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I’ve been noticing that a lot of people seem to be rethinking their lives now that the pandemic is getting more under control. We’re not out of danger yet by any means, but we’re thinking about whether we should truly go back to life as we knew it a couple of years ago.

I ponder that myself when I think about what 2021 and 2022 should look like for me. I’m of the mind to make some changes.

This raises a couple of questions for you. First, what do you want to increase and what do you want to decrease as you figure out your future?

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We learn very early in life to conform, to fit in, to copy.

Unfortunately this doesn’t usually lead to success in business. And it doesn’t make you a leader.

Instead, you have to figure out how you’re going to be different, to stick out and be memorable. But this takes courage.

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The future will be different than the past. That’s basic, right? Yet we love to make projections based on an expectation that only 2% will change.

Well, the pandemic upended all that. It felt like EVERYTHING changed.

As we achieve a high rate of vaccinations, we’d like to think that we will “return to normal” — namely, 2019. But it’s not happening. We’re moving into something new.

We expect our business leaders to have a clearer view of the future, or at least to act like they do. But we’re in a state where NOBODY really knows what the future holds.

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When inspiration lights you up, the impact can be unstoppable.

I had the chance recently to speak with Gary Nickell, founder of Scott’s Roofing in Colorado. They do commercial and residential roofing work, so not exactly what you might consider a leading edge, fancy industry.

And I have to admit it’s an industry without a great reputation. We can have some severe hailstorms around here, so every year we have numerous people contact us about assessing hail damage – even when there hasn’t been a storm. Many of those people aren’t based here, and may just disappear with your deposit.

Unfortunately, many home maintenance services have this kind of reputation.

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We all know that the boat which wins the race will be the one where each person is contributing their most to all go in the same direction. If one person is disengaged, or worse yet, out of sync, progress will be slow.

Or no progress at all. Or even backwards.

Yet this happens all the time in organizations. People are minimally “doing their job,” yes, but not really that engaged.

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Leadership is about telling people where to go and what to do. Right?

Well, no.

The truth is that, as Marshall Goldsmith proclaims, leadership is 80% listening. How do we resolve this disconnect?

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After a big event or a holiday, it can be tough to get your energy focused back on what you need to get done. Actually, that’s the way you know a holiday was valuable: you were able to shift to other things for a while, and it’s kinda tough getting back in the groove.

I took a good long holiday break this Christmas, so I’m experiencing that now. It’s actually a good feeling.

But now I have to get focused again.

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Nothing seems to be clearly black and white anymore. Everything mushes into a vague shade of gray.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You can make things more clear – especially for the team you work with.

It’s about building on what IS clear.

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As 2020 continues through all its various phases, many of us now have what’s called a “hybrid” organization: some people working on-site, others working from home. I’ve even seen a number of companies that have adopted this as a long-term model, because there can be a number of benefits.

But it sure requires some different management skills.

Part of the problem is simply that we’re human. We pay more attention to people who are closer — physically in the same room. Perhaps this stemmed from our evolution, where threats and relationships were all within reach.

What this means, though, is that your remote employees are at a disadvantage. They don’t typically get the same level of attention as the others, and it’s harder for you to pay attention to their needs.

If you yourself are remote, that helps, because everyone is equally just a Zoom call away. But a cluster of employees who work together will naturally have better social bonds, at the expense of those they don’t constantly see.

I’ve been in all these scenarios myself: local and remote, manager and employee, part of a cluster or an individual working out of my home. So here are some of the tools I’ve developed that can help you maintain a powerful organization.

As a leader, recognize that each individual person is equally worthy of your attention. This is a philosophy that helps you go out of your way to communicate even when it’s not convenient and to consider the unique needs of each and every employee.

Next, realize that there’s a lot going on for each person right now. Home-based employees are often dealing with out-of-work families, kids schooling from home, illnesses, and the inconveniences introduced by the pandemic. You need to be empathetic and supportive for all your employees.

This is when you need to work hard on your leadership skills. When someone is motivated by the interesting work they’re doing and the value delivered to customers and others, they won’t need to be micromanaged. But it’s not easy to keep remote employees engaged. You need to adapt to each person’s style and have plenty of interactions.

That goes for teams as well. Often you’ll have smaller groups of people who need to work well together, and each of those teams develops its own style based on the job and the personalities. Your role as leader is to understand them and keep them engaged even when they’re working remotely.

Next, give your people the tools they need to be effective. I’ve seen so many examples of remote employees forced to work with IT, which works great in the office but totally fails in the typical home network setup. Or where meetings are created at a time that is convenient for those in one time zone but don’t allow for the remote employee to take their kid to school in the morning. Or have dinner with family.

Yes, these are difficult issues. But are you committed to the success of your team, or not?

Finally, I’ll observe that the typical evaluation can be horribly biased against remote workers. The simple fact is that you have more information about the contributions of local employees you interact with constantly, and you’re more likely to consider them as friends. So if you’re going to operate in a system of management doing performance evaluations, you have to develop the mindset that everyone — each and every employee — is as local to you as the others. You understand each person’s situation and contribution, and care about them, as much as the next.

When I managed a distributed team in a global corporation, I developed the practice of always visiting every employee on their home turf. It helped them see me as a caring and supportive person, not just a voice on the phone and name on the org chart. More importantly, it gave me valuable information about their unique situation and helped me to connect with them as a valued contributor.

Since then, we have much better video tools but are restricted in our physical meetings. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can rely on group Zoom calls to connect with each person. It’s going to take a lot more focus and investment of your time.

Remember to deeply connect with every employee and become the leader who has a strong relationship with each of them.

This article was first published in BizWest.

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Here’s the reaction you might be creating in your employees:

  • “So … if I’m a leader now, that means I can make your decisions for you now?”
  • “So … I don’t know what direction we’re going as a group!”
  • “I thought I was hired to DO work, not just to tell OTHERS what to do!”

Of course, this isn’t at all what you intended. Right? You were trying to communicate that you trust peoples’ initiative, that you don’t want them always waiting for direction from on high.

So you can see why people are confused.

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