Leadership: Leading from Afar

By Trever Cartwright

Making your presence felt even when you’re not in the office.

After yet another heart-pounding race through the terminal, a random pat-down selection at the security gate and then finding no room in the overhead for your overstuffed suitcase, you finally sandwich yourself into your seat. It’s another 6AM flight to…somewhere. And another three days out of the office—your third trip this month. Sound familiar?

Indeed, you lead a glamorous life. So many trips and so much fun, right? If only it were true.

Recently, I asked a handful of executives what their biggest challenges were in their role. Though not always the first one mentioned, the amount of time spent on the road was typically near the top of their list. Not because they disliked travel or rejected the notion that it was an important part of their job, it was the feeling they had as the plane pulled back from the gate. That feeling of unease knowing so much was going on back at their office—initiatives in mid-stream stages of completion, staff who needed their undivided attention, paused decisions, the list goes on. One leader shared that though she didn’t have kids, she imagined the way she felt being out of the office so much must be what it’s like for parents when they spend long hours at the office, missing yet another school event or soccer game.

Leading from afar is no easy feat. The demands on your time are many, each of which must be carefully weighed as you manage the very limited time you have. Each hour of the day, it seems needs to be carefully doled out so that what face time you do have in the office is always used at its highest and best.

One of the key principles of leading from afar is to help your people lead themselves. Below are three action steps to consider that will help address some of the unease you might experience during heavy travel times:

  1. Walk the halls—Make it a priority to connect with your staff 1:1 or in small groups. Share the purpose of your upcoming trip—why it’s important and how it links to the strategic priorities of your organization.
  2. Trust your gut—the dynamics of any organization are fluid. Stay current and be “real” with what’s going on in yours. If you have a gut feeling something is “off” culturally, you’re probably right. Take steps today to confirm your hunch, then proactively address them rather than let them simmer while you’re gone. Things that simmer can often boil over.
  3. Expect the best—We all know what it’s like to be in the presence of someone who expects our best. Be that person for every member of your team. The confidence this inspires in people translates to forward momentum in an organization—something that also brings peace of mind to any leader who finds themselves on the road more often than not.

Feeling guilty about being gone from the office doesn’t help anyone. Doing something about it will. Make it priority to prepare your team for your absence. Create the conditions necessary for them to continue making decisions, implementing their plans and holding themselves accountable. In many ways, helping your people to lead themselves is one of the most important opportunities a leader has—especially for the leader who finds him or herself on the road more often than not.