One of the most important things leaders can do is coach effectively. And leadership is leadership, whether you’re in the same place or not. So, it makes sense that remote coaching is one of the most critical jobs we have. It’s also one of the hardest parts of being a Long-Distance Leader.
Our survey (you’re welcome to take the assessment and add to our knowledge) of leaders shows that managing performance is important, but taking care of tasks is not particularly difficult for most managers. Where our audience feels they’re not meeting the challenge is around coaching their remote employees effectively.
As with so many things having to do with remote leadership, the little differences in how we work make for big challenges. Yes, it’s helpful to keep looking at the big picture—leadership is leadership no matter where you are, treat the remote coaching session like a “normal” one, blah blah blah. But here are some little things that you should plan for when putting together a virtual coaching session:
You are both more prone to distractions. Maximize your focus.
It’s tempting to schedule remote coaching sessions “between the cracks” of your schedule, when you’re not getting “real work” done. That means these critical conversations often happen in airport waiting lounges or in bumper to bumper traffic. But how much careful listening are you doing? How good are your notes? Will you remember the little details you need to discuss if your mind is otherwise occupied? These are important discussions, some of the most important you’ll have with the team member. They deserve to be treated like a priority. Make sure you’re in a place (mentally AND physically) where you can think clearly and really focus on the task at hand.
Plan to offer specific, behavioral feedback. Write it down if you have to (and you probably do).
One of the most common complaints about virtual coaching sessions is that they focus on big, top-of-mind issues while often neglecting some of the smaller discussions or less burning topics. A good example is specific feedback on something that person has done. Did they do a good job solving a customer’s problem? Did they pitch in to help a teammate? You want to address challenges and performance gaps, of course, but it’s critical to reinforce and reward the right behavior. This tends to happen spontaneously and “in-the-moment” when we share a workspace. Don’t let those teachable moments get lost just because you can’t respond right away.
What’s one personal question you should ask?
Coaching is an ongoing part of the working relationship between manager and employee. But it’s not just about the work— there are social and personal factors that go into building trust and helping people relate on a human level. One of the unintended consequences of working remotely is that we often try to limit the time we spend and “get down to business.” That’s great (wasted time is annoying for everyone) but a moment or two of casual conversation that shows you’re interested in them as a person will make a big difference. Do they have a hobby you can show interest in? How’s the family doing? Was there a recent event you know they were excited about? It may feel unnecessary to write these questions down, but if you’ve ever hung up from a coaching call and suddenly remembered something you should have asked, you know this matters.
Ask: what can I do for you? What would be most helpful?
It’s a natural dynamic of coaching calls that they are very manager-focused. You have a list of things you want to make sure you cover in the allotted time. You can’t read their body language (and often don’t pick up subtle verbal or vocal cues) and see that they are uncomfortable, have a question, or feel a bit overwhelmed. Make sure that you are allowing them plenty of time to ask questions on their own. Create an environment where they feel safe raising concerns or questions. Rather than wait for them to volunteer such matters, give them an obvious, clear, judgment-free place in the coaching conversation.
Consistently, we hear that coaching is the part of the job leaders are often least comfortable doing, and fear they’re not doing as well as they could or should. That’s especially true when we add the difficulty of doing it mediated by distance and technology. Make it easy on yourself. Plan for these calls and set both yourself and your team members up for success.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into this and hone your skills as a remote coach, check out our course on Effective Remote Coaching and Feedback.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.</em