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How to lead teams you’ve never met in person

This tech CEO took over in the middle of the pandemic and has yet to physically meet a single coworker or board member of the hiring platform she leads.

How to lead teams you’ve never met in person
[Source images: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay; Kaleidico/Unsplash; Tyler Franta/Unsplash; Cytonn Photography/Unsplash]
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As a global business technology executive, I have spent the past few decades logging many miles back and forth across the globe. I did so to build the confidence of prospects and clients, to forge trusting relationships with colleagues, and to lead many teams and organizations through complex and unforeseen challenges. To create familiarity and build trust, we regularly spent time in the same physical space to listen, learn, establish and cement a foundation for productive relationships. Collectively the logged miles enabled me to introduce myself, assess situations, and find common ground to advance the agenda in front of us. 

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Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I was named CEO of Modern Hire. Not only was my entire recruiting and hiring process done remotely, but eight months into my new role, I still have not stood in the same space as a single one of our board members, investors, executives, prospects, clients or employees. If meeting someone requires having shaken hands or being in the same physical space, I have not met a single person associated with the company since starting. 

Long before remote working was common practice, I became a champion of the work-from-anywhere approach, building programs and budgets with remote work as a foundational principle. There are tremendous opportunities to secure domain expertise, a diverse workforce and operational equilibrium by leveraging remote work. Since Modern Hire is a science-based virtual hiring platform, everyone seems comfortable with a non-standard CEO hiring approach. While it is not my intention to work remotely permanently, our company will remain remote for the foreseeable future until our global public health crisis is well behind us.

Not traveling to various offices, client sites or industry conferences has not stopped me from really getting to know our teams and colleagues—and vice versa. Though it requires a bit of discipline and organization, it is possible to effectively lead teams and an organization remotely. As an executive who is comfortable with the non-traditional introduction and experienced it firsthand, here are my best practices for getting started from a remote work location inside a new organization: 

Complete a 30/60/90 plan

This plan should outline your goals and expectations for yourself and your team during the first 30, 60 and 90 days in your new role. The strongest approaches ensure you reach out to key stakeholders between the announcement of your arrival and your actual start date. Share this plan with the executive hiring leader for validation of your approach and early goals before you step into your leadership role. Be prepared to flex your outline and goals as your organizational understanding expands, especially in the early days.

Schedule (virtual) introductions

Use the opportunity to listen, learn and introduce yourself in a variety of settings. One-on-ones, skip-level meetings and small groups will give you different perspectives. Limiting group meetings to no more than six or seven people will allow for more interactive exchanges and give you a better chance to engage everyone in the discussion—even those who are quieter—so their feedback can be heard. 

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Because you do not have body language in quite the same way as a clue as you would in an in-person meeting, place a strong emphasis on observing participation. Use these meetings to inquire who else you should talk to—influencers and experts within the organization, as well as those who can provide the legacy organizational perspective. Without the proverbial water cooler, this will help you meet more individuals and groups and sources of key influencers early on.

Establish a regular cadence of meetings

To avoid being the new executive for too long, it is good to get into a rhythm quickly for recurring check-ins. Keeping these meetings on the calendar—even when you think there are no pressing agenda items—allows you to build relationships early on. In fact, I have found that the one-on-one meetings with fewer agenda items often end up being the most productive. If possible, avoid moving these meetings at the last minute, as it may not send a good message of someone’s importance in your schedule. Without any travel, it is easier to maintain a more predictable daily schedule.

 Keep your camera on

As a leader, when you have your camera on, you send a message of transparency and openness. It invites others to do the same. If others are not following suit, it is your opportunity to state your preference to help build more openness in your working relationships. Be sure to introduce yourself to others by outlining your style, your preferences, and how you work. This will allow you to set expectations and build stronger understanding and connections among your teams.

Focus on mindful, active listening

Be present and engaged in your virtual meetings.  This shows interest and commitment to your employees and the organization and sets a good example for others. Focus on actively listening and asking thought-provoking questions to invite a diversity of team voices into the conversation. 

Give early feedback

Your new organization will be very interested in your impressions. Use this an opportunity to set the tone for your leadership style, your values, and your observations, particularly where you see opportunities to have an early impact. Be knowledgeable enough to provide good guidance where you have it, but give others agency to do their jobs.

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Be accessible 

Participate in your organization’s formal and informal communication channels so you can be more approachable at a variety of times and ways. Being available on short notice will help make you be more approachable.

Eight months into my leadership role, I have established a regular cadence of interactions, remain fully present and engage within a variety of ways as openly and transparently as possible. These habits have helped me get to know the Modern Hire orbit. Not being in the same physical space has challenged us to build trust, understanding and transparency, while not letting it be an excuse for the kind of interactions everyone should have. By the time we do actually sit around a common table, we will be well ahead of what we could have accomplished in person. 


Karin Borchert is  CEO of Modern Hire, an all-in-one enterprise hiring platform that enables organizations to continuously improve hiring results through more personalized, data-driven experiences for candidates, recruiters, and hiring managers.