The traits of good remote leaders

4 minute read

A study based on 770 people over six months analyzed which sets of traits are more effective at different levels of remoteness, thus helping us answering the question of what are the differences between remote leads and in-person leads that make them successful? I’ve distilled two sets of traits from the paper.

In-person leads are defined by matching and projecting the idea of leadership to the people in the team (projecting “being”).
These are their traits:

  • Extraverted — lively, energetic, assertive, dynamic
  • Gregarious— charismatic, confident, projects security
  • Conscientious — responsible, organized, goal-setting
  • Intelligent — understands quickly, adapts fast
  • Good speaker — good language skills, engaging, smooth

Remote leads are defined by demonstrating functional skills and engaging in task-oriented activities to help the team achieve their objectives (projecting “doing”).
These are their traits:

  • Connected — coordinates and directs people, helps work together
  • Aware — keeps the pulse of work progress, monitoring
  • Organizer — sets, prioritizes, manages tasks
  • Productive — applied intelligence, gets things done, goal-reaching
  • Good writer — good written skills, detailed, sophisticated

In face-to-face interactions, most of us are very easily swayed by the power of personality. Virtually, we are less swayed by someone’s personality and can more accurately assess whether or not they are actually engaging in important leadership behaviours. People are more likely to be seen based on what they actually do, not based on who they are.

R. Purvanova, Associate Prof. of Management and Leadership

One notable thing between these two lists is that these aren’t scales, but independent traits. For example: while “extraverted” is one of the traits for in-person leads, there’s no matching “introverted” for remote leads. It just means that while extroversion plays a role in the first case, it doesn’t matter much in the second — yet at the same time, introversion doesn’t provide an advantage either: the extroversion/introversion continuum just isn’t relevant for remote leads. There are other traits at play.

Resistance to go remote

Emergent leaders on self-managed teams may feel frustrated if the leadership status they earned in one virtuality setting is not granted to them in a different virtuality setting.

R. Purvanova, S. Charlier, C. Reeves, L. Greco (2020)
Who Emerges into Virtual Team Leadership Roles?

This difference in traits might explain why a lot of organizations that are seeing benefits of remote workeven during a pandemic! — are still thinking to go back to the office. The problem might not be (only) organizational: it might be personal.

A large number of managers that had all the right traits to be successful in-person leads are now feeling something is missing as remote leads. Lacking a model to explain this gap and how to fill it, the simplest answer is to just go back to the office — where their leadership isn’t threatened.

This study, and the above model, provides some indication on how to successfully prepare managers to succeed also remotely.

Shift your leadership to remote

The emphasis shifts from saying to doing.

A. Cohen (2020) The surprising traits of good remote leaders

There are two good news for this shift. The first is that the traits aren’t a continuum, so one doesn’t have to stop doing something that for them it’s working — which might be disruptive and challenging for the individual. The second is that part of the traits that work for in-person leads provide a good starting point to acquire the new traits more easily.

Let’s see them in broad strokes.

Growing the connected trait can be supported by extraversion and gregariousness. It’s possible to use the existing relationships to connect the lead to their team, and make sure people are clear on what they are working, both on their own and together with others.

Growing the aware trait can again build on the extraverted aspects, using the connection to know the work that is being done, and support it directly and personally with everyone. Note that this doesn’t mean micro-managing anyone, it just means being aware of the work being done.

Growing the organizer trait can leverage the conscientiousness of the person, however it needs to shift the attention to be more task oriented, and make sure everything in the project work is well structured and clear.

Growing the productive trait requires shifting the same intelligence, but putting it more to resolving tasks instead of being quick and adaptable on the spot. Being the sharpest one in a meeting matters little now, but a great solution that makes the project closer to the goal can have massive impact.

Growing the good writer trait requires for sure to be more comfortable with typing and structuring content in a more organized way — proper hierarchy, bullet lists, drawings and diagrams are massively useful — yet it’s easier to get there for people that are already good speakers: a large number of skills overlap.

Going beyond the space of this short article, it might be worth to create more specific coaching and training programs that help managers to grow the skills above — or even just reflect yourself and see what you can do.

Models aren’t exhaustive, and this is no exception. However, even this simple model provides some initial guidance, grounded in research, of what can be done along the remoteness continuum for different managers and organizations. Find the one that works for you.

Further readings