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The Neglected Community: Relationships and Results in Remote Environments

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Jon Kidwell is a leadership and business coach who helps leaders in mission-driven organizations succeed. This is Part Four in a six-part series devoted to helping you lead, build, care for, and navigate impending issues that will impact the future of your team and your organization. In Part Three, we addressed restoring team member engagement. In Part Four we discuss relationships and results in remote environments.

In one day everything changed. I was working side-by-side with my team then the next day, none of my team shared an office with me. And here’s the thing, more than ever it was vital that we connected, that each of us was transparent about what was happening, that we had a rock-solid relationship, and that we produced results. It was vital because we were in a crisis.

When was this? March 2020? Nope. It was November 2017.

I was promoted from executive director at one YMCA to leading executives over a number of Ys. It happened shortly after Hurricane Harvey and parts of our YMCA were in a difficult spot – relationally and financially. The team was navigating personal loss and grief, fear of potential job loss amidst lay-offs, and the need to respond to a community that was also in crisis. But do so in a way that supported the bottom line of the organization because of the significant loss of membership and cost of rebuilding flooded YMCAs.

With so much fear and pressure to perform, I faced an uphill battle to form trusting relationships and learn the ‘real’ truth about what was going on. On top of that, I had to figure out quickly if the work being done was meeting expectations and producing results. And driving the equivalent distance of the state of New Jersey to be in-person with everyone wasn’t an option.

My journey to leading and building authentic relationships and impactful results in remote environments and various locations began.

Do You Need to See to Believe?

After the initial shock and taking the time to gather myself, I realized something. This isn’t my first rodeo leading off-site, multi-site and remote teams.

  • The facilities I led functioned and served people during the hours I was not there and the days I was off.
  • Childcare, youth sports, teen trips, and community outreach programs are very effective, often running simultaneously, across multiple sites, and no direct supervisor, myself included, even had an office at those sites.
  • Cross-functional teams, advisory groups, and training partners historically connected via conference calls(!!), semi-occasional in-person meetings, or Zoom, and I found both meaningful relationships and results could be produced this way.

So, what was really going on? For me, the absence of trust caused me to feel like I needed to see and manage people’s work. The pressure to perform ­– internally and externally – made me want to “touch,” maneuver, and change course in real-time to feel in control because I believed I could figure it out.

I quickly realized this path was doomed to fail. For starters, others could also figure it out, often faster and better than me. Second, trying to be everywhere often meant I was nowhere but in the car by myself which defeated the purpose and made me less effective.

For those reasons, I chose to address the real issue: trust. More accurately, the lack of trust. I choose to begin by building relationships. Otherwise, our interactions would have only been about me inspecting the outcomes and I didn’t want that. Because, if they didn’t know me or trust that I was for them, they may hide outcomes or try to fudge the results. And then together, we could clarify the expectations and results so all could see and believe the impact we made.

Service + Connection + Communication = Relationship in Any Environment

It’s hard to find a definition of relationship that doesn’t involve connection. Actually, you can’t. Relationships are a state of connection. How do we build that connection? Words and actions. Doing things and talking about them. It doesn’t matter if we are five feet or 5,000 miles apart. Serving, connecting, and communicating with each other builds healthy, trust-filled relationships. So, why in that order (service + connection + communication) and how do we do it?

  1. Service is committed acts for and to help others. We serve first because no matter who we are, so many have already served us. Beyond, service being a way to pay it forward, serving people demonstrates our love, care, and support for people. Whether it is removing roadblocks, promoting their work in public, or giving assistance in time of need when we choose to serve, it shows where our heart truly is. And, knowing that someone’s heart is for them invites honest connection.
  2. Proximity and connection are associated, but not synonymous. Don’t dismiss proximity as important, but place higher importance on emotional connection. Because we can be right next to each other, and still be a million miles apart. And we can be in different places, but closely connected around an idea, emotion or needed action. As a leader, build connection by leading with vulnerability and creating an environment where others can be vulnerable as well. How? By sharing, honoring, and taking care in regards to the emotions and information that people choose to share.
  3. When service and connection are present we can act in unity on common or shared ideas. Communication is the act of sharing information for common benefit and understanding. And when done to serve, with the connection in mind, we will actively listen and speak in a way that deepens the relationship, creates alignment and inspires action.

This is where we start if we want to deliver impactful results, regardless of the environment. It’s difficult because too often we seek results and talk about relationships. When we seek relationships then we can talk about results. And when a real relationship exists, results often follow.

Get Clear on Results, Not Routines

I don’t know about you but in an organization, like the Y, with such strong patterns (i.e. – Mon/Wed classes, same members on the same day/time, monthly meetings) it is easy to work the routine instead of routinely working toward results.

And maybe, just maybe, this plays into the fear of the work not being done when you can’t see the work. Or, when someone works from home. I know it did for me. Here’s why:

We are at work going about our day. There is ALWAYS something to do. So much of the work, starting as a director and only intensifying the more responsibilities you gain, is not necessarily due today. So, a lot of what is done can be done in the name of something for a future result. Because the routine lends itself to eventual results. But the truth is they are merely correlated, not causal. And then, something happens. An ‘emergency.’ A situation that requires our physical and emotional attention. It could be a last-minute ASAP email request from a supervisor, an unhappy member to appease, or something that someone forgot to get ready for an event tonight so now it’s all hands on deck. And phew, that took longer than expected and I’m more spent than anticipated. At least I was helpful, a good day’s work. 

Two things stand out here.

  1. If we’re remote, we cannot respond like that.
  2. In the absence of clear expectations and results we will abuse the freedom or find ways to be ‘helpful’ regardless of how helpful they are.

Only after we have built a healthy, trust-filled relationship can I release the need to manage the routine and support you and the organization by setting and then supporting clearly defined results.

Give your people and the organization what they need to be successful with Key Results Areas (KRA). These define what success looks like in each role. They create a shared understanding of the role and give the individual the ability to own and prioritize their work, as well as work hard to succeed. Beyond progress on work that matters most, this common ground makes possible more specific recognition, development opportunities, and feedback on performance.

How to clearly define key results areas:

  • Keep them short, simple, and straight to the point. Long and ambiguous key results leave too much room for misunderstanding and missed expectations.
  • Make them measurable. When it is specific, time-bound, and able to be measured it is easy to know what success looks like.
  • Include what you think goes without saying. This could be the qualities – type of work product, character, behavior, expressed values – that are desired to be a part of achieving the quantity goal.
  • Limit them to the KEY results (3-5). If everything is important, nothing is. This isn’t the 22-point job description. These are the 3-5 things they are responsible for and what it looks like to achieve success in those areas.

With clear results and a healthy relationship at the foundation, the routine is much less of a matter for your attention. And surprisingly, because of a healthy, trust-filled relationship, you may find that you are asking to speak into the routine because they value your opinion and want to achieve the results in the best way possible. And through a heart of service, connection, and communication, together you can identify a routine that works for them, the organization and its results, and the people you serve – regardless of where the office is located.

The demonstration of service to your people and the defining of clear results are foundational to excellent customer service and experience. Check back next time for how to advance an excellent and effective mission-driven customer experience.

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Jon Kidwell

Jon Kidwell coaches leaders in mission-driven organizations. He helps leaders develop the leadership and business skills they need to succeed with a mission-driven, people-centered approach to getting results and growing impact. For over 15 years Jon worked in nonprofits, 11 with the YMCA, most recently as vice president of innovation and operations for the YMCA of Greater Houston. Jon is the founder and president of The Kidwell Team and teaches Organizational Leadership at Concordia University Irvine. Connect with Jon by email at jon@jonkidwell.com, on LinkedIn, or visit his website jonkidwell.com.

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