Tips for taking charge when you’re not physically present

Before the events of 2020 forced a world of virtual workforces, I had been remotely leading two successful companies for the past 10 years, from more than 1,000 miles away from my employees. Zoom and Teams were routine tools for us, and in fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had already written four chapters for a book “The Virtual CEO.” Suddenly my previously unique situation was commonplace.

What are the keys that made this possible for me the past 10 years? How am I able to be physically present at my companies only once or twice a month, for a day or two at a time, and make valuable in-person connections in that short amount of time? Here are some tips for leading virtually.

  1. Make yourself available 24/7 for your leadership team so that when there is silence, it truly is golden. Don’t let a significant situation go unattended, but work with your team to define “significant.” My team has learned that I am a fixer. When they bring me a problem, I do whatever it takes to fix it. Sometimes that is like using a sledgehammer on a thumb tack, and it has more consequences for my leaders to deal with than if they had handled the problem themselves.
  2. Streamline communications.
    1. Reduce email communications. Too many of them are simply not important.
    2. Make texting the preferred method of communication.
    3. Remember that phone conversations are for explanations.
    4. Train your team to filter out drama.
    5. Know that clarity is kindness; transparency and fairness build trust.
    6. Encourage independence and get your team to think, “What will his/her advice be?” “How will he/she react?” “Can I deal with this situation myself?”
  3. Hire leaders you can trust. This is simple to say, but it takes a great deal to identify, obtain, invest in and empower the right people.
    1. Set mutually agreeable, clear, concise and measurable goals.
    2. Encourage leaders to make informed decisions. Praise good decisions and use mistakes as learning opportunities.
    3. Invest in educating people on how to communicate with you.
    4. In my eyes, a culture fit trumps a loaded resume.
    5. Force leaders to work together. Create an atmosphere where, if they all agree on a topic, it is nearly impossible for you to disagree.
  4. Create a written, simple report structure and straightforward dashboarding that streamlines knowledge transfer. Have weekly reports focus on progress and issues with annual goal attainment. Require that not everything on the report be reiterated in the weekly meeting, only those items that need discussion.
  5. Limit your standing meetings to 15 to 30 minutes. All meaningful conversation can be had in this time.
  6. Provide company or department-wide regular email/letters to update associates and retain a closeness to your employees.

The greatest advantage of this approach is that I can see the forest through the trees. The drama and personal baggage inherent in workplace relationships is removed, allowing my teams and I to make better decisions.

Dr. Gordon Vanscoy, Pharm.D., MBA, is chairman & CEO of RareMed Solutions