How do you create a leadership presence or brand when you are a distance leader?
This question is shared by distance leaders, and virtual workers, around the world, and not easily answered with a few glib, “post your picture on LinkedIn” responses. When you are not physically collocated with your coworkers, it’s difficult to maintain relationships and influence without intentional effort.
So what should a distance leader do to establish and maintain presence in a virtual leadership role?
First, think about how you are defining yourself as a distance leader, and I recommend four steps to become an invisible presence in discussions related to your expertise:
- Define your leadership presence. This takes some time on your part to define the impression you want to make as a distance leader. Do you want to focus on excellent customer service? Making difficult financial decisions successfully? Providing sales teams with indispensable quoting tools? Whatever it is, defining it will make it easier to build your presence and be the “go to” person for that thing.
- Choose specific connections. Not every coworker is an advocate or ally in your organization, so choose your mentors and peers carefully as you develop your presence. Work through those people to influence others in a way that is beneficial to both them and you. For me personally, I always try to emphasize the other person’s needs before mine… while still thinking through ways to achieve my own goals.
- Cultivate your image. Nobody ever made a positive impression by being absent, so try to work through your supervisor(s), colleagues, and mentors to reinforce your leadership presence in new groups when possible and appropriate.
- Practice patience. None of these steps are quickly accomplished, as being the right person for specific resources takes time to publicize and then demonstrate expertise. However, if you are persistent and actually deliver on your expertise, you will be able to develop the influence and presence you may want.
Penny Pullan, the author of Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams, suggests cultivating your virtual identity, and does an excellent job of discussing both the tangible and intangible components of a person’s leadership identity.
In my role as a distance leader, I have both used and violated the rules above, to varying degrees of both success and failure. I found that when I decided to create a reputation on “adopting the urgency expressed by my customer,” I was able to build the trust of my colleagues, but it sometimes created undue stress if I wasn’t clear on their priorities. In this case, my customers were sales team members in my own organization.
After working successfully with the leadership team one group, I actually heard those words back when a district manager said, “you always seem to understand how tight some of our deadlines are!” I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment.
Even more importantly, that manager told her peers how valuable, and timely, our work was to her success.
There can be negative consequences when you choose your reputation, too. In another situation, a team member blatantly lied when she realized that I was trying to work to her timeline. While I can’t assume that she was being personally malicious, I realized that she was not being honest pretty quickly. Her project was one of several that I was developing, and there was no way to meet her unreasonable deadline. Instead of getting panicked, I called her directly and let her know.
That led to adopting another reputation characteristic: “Communicate honest expectations as promptly as possible.” Since I have already demonstrated a strong interest in meeting my colleagues’ timelines, the few times when I delivered messages that work would be delayed have been received with consideration. It’s sort of a two-step process, but being intentional about my reputation was the key to being respected at my role.
Want to know more about developing your presence as a distance leader? I can recommend this book by Penny Pullan, specifically Chapter 2, and the following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.