Should We Embrace a Remote Workforce? – The Organizational Question of the Decade

This is an interesting time to lead an organization. Because of the pandemic most workers who can are working from home. While this is the safe and right thing to do it poses some interesting challenges for leaders of organizations. One of those challenges is to determine whether this organizational structure should be something more permeant. If you’re considering this as a more permanent option, you need to consider it from a strategic perspective, not from a “fear based” posture many of us are experiencing right now. You need to make this organizational structure part of who you are which means you may have to change your organization’s vision and to some degree ethos if this is how you choose to move forward. Here is an example from higher education where we’ve seen that universities already established as distance education institutions transitioned during the pandemic much easier than those who never thought this would be something they would ever have to do.

My alma mater, Capella University provided me with a very good and effective doctoral education in general psychology. I have no complaints. I can compete with and engage other doctoral learners from similar programs that only have on campus classes. Capella’s mission statement is:

“The mission of Capella University is to extend access to high-quality bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, doctoral, and certificate programs for adults who seek to maximize their personal and professional potential. This mission is fulfilled through innovative programs that are responsive to the needs of adult learners and involve active, engaging, challenging, and relevant learning experiences offered in a variety of delivery modes.”

When their students, professors, and much of their staff had to work remotely in a dispersed organization, they did well. Very little of anything changed regarding how they deliver education, measure learning outcomes, and help students feel they are a part of their organization. From the very conception of who they are, a dispersed organizational structure was at the heart of their existence.

Other universities did not make this transition very well. They struggled to keep students engaged and are finding that their professors, administrators, and staff were not well prepared to make this shift. It’s not because these people aren’t intelligent, it’s because it’s not the “ethos” of the organization and therefore those attending and working there do not see remote education as part of who they are.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to critique one way of doing things over another, but rather to highlight an important aspect of organizational design that may get missed as leaders begin to consider whether their organization should become more dispersed. My advice is for many organizations to not do it. Don’t think you can just turn on a switch and “Poof”, you are now a dispersed organization. This approach won’t work for two reasons.

First, implementing any drastic change is met with resistance even when it’s well communicated. When people suddenly realize they’re now going to be a dispersed workforce in a dispersed organization it’s going to affect what they do. Even if the idea is appealing to the employees, it will impact how they do things which leads to some form of resistance. Much of this is because what an employee does, how they do it, and the results they get are intricately connected psychologically to the vision and mission of an organization. That’s what provides them with the “why” regarding what they do. Think of these statements as the DNA of an organization. Someone asks, “Why do all of you work remotely instead of in an office?” The answer is something like “We find that in order to serve our customers 24/7 at times convenient for the customer we need a nimble workforce that can adjust their hours as needed. In order to do that, working remotely gives our employees a lifestyle that allows them to provide our customers the service we say defines us and still have lives of their own.” That’s an answer intimately connected to the vision of an organization. And that is the second reason just “flipping a switch” to be a dispersed remote organization won’t work.

Take a look at Amazon and compare it to another big retailer, Walmart. Amazon’s ethos is to conveniently provide their customers numerous services remotely and yet in a timely and competitively priced way. The shopping experience is intimately connected to their web presence and the fact you can get most anything you want sent to you within days, sometimes in that day, without much of an issue provides the Amazon experience. Amazon thrives as an online experience because at its core this is who they are. Their organization has been developed around this strategy. Walmart, however, is not. People want low prices and the ability to walk into their store and get what they need now. Walmart has a website. In fact, if you go there, you might find it can compete with Amazon in several ways. However, Walmart is NOT an online shopping experience and therefore they will never do online shopping as effectively as Amazon and likewise, even with Whole Foods as part of their organization, Amazon will never do brick and mortar shopping like Walmart. It’s not that they can’t, rather, it’s that to do so means a complete shift in their vision and mission. That would then lead to a change in strategy and for that to work the organization must shift and change to implement that strategy. Basically, each company would be a different organization than they are now. For some, that’s a good idea, but for others, that might be tragic.

So, if you’re thinking that now is the time to transform your organization into a dispersed organization, think hard. Start with your vision and mission statements and ask yourself “Can these be actualized from within that organizational structure?” If the answer is yes, start rethinking your strategy. If you can develop an effective strategy that requires a dispersed organization, you’re on the right track. If at any point your answer to these questions is “no” think of how you will be able to bring everyone back in the office. Your organization’s “life” will depend on it.

Who Can Help You Be a Great Leader?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

If there is one thing I’ve learned from studying leadership as an academic discipline it’s that leadership is as much an art as it is a science.  It reminds me of my training as a therapist.  When I went to Duquesne University to get my graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, we spent a significant amount of time learning techniques and theories about counseling.  However, you could be the best academic student in the program and still fail miserably as a therapist.  Why?  Because just having head knowledge about how to use numerous therapeutic techniques isn’t enough.  One must apply that knowledge in a way that can’t be explained but rather must be experienced and observed.  It would be like learning to swim from reading an article on the subject and never going into the water.  When I saw my professors work with clients, I could see the things we were taught being used but it was like watching someone paint a portrait.  The artistic nature of what they were doing could be seen when they chose an intervention at just the right time and used it in a way that was beautiful.  Leadership, like counseling, is an art as much as it’s a science.

I’ve noticed that several leaders in organizations I have studied or have done some limited training with don’t understand this very basic concept about leading.  They want an academic like me or a successful consultant to “teach” their people how to be better leaders.  It’s not that consultants and academics can’t help improve someone’s leadership skills, but much of what it means to be a leader comes from constantly being challenged by the situations you’re placed in and evaluating how you did, what worked, and how to do it better.  One must take up the “Craft” of leading as an artist learns to shape the most beautiful table from a hunk of wood found in his or her woodshop.

Now, as I’m writing this, I know several you are saying, “If that’s the case, why should I study leadership or engage consultants to help my organization?”  My answer to you is because it helps.  Leadership consultants and educators are people who have spent a significant amount of time understanding and practicing the craft.  They are the sort of people one might have apprenticed with in the ages past to learn a skill.  Yet, its not just the experience they bring to educating future leaders that matters.  If that were the case, all you need to do is find others who are successful leaders and learn from them.  While that can be tremendously helpful, someone who is a fine leader but doesn’t understand how to convey what they know about leading isn’t very helpful.  My point is good practitioners are not always the best teachers and the best teachers are often lacking in significant leadership practice.  Finally, a good teacher and a good practitioner may not be good researchers who can provide you with a good understanding of what the future will look like and the best way to lead in that future. 

So, what does all this mean for you as someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?  Simply this: don’t just learn from one source, become a master leader by engaging the three streams of leadership wisdom I just mentioned.  Find a good leader who you believe is doing a great job.  Learn from his or her approach to leading.  Appropriate what works for you and your organization and fine tune it.  Learn from some of the best educators in the leadership world.  Find teachers who understand the leadership material and learn from them.  Soak in what they have to say and use it in your leadership efforts.  Finally, read the research.  Read what scholars in the leadership field are saying is going to be important as culture, people, and the context of your industry changes.  These three sources for understanding the practice of leadership are essential and without one of them you find yourself woefully prepared for some aspect of leading.  Good practitioners, excellent teachers, and solid research are the different types of canvases and brushes you will use to paint the portrait of a leader you want to be.

As I said when I started this article, leadership is as much an art as a science.  It’s your job as a leader to create something beautiful.  It’s not just your job, it is your responsibility.  The people that depend on you to do what you do well need someone who isn’t just knowledgeable, but creative.  It’s this creative aspect of leading that allows you to inspire others to be more than a cog in the organizational system.  Your craft reminds people they are connected to a bigger purpose and that their work, and dare I say their life, has meaning and purpose.  Go and create something beautiful, it’s what good leaders do.

Middle Management and the Dark Pit

I just finished reading a book called “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  It’s a great read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves working as a middle manager.  Most people think of middle management in negative terms.  Middle managers are often thought of as people who haven’t been able to achieve executive status. Yet, there are many of us who find middle management a good fit for our gifts and talents.  It’s people like us that are able to “stand in the gap” where executive orders need to be translated into something the average team member can understand and execute in a way that accommodates numerous factors higher-level managers can’t appreciate. As Captain Abrashoff puts it:

“The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers.  If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions.  Mid-level managers should be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction.”

I want to explore this “gray area” many middle managers function in on a daily basis.  It’s probably one of the most dangerous areas in business one has to navigate and it can make or break how an organization performs.  I was reminded of this perilous space recently while watching a movie called “Grayhound” starring Tom Hanks.  The movie follows a Navy Captain named Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks’ character) and is situated just months after the United States was bombed at Perl Harbor.  Hank’s character is commanding a group of international ships that must cross the Mid-Atlantic Gap also knows as the “Black Pit.”  This area of cross Atlantic travel was exceptionally dangerous because of the number of German U-Boats that harassed ships as they attempted to deliver cargo and men to Europe for the war effort.  In the movie, Hank’s team of international battleships had to protect a convoy carrying troops and supplies to Liverpool England.  The reason this area of trans-Atlantic travel was so dangerous is that the allied forces in Europe and the United States could not provide air support in this stretch of the ocean.  Without air support, the ships were exceptionally vulnerable to submarine attacks by the Germans for at least three days.  As the movie unfolds you see how Hank’s character has to make quick decisions, navigate dangerous water, engage the enemy, and do everything possible to limit the amount of damage the convoy they were protecting sustained.  It is a great movie and it leaves you on the edge of your seat for at least sixty of the ninety minutes you watch.  More importantly, it reminds you of how important it is to have solid people working in the “gray area” of life.

This movie works as a great metaphor for describing the life of middle managers.  The mission created by the executive team is clear when understood in the pristine world of a boardroom or conference room.  I’m not implying executive leadership is naive or unaware that this gray area exists, rather I’m saying no one at that stage of strategic development could possibly account for the numerous ways things need to happen for the objective to be reached.  Middle management’s job is to protect the “convoy” and make sure it arrives in Liverpool England with as little damage as possible.  Middle managers are familiar with receiving these types of orders.  It may not be as sexy as protecting a convoy of ships, but it may be just as important.  The order you receive will most likely sound more like, “We need to cut production costs by 10% but still provide a quality product to our customers with as little damage to our customer satisfaction ratings as possible.”  Middle managers need to make that directive work while continuing to keep their team members motivated, the production line flowing, and handle any issues that pop up.  It’s this gray area that makes people in middle management thrive.  Middle managers must be comfortable with ambiguity, demonstrate moral courage to do what needs to be done when what needs to be done isn’t easily identified, and take the heat when things don’t go well.  You can’t be a coward if you’re going to survive as a middle manager.

Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time digging into the characteristics and skills necessary for functioning well in the middle level of any organization.  Perhaps you’re like me and find that part of the organization’s structure a place that challenges you in a positive way.  Maybe you’re like Captain Krause in charge of the battleship known as “Grayhound” and you’re willing to bravely go where there is little air cover yet the opportunity to do something good for a greater purpose is ready for a person like you to take command.  If so, you’re in the right spot because together, we can explore what it takes to be a successful middle manager.  I look forward to going into the “dark pit” with you over the next couple of weeks.

Silent Moral Courage-Olympic Flashbacks

When thinking about leading it’s not uncommon to think about moral courage. Moral courage is the ability to do the “right” or “moral” thing even when that can cost you significantly. You may need to push back on policies or movements that are popular, supported by authority figures, or encoded in law. It will most likely require you to be a lonely voice that makes those engaged in the immoral and wrong-headed action uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Exhibiting moral courage requires humility. A leader that exercises moral courage isn’t simply pushing their opinions around about what they believe is right, they’re speaking the truth even when doing so might make them uncomfortable. Think of the white leaders during the time of the Jim Crowe south who benefitted from the system yet spoke out against it because, in the end, they knew that to do so was what mattered for justice to prevail.

An example of moral courage that has stayed with me for some time has to do with an Australian man named Peter Norman. Peter Norman isn’t a name most people recognize. In fact, when someone thinks of moral courage they most often think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and numerous others who suffered for justice. Their fame emerges from the fact they stood up against injustice at great personal cost. Yet, so did Peter Norman. In fact, he not only lost a great deal because of his willingness to stand up against injustice, but he also did so without the recognition and fame his fellow protestors got from protesting the same acts at the very same time. He died without ever being publically acknowledged for his courage or his great accomplishments as an athlete.

At the Olympics in 1968 three men emerged as winners of the 200-meter race. Two of them were black and one of them white. Two of them were from the United States, and one from Australia. Tommy Smith, the first US Athlete won the Gold, and John Carlos the second US athlete took the bronze in the 200-meter race. They knew that they had this small space in time to use their brief fame to make a statement against the rampant racism in the United States and around the world. The third athlete who was not a citizen of the United States nor a black man was told by these two athletes that they intended to make a political statement during the medal ceremony, one of which was to raise their black-gloved hands in the air as a way to protest racism. Peter saw the importance of this moment and knew he could not just stand silent at this important moment and asked how he could show solidarity with his fellow sprinters. All of this occurred only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr so the whole world was aware of the racial struggles occurring in the United States. Peter also was acutely aware of the racial struggles and discriminating policies of his own country and wanted to give voice to the marginalized people there as well. He was strongly influenced by his religious beliefs (He was a member of the salvation army that believed deeply in the equality and dignity of all people) and felt compelled to be a part of this moment at this time.

While Carlos and Smith are known for the fact they raised their hands in protest that elicited boos, sneers, and angry insults from the crowd, Norman also was looked down on because he chose to wear the badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the ceremony. After the protest, Smith, and Carlos were rushed from the stadium and removed from the US Olympic team. They went home to the United States, experienced a great backlash for what many believed was a sign of complete disrespect, and received death threats. This indeed is an example of moral courage. Later, both men were re-accepted into the Olympic fold and had significant athletic careers. However, Peter Norman was not so lucky.

Peter Norman was severely punished by the Australian sports establishment. He remained one of Australias greatest runners qualifying over and over again for the Olympics but the establishment would not let him run. Norman suffered from depression, alcoholism, and an addiction to pain medication and died as a forgotten figure in Australian athletics. He never was able to re-establish his career as a sprinter and never participated in sports on any significant level after that one act of protest for justice. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian government apologized for how Peter Norman was treated. Peter Norman certainly suffered for standing up for what is right and just. Moral courage cost him a great deal.

I look around today and I see so many public figures beating their chests and saying whatever they need in order to appeal to and be accepted by those in power. Standing for moral principles seems to be less and less popular in a world that finds morality and principles relative to whatever the mood of the nation is. Yet, I take comfort and inspiration knowing that there are always people like Peter Norman who will silently suffer and be ostracised for a cause not directly related to them. People who have the moral courage to stand for what is right and just even if they’re not those suffering from the injustice simply because their principles dictate that they must be a witness to what is just. These are the people that will continue to be the conscious of an organization and a nation. Thank God we have them.