man leading on zoom

Now that most of us are leading our teams from home, let’s talk about ‘the elephant in the Zoom’. You’re having a serious video conference call at the kitchen table, but behind your back, your toddler upstages you by dancing into the room dressed as a unicorn. From your laptop in the bedroom, you’re just reaching the crescendo of your inspirational talk to managers, when your adolescent playing air guitar pops into shot. And those are just the funny stories. Leading teams without being physically present just got a whole lot harder. In Covid-induced isolation, even with video-conferencing facilities, leaders face new challenges in building trust, demonstrating integrity, encouraging and developing others, fostering innovation, and managing relationships. When showing up is not, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls it, a ‘presence on the ground,’ but more about being there without being there – when it’s business as un/usual, how do you show up and lead?

Zarah is a client in my practice as a leadership coach for global development professionals. She has always managed remote teams, but is used to being surrounded by her key managers and office staff – and the current situation has rattled her. Zarah voices a fundamental question that my leadership clients across the globe are repeatedly asking: “How can I show up, if I’m not even there?”

In Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes a leader’s ‘presence’ as how they act (‘gravitas’), how they speak (communication) and how they look (appearance). But in these days of global crisis, showing up is not so much about demonstrating leadership presence as  about being ‘present’ without being in the same space. My clients sometimes think that ‘showing up’ is all about charisma and their physical presence – their ability to ‘hold a room’ – and since this is not possible while working remotely, they are thrown.  However, the most effective leaders know that just being present for people is more important than being present with them.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, people have a need to feel heard and be reassured, so ‘being present’ for them is a whole new responsibility for leaders. People value leaders who are ‘in the moment’ – whether discussing work, the pandemic, or life; whether sitting across the boardroom table, or meeting virtually at the kitchen table.

To enable you to achieve this, here are four strategies to ensure that you are fully present – wherever you are.

Set the intention to be present

To show up well as a leader, start by cultivating a mindset of being present beyond a physical presence. A little pre-meeting preparation goes a long way to enhance your team members’ experience of your leadership in lockdown.

My clients are reporting a sense of overwhelm. They face the challenges of increased workloads, remote working, isolation, loss of freedom, parenting and teaching children, lockdown fatigue, fear for the future and fear of the unknown… And their team faces similar problems. With more on our minds, even showing up for a virtual meeting requires extra preparation and intention. I don’t just mean brushing your hair (for a change!) and replacing your pyjama top with a blouse. We need to mentally prepare ourselves to be fully present in the moment (or the hour).

Start by setting a clear intention to be there, fully, in the meeting and identify what this means for you. For example – actively listening, asking pertinent follow-on questions, not letting your mind wander. Next, just before you begin your virtual team meeting (even before you connect online), take a full breath through your nose and let it out slowly, to trigger a relaxation response. Do this 3 times. Now, focus wholly on being in the meeting and bear witness to this experience. For example, when you ask people how they are doing, bring your full attention to their responses. Let go of any mental chatter and be fully focused on what is being said. Your attention is on your team’s experiences – not on the next agenda item, your son’s book report, or booking your car into the garage. Bring your full attention – mental and physical – to your team, through intention and by exercising consideration for both the individual and the team.

Demonstrate situational and emotional intelligence

During times of change and uncertainty, individuals feel a greater need for information and to understand what it means for them, not only in terms of work, but also, how it impacts on their basic needs.

One client, Mo, shared that “Two months ago, I was meeting my clients on their sites and conducting joint environmental inspections. Not only is everyone is working from home, but several clients are at risk of losing their businesses, and frankly, environmental concerns seem to have fallen off people’s radar – which is really demotivating for me and my team!”

As we discussed in our coaching session, demonstrating situational and emotional intelligence is key. This is an awareness of how circumstances have changed for people, and what this means at societal, organizational, team, individual, family levels. This is important for you and your team. Mo’s team’s perception that environmental considerations had fallen off the agenda was a powerful demotivating force, but this understanding creates space to discuss and reframe it more positively – as a temporary setback within the context of a global pandemic, rather than an abandonment of environmental issues altogether. It introduces an opportunity to step back from hectic operations, to re-evaluate approaches and systems for the future. Considerate leaders, who are able to work with the global and understand its local impact, build better connections and show true ‘presence’.

Build team resilience

Bouncing back from adversity is a valuable life-skill. In times of global uncertainty, resilience takes on even greater importance. In creating momentum and enthusiasm for the future, leaders need to inspire hope, trust and optimism.

My clients, state that resilience is one of their most important resources or ‘superpowers’. The challenge is how to build resilience in their virtual teams, dispersed across the globe.  Many of my clients report that they started keenly, but seven weeks into remote working, connections are faltering.

As Dr Heidi Hanna, stress and resilience author notes, strategies such as connecting, celebrating successes and gratitude go a long way to build resilience in times like these. It may be stating the obvious, but make sure you are regularly connecting as a team. Working remotely and building team resilience are not mutually exclusive – quite the opposite! Your meetings and communications present opportunities to build excitement, pride and enthusiasm for the work you do and the contributions made. During your meetings, ask team members what is going well, inviting them to share positive stories and experiences and innovative ways they are responding and adapting. Celebrate successes, build camaraderie and foster positive enthusiasm. Go a step further – sharing some of these experiences beyond your team is another way to celebrate success, express gratitude, and share lessons and positive moments.    

Break rules and innovate

How we choose to show up is up to us. The global pandemic has broken the traditional rules of doing business, calling on us to innovate. We are all required to find new ways to reach our goals, identify improvements, be proactive, work beyond our job expectations and show initiative.

Another leadership coaching client, Julio, explained, “I am not great at encouraging innovation. I don’t really even know what that means! But I can’t do this alone and we can’t do business as usual.”

These are unusual times – requiring unusual ideas and solutions. Normal rules do not apply. Leaders can go even further, setting the example and encouraging innovation among staff. Use this experience to invite or challenge your teams to come up with new ways of getting the work done, delivering value, meeting objectives. We are already living in a high-risk scenario, which takes some of the risk of failure out of the equation. Julio challenged his staff to come up with ideas for conducting physical inspections during this pandemic, which resulted in a video inspection process via mobile phones with electronic signatures. A solution that, he proudly admitted, “blew me away!”.

In conclusion

Maintaining (or even developing) your leadership presence when you can’t be physically present is all about your intention to be ‘in the moment’ while showing empathy and contextual understanding. Encouraging and supporting your team members to be positive and resilient, and to embrace new ways of thinking and working can only make your presence stronger when everything gets back to normal. But who wants normal? Go for extraordinary – and start in the present.

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