Leading a remote team through a crisis

I’ll be real with you: this post is very unlikely to help you navigate our current state of unrest and ongoing domestic terrorism in the US. My hope is that – assuming we all get through this moment – it will help you make enough sense of it to feel a little readier for the next crisis to hit your team, whether it’s brought on by external circumstances, internal conflicts, or anything in between.

I’m assuming you’re reading this blog as a manager (or aspiring manager) of a mission-driven team. You care about the work your team does on a level that isn’t just about being able to pay your rent. It matters to you that the work gets done – you care about the “effective” in “effective and equitable” – and so for you, it isn’t simply a matter of saying “work can pause while the world burns.” (If you are in a place where work can pause while the word burns, for goodness’ sake, pause it.) These are a few things I’ve learned from leading remote teams through difficult moments over the last few years; obviously none of those difficult situations were quite what we’re facing now, but I’m willing to bet that the lessons will continue to apply.

Crisis situations demand a focus point.

When something at work feels like an emergency, our instincts tell us to try to fix everything at once. We then fail to fix anything.

When there’s an emergency outside of work, maybe that captures all of our attention, and it becomes difficult to refocus on what we were there to do in the first place. Maybe we focus all our attention on work because that’s where we can exercise a little bit of control, but we end up focusing on things that don’t move our team forward.

In any event, the greatest gift you can give your team is a clear point of focus. What is the number one most important thing each person does? What changes about that when there’s a truly urgent situation? How can a team member know what’s most important for them to focus on, as quickly as a crew member of the Enterprise knows where to go when a red alert is called on Star Trek? How can you, the manager, help someone prioritize quickly in the event that some work needs to get dropped?

Review your work-emergency kit.

It’s likely that there are some foreseeable categories of crisis, and for those you can make specific incident response plans. These kinds of plans aren’t just for ops teams at big tech companies: system outages, family emergencies, power failures – these are things for which you can assemble a virtual emergency kit for your team to pull from when the time comes.

My work-emergency kits have included sample email language for rescheduling meetings or sharing a system outage; responsibility charts (ideally a full RACI or MOCHA chart) for who does what communication and who needs to approve lists or emails; report templates for lists of people I’m likely to need to email or call in case of an issue; and the EAP phone number if my workplace offers phone counseling as part of an Employee Assistance Plan.

You’re going to have to talk about it.

Dealing with all of this remotely adds another layer of effort: most of the time, you won’t be able to just look around the room and gauge how people are feeling. You won’t be able to intuit that folks are being affected by the situation at hand. You have to assume that at least some people are, and proactively make space for people to come to you if they need help prioritizing or can’t make their focus work that day.

You have to name that it makes sense for them to need you for this, and that that’s what you’re there for. Otherwise, people will hold back on asking for help for fear of looking unprofessional or wasting your time, and that’s a quick recipe for folks to spiral out into fear or anxiety before you realize what’s happening. By the time you see that they aren’t okay, they (and the work) may need a lot more effort to re-center.

It’s okay to not be ready. It’s not okay to be silent.

Many of us are navigating this particular set of circumstances for the first time. We’re inventing protocols and responses as the need arises. It’s expected and okay to not have all the answers, as long as you’re keeping lines of communication open and taking your staff seriously when they tell you they’re struggling. Be clear that you know that there are challenges, name the challenges you expect, and be open to understanding that others are likely facing difficulties you hadn’t even considered.

This is hard. It’s chaotic. But despite everything, I still put my faith in the power of a focused plan and empathy for the team. Let’s see what good we can do, friends.

If you need more concrete manager actions to take right now, read the unfortunately evergreen Managering in Terrible Times by Lara Hogan.

End of year book roundup

Readers, we’re so close to the end of 2020. Maybe there have been points this year where you’ve thought “gosh, I wish I could remember that book Rachel mentioned in that one blog post, but it’s just too [gestures broadly at everything] for me to go back and look for it.” Maybe not! Either way, I’m here for you.

In this post, I’ve gathered a list of all the books I referred to on the blog this year. Please consider buying them from your local independent bookstore or requesting them from your local library, and as you do, remember that their staff is also experiencing this 2020 holiday season, so be gentle about delays.

In order of appearance on the blog, here we go:

Lara Hogan, Resilient Management

Don’t be put off by the focus on tech teams – Resilient Management is great for understanding what your team members need from you, individually and as a group, and creating frameworks to meet those needs consistently.

Alison Greene and Jerry Hauser, Managing to Change the World

Required reading for all managers in nonprofit or for-impact organizations. If you’ve got a management question that starts with “How do I…”, chances are this book answers it well.

Shawna Potter, Making Spaces Safer

Learn about tactics for intervening when you see something happening that isn’t right. Not work-focused particularly, but the principles apply at work, especially if you’re on a small team without formal HR processes.

Karen Catlin, Better Allies

Hands-on, practical tips for being a better ally to all kinds of underrepresented groups in the workplace. Required reading for white folks, especially cis men.

Minda Harts, The Memo

Written by and for Black women in particular, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand how to do better at supporting and advancing the careers of the Black women in your org and your life (if you’re reading this blog, this is you).

Jennifer Brown, How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Helpful in breaking down the stages of understanding and action that we all go through, over and over again, in our efforts to become more inclusive leaders. If you’ve ever been frustrated because your team doesn’t look exactly the way you want it to right now, this book might be for you.

Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus

The definitive guide to OKRs (objectives and key results) as a way of framing goals for your org/team.

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

Honestly? The hardest one on this list for me, reminding us of the importance and value of being vulnerable as a leader.

Carson Tate, Work Simply

This book had an outsized impact on my ability to collaborate with folks who don’t share my productivity style. Also, don’t miss the chapter on effective email writing.

Jeff Toister, Service Failure

Ostensibly focused on customer service operations, this book introduces the concept of maintenance and recovery anchors that have been key for me in framing what healthy teams look like.


I’m thinking about including some full book recap/review posts in 2021 – leave a note in the comments or email me to know what you’d like to see covered! (“Please cover my management book” is a very acceptable request, especially if you’re from a group that’s underrepresented in leadership!)

Have a safe New Year, all, and I’ll see you in January.

Growing your remote team

Stone steps leading up and away from the viewer, surrounded by greenery, in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

In the last post, we started to dig into why hiring and onboarding team members remotely is such a challenge. In this post, I want to talk through a couple of ways to get ready to meet that challenge once your new team member is on board.

Get real about your remote training options.

Think of the onboarding process as starting before you even write the job posting. When forming a sense of what you need from a new hire, whether remote or in-person, I like to start from the end goal: six months into this person’s role, what can they do on their own? What do you expect them to be able to produce without a lot of intervention from you or other members of the team?

Now, think about what resources you already have to get them to that point. What written documentation, videos, or webinars do you have available about how to do the day-to-day tasks of the job? What relationships need to be built in order for the job to work successfully? What are you prepared to teach someone on the job? What do you need them to already know on their first day?

Remember, as you’re interviewing, that you’re hiring that day-one person. You’re responsible for getting them to that month-six person. What are you capable of doing in those months to get them there? What do you need from them in those six months? Once you’ve got an answer to that question – at least in broad strokes, if not in every detail – you’re ready to start interviewing candidates.

Make asking questions a key expectation.

So you’ve made your plan, you’ve done your interviews; now we fast forward to your new hire’s first week.

One of the shortcuts that gets lost when we onboard someone remotely is the ability to identify when they need help, without them having to ask. When you’re working in the same physical space and can see your direct report while they work, you can identify the cues they send up when they don’t know what to do. Maybe they’re looking around a lot, maybe they’re fidgeting more than usual – you see a change in their behavior that cues you to go up to them and ask how things are going. You also know when to leave them alone: you can see that they’re deep in concentration or on the phone with a customer.

Remotely, you have no way of seeing their uncertainty or fear. You have no way of knowing whether they’re in the groove or flailing hard. Except one: by talking about it with them.

As a new employee, asking questions is often a vulnerable thing to do. You want to prove that you can get the job done, that your new boss didn’t make a mistake when they hired you. You don’t want to ask a question that will prove that you don’t know as much as you think you should. On a distributed team, that feeling of vulnerability is increased by the fact that in order to ask your question, you have to actively reach out to someone: send an email or a chat message, pick up the phone, speak up in a meeting. You don’t want to feel like a bother to your new employer, or risk annoying a senior colleague during their first impression of you.

As a manager, though, you need them to ask questions. That means that not only do you have to create a space where it feels safe for them to ask questions – you have to create the expectation that they will ask questions. Make it clear that for their first X weeks (depending on the role), whether they’re meeting their job expectations or not will be at least partly contingent on what questions they’re asking. You have to establish the understanding that it’s riskier for them to not ask – and then back that up by taking their questions seriously, checking in about what questions they have during/after your scheduled meetings, and giving them a peer mentor who can field the questions they might be scared to ask their new boss.

If you don’t yet have the infrastructure in place to enable easy question-asking remotely, one word of caution as you start to build that out: the path for enabling people to ask questions shouldn’t be “let’s stay on a video chat together all day.” There’s a time and place for optional extended video chats that serve as spaces to “work remotely together” for those who like to have more company than our current environment affords us. For new employees, though, it won’t feel optional even if you say it is (because they’re trying to prove themselves!), and is likely to create counterproductive anxiety. And let’s be real: we’ve all got enough of that already.

No more shortcuts: Hiring remotely

Looking up through red autumn leaves against a bright sky

In the early months of the pandemic, when I was unemployed and looking around for my next move, I talked with a few recruiters who had similar stories: a fraction of their clients were theoretically hiring, but really what they were doing was trying hard to figure out how to make interviewing and hiring work remotely.

Having interviewed, hired, and onboarded dozens of (in my opinion) outstanding employees onto highly collaborative distributed teams, part of me wanted to say “hire me and I’ll help you figure it out.” Another part of me wondered why folks were finding it so hard, and in the next couple of posts I’m going to be digging into that question.

Maybe your team isn’t in a place right now to think about hiring and onboarding, but there are a few skills that go into doing it successfully that will serve you well in other parts of your work. These take time to build if you haven’t been focusing on them, and they take attention to maintain, so regardless of where you are in the hiring cycle – whether you’re a manager of a team that’s done comparatively well or whether you’re looking to get hired yourself – it’s worth thinking about them now.

Label your shortcuts.

One of the things people find difficult about hiring remotely is learning to translate the physical cues we’re accustomed to picking up when we meet someone in person. One reason that’s sometimes difficult is that we haven’t articulated what, specifically, we’re learning from those physical cues. It’s a shortcut – and shortcuts tend to be full of unconscious bias, so it’s worth unpacking these things even if you’ll go back to a co-located life as soon as it’s safe to do so.

If this is something you’re up against, consider what physical cues you feel you’re missing and what they signal to you. For example, eye contact is notoriously hard to replicate in a video meeting. What does eye contact convey to you? What does it stand in for that’s still important in a context where you might never share a physical space with your new colleague? Confidence? Attentiveness? Aggression?

Once you’ve labeled the shortcut for yourself, you’re in a position to figure out how to get there “the long way around” – by talking with them. Then, once we’re able to take the shortcuts again, ask yourself whether you and the person you’re talking to are really taking the same shortcut. Are you perceiving inattention from a lack of eye contact when they’re trying to convey respect? How can you use your words to figure out where that shortcut is leading?

After the interviews are over, there’s a whole new set of shortcuts that we take on in-person teams: cues that help us know how our new team member is doing, cues that help us as manager understand when to step in and when to lay back, and cues that help the new team member understand the cultural norms of the organization. In next week’s post, we’ll talk about some ways to get at those end goals with a distributed team.

Onward.

Reader, we made it.

Now we get to make it.

In a lot of ways, for those of us in the US, the election might feel like an end point. It’s the milestone many of us have been working toward for the last four years. And it deserves to be recognized as the incredible accomplishment it represents.

My mission-driven managers, I encourage you to look at this as a beginning point as well. There are a lot of ways in which a Biden/Harris administration can make our path toward more equitable, effective workplaces easier, because we won’t be fighting against as many inequitable policies. There will be less ambient stress.

What that will allow us to do is to continue the work we’ve been doing under incredibly high-pressure situations, and to see how much farther we’re able to get without those extra weights.

The weight won’t be lifted from everyone on your team equitably. White folks in particular may be tempted to check out of the effort to create more equitable practices on your team, but checking out now cannot be acceptable. We’ve arrived at a place where there is much work to be done, we can see it clearly, and we’ve removed some major obstacles that made it harder to actually do it.

Don’t take your foot off the gas now. Take advantage of the opportunity to move forward toward the equitable, effective future our teams deserve.

Onward.

Now what?

Teams in the US today – and likely for awhile longer – are going to be struggling. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of frustration, some celebration, and every feeling in between.

As a leader, your job today is figuring out what your team needs in order to keep their heads in the game and keep them from spiraling out into fear and anxiety. Today I’m taking some cues from political organizers, who are no strangers to working hard and not being able to see the results they were fighting for.

Validate what they’re experiencing.

Just about every concession speech will show supporters that they’re seen: I know you’re disappointed/frustrated/anxious right now.

Your team, especially those from minoritized backgrounds, might be feeling extremely legitimate fear, anxiety, frustration, and more. Those are hard feelings and sometimes the only way out of the intensity of them is through it. Acknowledge (sincerely) that those feelings make sense. If you can identify some clear ways that you’re committed to helping mitigate or solve the root cause of that fear, now’s a good time to share those.

Show them their impact.

There’s a reason why political campaigns tell you how many voters you contacted, how many people volunteered, how many signatures they got. It shows people that all the work they’ve done isn’t for nothing.

People are more likely to spin out when they don’t see a point to what they’re doing. Leaders, you’re in the best position to show them what their impact really is. If you can point to numbers and past performance, great; if you can’t, re-orient them toward your vision and remind them of your mission.

Create space for togetherness.

Election night gatherings, whether virtual or otherwise, are there because people need a sense of belonging and community when faced with uncertainty (and because celebrations are better together).

In a remote world, this is possible, if just different:

  • Keep an optional video call open throughout the day. This is not a meeting! No agenda, no action items, just the presence of other humans working toward a common goal with you. Don’t force people to join or turn on their cameras, but use it as an open “working together” space for those who want some company or accountability.
  • Open extra (and optional) 1:1 time slots in your calendar. Invite your team to book even just a 15-minute check-in with you to make sure you’re understanding where they’re at.
  • If you don’t already have a standing all-hands meeting at least monthly, get one on the calendar. Let everybody remember that they’re in this together, even if right now it feels like each person is trudging along in isolation.

Put your own oxygen mask on first.

You can’t do any of the above if you’re spinning out yourself. Let yourself feel your feelings before you face your team. Then, look at your mission statement. Literally put the words on a screen or write them on paper in front of you. Remember that you’re in this because it matters to you, to your patrons and constituents and customers and staff. Even if your mission isn’t one that feels like it should be anyone’s top priority right now, find what’s persistent in it: maybe that’s community, equity, understanding, learning, amplifying impact… I could go on. Focus on that and know that even in these times of wild uncertainty, those things still matter.

It’s hard. I know. We’ve got this. Vamanos.

Vote.

That’s it. That’s the post.

If you can vote in the U.S., that’s your most important task this week. Do it, and make sure you’re not getting in the way of your team doing it.

I’ll see you on the other side, friends.

Goal-setting for clarity

We’re all scrambling for any bit of clarity we can get our hands on right now. As a manager, you’ve got an opportunity to help create that for your team, in a way that can have outsized impact for them and for your organization.

In any time, clear goals, and your ability to meet them, are at the core of your organization’s effectiveness. No matter what team you’re in charge of, it’s critical to your organization’s success at meeting its mission that you’re able to identify and communicate clear goals for your team.

You’re responsible for holding your team accountable for meeting both team-level and individual goals. There are plenty of frameworks for setting useful goals; whether you’re a devoted “SMART” goal person or all-in on OKRs, there are a few aspects of goal-setting that are particularly relevant to the clarity of the goal:

  • A timeframe. If your goal does not have an attached timeframe, you can never tell whether you’re making appropriate progress toward the goal.
  • Some degree of uncertainty that the goal will be reached. As my friend Michelle Paul says, “A goal that you’re 100% confident you can reach is not a goal; it is an item on your to-do list.” Conversely, a goal that you’re 0% confident that you can reach is a fantasy. You want some confidence, just not total confidence.
  • An explicit understanding of how you’ll know when the goal is reached (the “measurable” part of SMART goals, and the “key result” part of OKRs).
  • Connection to your overall mission or larger objectives (the “clarity of purpose” for a particular goal).

Some managers approach goal setting from a top-down perspective: the manager sets the goals, the reports are responsible for them. I advocate for a more consultative approach, especially if your team members are relatively senior or have expertise in areas you don’t (that’s most teams!). In particular, you want your team’s input to understand how realistic your goals are to achieve, and to give them a chance to voice concerns about how their other work will be impacted. This process allows you to help them prioritize their current workload against a new goal, so that they understand that a new goal doesn’t mean they’re expected to simply take on more and more work.

Depending on your reports’ individual confidence levels, you may need to coach them toward a more ambitious target – it’s scary to set a goal that you aren’t sure you can reach, especially if you aren’t sure of the consequences of failing to meet that goal. Be as clear and explicit as possible about what happens if the goal isn’t met: “This is a new grant for us, so the worst-case scenario is we continue as we’ve been going. In that case, we’ll spend some time afterward reviewing the grant and looking at who was awarded it, so that we can focus our efforts more effectively in the future. But getting it would be an opportunity to expand our programs and have a significantly stronger impact toward our mission, and we also anticipate that it can strengthen our other fundraising efforts.”

If the goal isn’t simply a nice-to-have, but is instead a mission-critical job requirement, make sure to state that explicitly, and outline how the report will be held accountable for meeting that goal. Meanwhile, you need to be accountable for making sure that they have the resources they need to accomplish the goal – make sure the report knows that.

As early as possible in the process, detail what resources you know are already available, identify any moments when you want to be approached for help, and as the employee brings up new requirements, advocate for them to your board or leadership team while at the same time helping the employee identify any possible alternatives to meeting those needs in case additional resources can’t be made available. And speaking of what resources you know are already available… one of my favorites, The Management Center, has tons of resources available to help you delegate and goal-set with clarity.

Why performance reviews matter

If you’re like me, it feels borderline preposterous to think about performance reviews right now. We’re going to talk about it anyway.

If you don’t already have them in place, it may feel silly to create a formal evaluation rubric and review process, particularly for small or especially close-knit teams; you might feel like you know good work when you see it, and you’re confident in giving developmental/corrective feedback when it’s needed. It’s easy to deprioritize creating an evaluation rubric for a new role; I’ve been known to procrastinate on creating an evaluation rubric for senior-level employees for an embarrassingly long time. (I still do performance reviews on time, though!) It’s one of those things that rarely makes it to the “urgent” corner of our attention. If you can bring it to that corner now, you’ll have time to make thoughtful and impactful changes before the end of the year.

If you’re looking for details about what to include in a performance review, Alison Greene and Jerry Hauser’s book Managing to Change the World has a great overview of the logistics that go into setting up performance reviews, including a sample evaluation rubric. Here, I want to go a bit deeper into why they’re important for effective and equitable teams:

Evaluation rubrics help to create clarity around what’s expected of an employee, especially when they’re introduced to the employee outside the context of their first performance evaluation. Even in a highly communicative, collaborative team setting, until you codify the expectations of the role and how you’ll tell if someone’s doing well at it, your direct reports will be guessing about whether they’re meeting expectations, and that takes mental and emotional energy away from actually doing the job.

Having your expectations and evaluation points codified also gives you a basis for addressing performance issues before they arise. Conversations about significant performance problems are already difficult; they’re easier if you can point to a shared expectation about how the job performance will be assessed, rather than needing to first come to a consensus about whether that performance should be acceptable.

Having an evaluation rubric for senior or management roles can also facilitate conversations about career growth with a more junior employee, and help you make better promotion decisions in the future. Rather than simply promoting the person with the longest tenure or the most effective individual contributor, you’ll be able to point to specific skill sets that are required at the next level and help the employee to focus on developing those skill sets. Establishing those shared expectations across the board helps you identify and mitigate the impact of unconscious bias on your assessment of your employees – setting you up for a more equitable and effective team in the long run.

On showing up when it’s hard

In most of the circles that I run in, the last week and the last couple of days in particular have been some of the toughest parts of a year that has been hard in a million ways – ways that are somehow both unique to each person and common to all of us. For me, the loss of Justice Ginsburg feels, in some ways, both difficult in itself and as a symbol of many of the other things that have been difficult about this time.

It’s tempting, in moments like this, to create distance between showing up at work and showing up in the world. It’s tempting, as a manager, to encourage your team members to disconnect from work, to take time off, to engage in self-care. To model that, as a manager, by taking a mental health day or volunteer time off when the going gets roughest. And for many, that might be the right answer.

I want to offer another option: to create a space at work where you engage in genuine community care. To create an environment where you can say not just, “please do what you need to take care of yourself,” but “we will do what we need to take care of each other.” This looks different in a remote environment than in a physical one, but it’s no less meaningful.

One way that I try to do this is by naming the thing that is creating or increasing the need for such care. When there’s an event in the world that has deep, meaningful, personal implications for many people, even if I’m not sure they have that implication for those people directly on my team, I generally send my team an explicit acknowledgment of that impact, and sometimes will hold open virtual “office hours” for anyone who wants to hop in and chat about what that means for them and their work. (And I’m still their manager! I still need to help them connect back to what they need at work – this isn’t a venting session.)

In this communication, I try to draw explicit lines between the work that we’re doing and the creation of the world that we want to see. This is as much for me as it is for them. It’s a reminder that almost regardless of your organization’s mission, if you knit equity and effectiveness into the fabric of your work, you’re setting yourself up to have a meaningful and sustainable impact on the world. It’s what anchors me in the ability to see my ongoing, everyday work as worth showing up for; to see my and my team’s work as much a part of “the fight” as professional political activism or providing legal aid to those who need it most.

Justice Ginsburg taught us an uncountable number of lessons. One that I find myself returning to in moments of difficulty is the insistence on keeping focus on the long game, on creating change that persists over time, on relentlessly directing your energy to what you believe will endure. As a manager, you have the opportunity to make your team a place where you can create enduring change. Start by letting your team know that’s what you want, and then let them help you do it.

Let’s go.