. Others will be left behind.

Take the time to connect whenever you can

When addressing colleagues, look for opportunities to be visually available. Suggest for a video call over audio when it makes sense. Make the effort to address employees with a video message for a company update—rather than sending a mass email. If you have a question that can be quickly tackled on the phone, dial up co-workers and embrace the kind of interaction we’re missing.

Think of the topics and items you would normally address in person by stopping by someone’s office and swap those emails with quick phone or video interactions when you can.​ Doing so not only makes you more present, but more efficient—which is critical during a time when things are rapidly changing and decisions must be made smarter and faster.

Admittedly, this is something I didn’t always put in to practice pre-coronavirus. I now know better. Further, speaking with some of our remote employees and international colleagues, I’ve taken in the feedback of how valuable this has been for them in terms of communicating on the same playing field. Rather than one person dialing in to a phone call, while eight others are in the room, we’re now all connecting through the same medium at the same time. When our offices reopen, this is the rule I plan to hold myself to. Are all participants in the same room? Great. If not, we’ll convene via video chat or phone. It’s critical everyone has the same advantages when it comes to communicating, participating, and collaborating.

Communities on every scale are facing extraordinary challenges during this time of increasing uncertainty—from our shared global community to our family units; our towns, cities, friend networks, and certainly our places of work. But our new normal also presents the opportunity to connect, empathize, and communicate with employees in ways we never have before. If we adjust our leadership accordingly, we just might come out the other side better for it.