5 lessons I have learned as a leader while managing my team from a 1000 miles
I have always lived in Budapest. I love living there. I love working there. But being part of a Hungarian-English family, it has always been on the cards that we might move to England for at least for a little while.
In 2018 we finally decided to go for it. We – that is I, my husband, and our two daughters – relocated to the Isle of Wight for a year.
So here I am, 9 months after the move, looking back on the ways this experience has changed all of us, and has changed me personally. It has been an exciting journey for the whole family, one which has certainly tested our tolerance for ambiguity and our resilience in many ways.
But today I would like to reflect on one particular aspect: the discoveries and the changes I have made regarding my own leadership style.
The first steps towards remote management
I work as the head of learning & development at HR Partner Consulting, a Hungarian HR service provider. I manage a team of 10 trainers and organisational development consultants, delivering learning and development services to companies, both domestic and international.
Most of our clients and my colleagues are located in Hungary. Our offices are in Budapest, a busy capital city. In contrast I now live in England, in a small village on the Isle of Wight.
My first discovery after moving here to the Island was that even though I still spend most of my working days focusing on issues in Hungary, being physically far from it all creates a healthy emotional distance, and I have found that this gives me a new perspective.
I seem to see my own leadership style much more clearly, and I have become more conscious of my strengths as well as my shortcomings.
So here my 5 most important learning points.
- Even if you are an experienced shoemaker, be prepared to find some holes in your own shoes
‘The shoemaker’s shoe has a hole in it,’ goes the Hungarian proverb. It refers to the classic scenario when an expert is blind to their own faults in the very same field in which they preach.
I have been working as a leadership development consultant for almost 15 years. I am an executive coach. I know a lot about leadership.
And yet when it comes to my own management style, I find myself falling into the same traps as many of the managers I coach.
I guess this should come as a surprise to no-one. But it is certainly a big challenge to spot those holes in my own shoe.
Relocating to England has helped me to gain a different – and fresher – perspective, and all of a sudden I have recognised some of my patterns of working I hadn’t noticed before.
The big question now is how I will be able to achieve the same level of self-reflection after moving back to Budapest in August. My plan is to:
- Get my own coach/mentor to help me take a step back.
- Ask for even more feedback – from my team members, my peers, and even from my friends and family – and take this on board with purpose.
- Leave bigger gaps in my schedule so I have time to reflect.
- There is always room for more empowerment
I have always considered myself an empowering leader, one who gives her team a lot of freedom and is happy to delegate responsibilities.
But, of course, there were some important areas – such as managing some VIP clients, or representing our department at certain business-critical meetings – where I was indispensable.
Or so I thought.
When I moved abroad, I had to let go of many of these tasks. There were some top client meetings I simply couldn’t attend, some important presentations I couldn’t do from a distance.
What happened? To cut a long story short, my colleagues stepped up, and they have done a superb job.
It is shocking to realise how I overestimated my own importance. At the same time, it is wonderful to feel how much I can rely on my colleagues’ expertise, as well as their strong motivation, to build a great learning & development department together.
But what will happen from August when I am back in Budapest again? Will I revert to my old tendencies of wanting to do most, if not all, of these seemingly business-critical tasks on my own?
I don’t think so. I have come to enjoy the fact that I have more time for strategic issues instead of busying myself with the operative stuff all the time. And I have also learned how much more my colleagues are capable of if I actually let them get on with things on their own.
- Video conferencing works really well – as long as it is combined with the occasional business trip
When I moved to England, one of the pleasant surprises regarding communication was how well online solutions such as Skype, Hangouts and Webex work as replacements for ‘physical presence’. I have great online meetings with my colleagues and clients. After a while we almost forget that we are not sitting in the same room.
I even have coaching sessions online – both as a coach and as a coachee – and they work well both ways.
However, video is crucial. For any virtual team I thoroughly recommend using video during meetings instead of making do with audio only. Seeing each other makes a huge difference in terms of the depth of discussion and the quality of personal connection. Practical things can be discussed via phone calls, but ‘sensing’ the other person, connecting with them emotionally, supporting them, and building a relationship without seeing one another is much more difficult.
No matter how well videoconferences work, being together with my team from time to time is a must. Therefore, I travel back to Hungary every second month, and we spend half a day together. I make sure that these occasions are not wasted on everyday operative topics – those can be tackled online – but instead we spend some quality time together, and discuss the occasional difficult issues.
My stay in England has taught me to be more relaxed about physical distance; these days almost everything can be discussed via videoconference. At the same time, it has made me even more aware how important it is for any community to have regular ‘team-building’ sessions, when we leave the operative issues behind and focus on each other.
- Visibility and proactive communication are essential
‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ goes the saying. If you are not physically present, you must make up for it with increased visibility and proactivity.
Especially at the start of my stay here I had to make sure that people don’t mark me down as ‘absent’. “You are out of the country, so I didn’t want to disturb you,” said one of my clients. This was a sentiment I often came across. People involuntarily started regarding me as someone who is not available. It took extra effort to convince them that I am in fact ‘here’, that I hadn’t disappeared – in fact, I am even more available than before.
I have made lots of phone calls and sent regular e-mails to catch up with everybody and to keep myself in the picture. I have also put a lot of emphasis on my ‘visibility’. I make doubly sure that I answer every email within 24 hours (unless I am on holiday, of course). Being responsive is essential in showing my colleagues and our clients that they can rely on me even if I am 1000 miles away.
- Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your team
“Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” If you have ever flown a plane, you will recognise this sentence from the safety instructions. It is simple piece of advice with some deep meaning to it: you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.
This holds true in many areas of life, including leadership.
Since my move to England I have experienced how much more I can give my colleagues when I am more balanced and less stressed.
Moving to the Isle of Wight has brought a change of lifestyle too. I live a healthier, more relaxed life here. I exercise more, I rest more. I don’t rush from one meeting to the next all day; I take regular breaks. I no longer work late at night like I often used to.
As a result, I can support my team much more. I am more available to them. Yes, I know this sounds rather counterintuitive given that I am living in a different country. Yet, this is the case.
I have more time now for regular one-on-one sessions. I have become more responsive: I answer my colleagues’ emails and return their phone calls promptly. If anybody needs support or advice regarding a difficult project, I am ready for a discussion.
However, availability isn’t only a time issue. I am more available emotionally too. Being more balanced and grounded, I can be more patient. Even ‘crisis’ situations don’t throw me off balance; my instinctive reactions are considerably more measured than they used to be. I also find myself much more interested in what has been happening with my colleagues. I care more but interfere less.
So, my commitment is to continue looking after myself no matter where I live.
Having said that, I’m going to take a break now and have a coffee. Now I know that that will actually make me a better leader!