Nona Blog

How to get (much) better at remote leadership

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Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

Remote work isn’t a new thing. It has of course been dramatically accelerated because of Covid 19, but many businesses have been doing varying degrees of it for a long time.

At Nona we started experimenting with remote working quite a while before Covid19 changed the world, and we learned some really hard lessons. I’m writing this to share some of the practical steps you can take to become a better remote leader fast. The remote ‘honeymoon phase’ will wear off, and when it does, these practices will serve you and your team well whether you stay remote or not.

I should warn you upfront that these are not quick fixes. Remote leadership requires consistent, disciplined and deliberate action.

At the start of our journey to remote we thought we were really smart. Productivity went up, people were really happy and we felt like we had solved a challenge that so many had tried to solve but failed.

We were wrong — we just hadn’t given it enough time.

We had put in (a borderline unreasonable amount of) time, effort and resource into building a very unique and strong culture at Nona. This culture had largely been built around a beautiful physical space and high levels of high quality human interactions.

By (almost) completely removing this physical space and human interaction things started to get worse – and we didn’t understand why.

The productivity levels remained high but the culture was taking a noticeable knock. People were less engaged, and less happy, and we needed to do something about it.

The world doesn’t need any more remote work psychological analysis from unqualified people like me. Instead, I’ll just say that it become clear that in my role as a leader I would need to seriously up my game. I would need to contribute meaningfully and in new ways to keep our culture strong and our connections between each other healthy.

But how do you lead when nobody’s watching?

I want to share 5 things that we have implemented that have made a noticeable positive impact on staying connected. You can start to implement these today and if you are disciplined and consistent, I’m 100% confident that you will begin to see positive changes in your team and your business. If you don’t, we’ll buy you lunch.

27 Questions every 90 days.

Why?

To give every single person in your business some 1 on 1 time with you – time that is totally focused on them talking and you listening. This is not to solve problems, nor is it a review or a retro. It’s just you asking questions that have no right or wrong answers. It is about you actively listening, something that is very difficult for most entrepreneurs.

How?

Schedule 45 minutes with every member of your business every 90 days.

As I write this Nona is currently made up of 30 people and at this size it’s doable with some planning and effort. There will come a time when this is not practical, and then I might have to share the load or find another way, but until then I’m happy to do things that ‘don’t scale’.

Ask these questions or modify them to suit your environment, and then listen with your full attention:

  • Describe how you are feeling right now in one word.
  • How are you feeling about all things Covid19 and the lock down?
  • What’s been your biggest win in the last 90 days?
  • What’s been the biggest obstacle or challenge in the last 90 days?
  • What can Nona do to make you more successful?
  • How happy are you (1–10), why?
  • How is the morale of those around you at Nona?
  • Where is Nona weakest?
  • If you owned Nona, what is one thing you would change?
  • Has anyone at Nona done something that made a positive impression on you in the last 90 days? Once answered ask if you can share the answer with the person in question and then do it.
  • What does support from me look like to you?
  • Do you feel like you get recognised when you do good work?
  • Do you feel that you get held accountable when you don’t?
  • Do you feel safe at Nona — why?
  • What problem do we solve for our clients?
  • What is your purpose at Nona — and — do you feel like it is linked and in support of Nona’s purpose?
  • What will Nona look like 10 years from now?
  • Do you feel like what you do here everyday is contributing to that vision and that you are a part of it.
  • If somebody asked you at a dinner party what it’s like to work at Nona how would you answer?
  • How can I be a better leader?
  • What is something that I could be doing more of / less of?
  • What is an opportunity that you would like to be given a chance to fail at?
  • Do you feel that your voice is heard at Nona
  • What is something that we should start / stop doing during this lock down to be better / happier / more connected?
  • Is there something that we could be doing better for our clients?
  • What is something that you learned or some value that you took from this?
  • Describe how you are feeling right now in one word.

For a deeper look into this, read my article over here.

Monday Video

Why?

  • To give your team deeper insights into how you are spending your time, what you are focusing on and how you are being influenced in the decisions you are making.
  • To provide a predictable communication rhythm but with varied content.
  • To help your team to see the world and your business through your eyes and therefore why you are doing what you are doing.
  • To invite engagement.
  • To focus your own thoughts and actions for the week ahead.

How?

Every Monday send a 5 minute (not longer) video of yourself talking to your team. I send it to our company Whatsapp and Slack ‘announcements’ channels.

Start with the following headlines but feel free to edit as you need to for your own environment:

  1. This is what I am focusing on this week.
  2. These are notable meetings that I have planned this week.
  3. These are my observations from last week.
  4. These are the things that I am thinking about.
  5. This is the content that I am consuming.

For more on the detail of this practice, check out the article that I wrote on it here.

Daily Huddle

Why?

  • To stay connected with your team.
  • To make sure that you are on track every single day.
  • To bring focus to your day.
  • To hold each other accountable.
  • To catch blind spots that you might not see yourself.
  • To pick up patterns and trends in your teams emotional state.

How?

There are endless ways to run your daily huddles and ours is constantly evolving. The current iteration of our daily leadership team huddle looks like this

Agreements:

  • Never ever be late.
  • Starts on time at the same time every day.
  • Ends on time.
  • If you really cannot make it, send your update via Whatsapp.
  • We are a leadership team of 5 and the huddle never takes more than 15 minutes.

Agenda.

  • Describe how I am feeling in a single word.
  • The one thing that I need to get done today is…
  • Other things that I am going to be doing today are…
  • The concerns that I want to give energy to today are…
  • The things that I want to celebrate today are…
  • A behaviour that I would like to keep from the past 24 hours is…
  • A behaviour that I would like to drop from the past 24 hours is…

Our daily huddle was first inspired by Verne Harnish’s book Scaling Up which is a great read that I highly recommend.

Weekly meeting

Why?

  • To stay focused on the quarterly objectives (see quarterly planning). If we are on track for the week, then we are on track for the quarter. It’s difficult for most people to work in a world that’s further out than 90 days so we set most objectives within that time frame.
  • To generate 7 day to do items that will drive the business towards its 90 day objectives.
  • To increase accountability across the leadership team.
  • To increase the frequency of strategic discussions.
  • To review the data that will drive the right decisions for the week ahead.
  • To stay connected.
  • To continually improve, everywhere.

How?

Agreements.

  • No distractions — all windows closed and notifications off. This is very expensive time and it’s critical that everyone is ‘dialled in’ and present.
  • If you can do this meeting in person that’s optimal but not being able to meet together physically is not reason enough to miss or skip this meeting. Obviously if you are a remote leader this will very seldom be done in person and that’s OK.
  • Everybody is prepared and ready for the meeting each week.
  • Schedule in a recurring weekly appointment for your leadership team and ensure that everyone prioritises this meeting. This is arguably the most import meeting on everyone’s calendar every week.
  • Starts on time at the same time every time.
  • Ends on time.

Agenda.

Our current iteration runs for 2 hours. It’s difficult to make it shorter than this if you want to generate meaningful results.This agenda shows headings and light detail only. There is quite a lot of detail that needs to be unpacked for each heading but this should get you started.

Hard start and container building (15 mins — 3 mins each).

  • Daily huddle process (see above).
  • Good news story from the past week relating to personal and business.

Review the numbers (10 mins).

  • Here you are reviewing your list of numbers that you are watching from week to week. You should have weekly targets set where you can for these numbers. These numbers should give you a good picture of where you need to put in effort for the week to come and therefore generate conversation and action items for the week ahead. These should generally be leading indicators that will drive actions.
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Examples of what some numbers might look like.

Keep a discipline of zero discussion here. If there is something that you want to discuss, make a note for the section of the meeting that is dedicated to discussing and solving issues. This is difficult but necessary.

Quarterly objectives review (5 mins)

  • There are many systems to set goals for the quarter. We are currently using OKR’s but we have also used Rocks. For simplicity I will talk about Rocks in this article.
  • In this section you are simply checking in on your quarterly objectives (Rocks) are on track or off track.
  • Again, there is a zero discussion discipline required here. If there is something that you want to discuss, make a note and add it to the backlog for discussion items later on in the meeting.

Headlines and acknowledgement (5 mins).

  • This is about calling out notable employee and customer news and observations. If they are positive headlines simply high five each other and move on. If they are negative, drop the issue down to the issues and discussion portion of the agenda.
  • This again requires a zero discussion discipline. If you want to discuss something, drop it down to the issues and discussion list (we use a Trello board to keep track of this).

To do list (5mins)

  • Review all the to do’s from the past 7 days.
  • Everybody reviews their own cards to the team.
  • We use labels for each card so that one can see at a glance what the progress is. The labels are:

Done.

Progress made but I want to leave on for another week.

No progress but I want to leave on for another week.

I want to discuss this.

Been on for more than two week.

  • Nothing should stay on for more than 2 weeks.
  • You are aiming to get 90% of the weekly to do’s completed each week.

Break (10 mins).

Issues and Discussion time (60 minutes).

Now that we have this list populated from things that have cropped up during the week, and from the agenda above, we begin to get stuck into the main reason for this meeting — discussing and solving issues and generating to do’s for the week ahead that we will hold each other accountable for.

  • Do a round of voting on which items get discussed first. This is important because if you don’t vote, the most important issues might not get addresses simply because it was the last issue added to the bottom of the list. We use the Trello vote function for this which works well. Everyone gets 3 votes. We repeat this process until the time runs out.
  • The point of this section is to solve issues by generating action items for the next 7 days.
  • This is expensive time so really question whether the whole leadership team needs to be involved in solving a particular issues or whether it can be taken offline to solve.
  • No politics here, open and honest communication – and leave your ego at the door. This is about putting the team and the business ahead of yourself and recognising that you are part of the greater whole.
  • We will usually get through somewhere between 8 and 15 issues during this time.

Conclude process (10 mins).

  • Recap final to do list for the week ahead.
  • Each team member to rate the meeting 1–10 (no 7’s allowed), share their main take away from the meeting and to give a one word close about how they are feeling.

Our weekly meeting has been strongly inspired by Gino Wickman’s Level 10 meeting system from the book Traction. This is an excellent read and a system that I highly recommend.

Quarterly planning

Why?

  • To take time away from working in the business with your leadership team and to focus on the bigger picture.
  • To review the past 90 days . What went well, what needs attention, what did you learn etc..
  • To spend time and connect with your leadership team.
  • To work on the culture, trust levels and performance of your leadership team.
  • To set the objectives for the next 90 days.
  • To gain alignment.

How?

I’m assuming that you’re able to meet in person. Having said this, because of Covid19 we have had success running these virtually. The virtual agenda has been spread out over 7 days but the basic process is the same. As soon as travel is possible and responsible again I will travel to meet my leadership for this every 90 days. It is a big investment but a very worthwhile one.

You can strip this down to a single full day together but I will share our entire agenda so that you can pick and choose which elements will serve you best.

Again each heading requires a fair amount of detail but this should get you started.

  • Plan a year in advance at least, and get buy-in on the dates so that there are no last minute non-attendees. It’s critical that everyone on your leadership team is part of this process.
  • It’s important that you are in a different environment and therefore able to be in a different head space. We always pick a nice big house in a beautiful location.
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Pick a location that will help you get into a different head space if possible.
  • I send out preparation to the leadership team about a month before the time so that everyone has done the work to be able to show up ready and prepared to get the most out of this time together.
  • I send out a form for the entire business to fill out a month before which consists of a few simple but powerful sections:

What should we start doing at Nona?

What Should we stop doing at Nona?

What should we continue doing at Nona?

Rate your level of engagement over the past 90 days (1–10)

Would you recommend Nona as a great place to work (1–10)

Would you like to add anything else?

  • This form is due a week before the quarterly planning session and we as the leadership will meet to read through the answers together. The point of this is to make sure that we are giving everybody a voice in the business and this will help us to populate a lot of the discussion items for the offsite time. We then circle this feedback back into everybody’s quarterly retro to try and close the loop.

Agenda — obviously if you are doing virtual you can ignore all the physical references.

Day 1.

Arrive at venue and get settled (45 mins)

CEO opening speech (15 mins)

Tone settings and container building (60 mins)

  • One word opener.
  • Top 3 outcomes that you need to make this offsite feel like a success.
  • Trust building exercise.

Review to do’s from the last offsite (20 mins)

  • If not done question whether to leave it on for the quarter ahead.

Previous quarter review (60 mins)

  • Financial performance.
  • Quarterly objectives (how did we do).
  • What worked, what didn’t.

Lunch break (45 mins).

Discussion items population(45 mins).

  • Organisational checkup review and comparison to the previous quarter.
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An example of what an Organisational Checkup looks like.

This should be completed by everyone beforehand and shows us clearly where we need to improve in the business for the quarter ahead.

  • SWOT analysis.

Strategy review (30 minutes).

Discussion time (4 hours).

  • Here we begin to tackle the issues and discussion items that have been populated throughout the day so far.
  • We use Trello for this and it works very well for us.
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Conclude the day (30 mins).

  • Main take away from the day.
  • Rate the day 1–10 no 7’s.
  • One word close.

Formalities close and we usually cook dinner together while doing some trust building exercises.

Day 2

Early morning run / yoga / workout / walk together. Optional but encouraged.

Review of previous day (60 mins)

  • Decisions made.
  • To do’s set.
  • Issues and discussion list.
  • Highlights / take aways.

Open strategy session (2 hours).

We invite the whole company to come and join for 2 hours to work through an issue (or two) that has been voted on ahead of time. This is not compulsory and the point here is open discussion so as the leader my job is to facilitate conversation not to lead it.

Quarterly objective (Rock) setting (90 mins soft cap).

This is the most important part of the entire process so it will go on until it’s complete.

Issues and discussion time for the remainder of the day. This time will vary depending on how much time you can to set the quarterly objectives.

Conclude the day (30 mins)

  • Main take away from the day
  • Rate the day 1–10, no 7’s.
  • One word close

Formalities close and we usually cook dinner together while doing some trust building exercises.

Day 3.

Review everything (3 hours).

  • Review all to do’s set.
  • Review strategy doc (VTO or OPSP).
  • Review everyone’s ‘top 3 outcomes to be achieved’.
  • Use the remaining time to finish any issues or discussion items that have not yet been addressed.
  • Improvement suggestions for the next session in 90 days.
  • Rate the offsite in it’s entirety 1–10, no 7’s.
  • Main take away from the session.
  • One word close.

Close the session.


These 5 things form the foundation of my leadership practice at Nona and I believe that they are the bones of how we have built a culture that we are so proud of.

At this stage you might be thinking that this is a lot of work – and you’d be right. It’s a huge amount of work. But, once you hit your stride it’s actually really enjoyable and very rewarding. Leading a business, especially if you are remote, is not easy. If it were, everyone would do it. It requires consistent, deliberate action.

So, if you’re a remote leader and finding it difficult to stay connected, transparent and inspiring you might want to consider implementing your own version of the above. It’s not easy, but few things that are worth doing are.

In addition to leading Nona, I work with a handful of businesses every year to help them to implement better systems and practises in their businesses and I’ve seen the results time and again — this stuff works.

With that said, I wish you luck on your leadership journey whether it’s remote or not, and I hope this was valuable to you.

Nona helps funded founders accelerate their software projects. If you’d like to soundboard your tech or your team, book a consultation with Dr Carl Thomen, our Chief Customer Officer. Or, download our free ebooks on the culture mistakes every founder should avoid, and the things every founder should know about successful fundraising.

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