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5 Ways to Lead Your Remote Team

The days of “management by walking around” are over.

Key points

  • Leaders of remote teams need to be specific and detailed about their objectives from the get-go.
  • When working remotely, it’s harder to detect a mis-hire—and that can cost time and money.
  • It's more important than ever that pay reflect performance.
  • With teammates spread across many locations, it’s imperative that leaders build two-way trust.
 SDI Productions/iStock
Source: SDI Productions/iStock

The days of “management by walking around” are over.

Business books from the 1980s encouraged managers to wander around the office, chit-chat with colleagues, and learn valuable information at the water cooler. Today, leaders of organizations large and small find themselves managing people remotely.

What makes somebody great at leading people remotely?

I’m the CEO and founder of an advisory firm that consults with tens of thousands of leaders globally, collecting significant data on their performance along the way. Over the last 25 years, we’ve learned what successful leadership looks like at companies of all shapes and sizes. And since the disruptions of COVID-19, we’ve been researching the behavior of executives heading up remote workplaces. A few key themes are already emerging:

The Great Remote Leader Checklist

  1. Are you great at setting goals?
  2. Are you great at hiring?
  3. Are you great at delegating?
  4. Does your compensation system reward high performance?
  5. Do you always do what you say you will do?

If you answered “yes” to all five questions, you’re most likely a great remote leader. In a remote setting, the importance of these leadership skills is amplified. Let me explain why.

Goal setting

It’s easy to clarify vague goals for employees or coworkers who sit at the next desk, or down the hall. But if you lead a remote team, then you need to be specific and detailed about your objectives from the get-go. Everyone should understand what you want to accomplish, why it matters, and which goals matter most.

My team coached one leader who was a brilliant engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He helped Amazon build one of the best supply chains in the world, using advanced mathematics to figure out how to get your purchases to your doorstep as economically and quickly as possible. Afterward, he joined a technology start-up and really struggled because he never set clear priorities. As he said, “I really was a bit frenetic, thinking about 10 things at once. If people needed direction, they didn’t like working with me.” Sure enough, his teams found him very frustrating because he didn’t know what truly mattered.


You probably notice the ill effects of a hiring mistake immediately in a traditional office environment. But when you work remotely, it’s harder to detect a mis-hire—and that can cost you time and money. Look for “A Players”: candidates who have at least a 90 percent chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10 percent of possible candidates could achieve.


If you struggle to delegate, you might have a habit of checking to see if somebody is getting their work done or not— and then pitching in and doing it for them. But that’s only possible if you work in the same office. You can’t really operate that way in a remote setting. Delegating effectively— and following up clearly and regularly— are extra important in the era of work-from-home.

Compensation System

Compensation is just one way to influence human behavior. In a traditional office context, peer pressure can also play a role in keeping people motivated and on track. But without that stimulus, it’s crucial to make sure that your compensation system rewards the right behaviors. Once pay reflects performance, you will have confidence that people will care as much about their quality of work as you do.

Do What You Say You Will

Question 5 might surprise you. Why is always doing what you say you will do on the remote leadership checklist? I believe it’s easier to build and maintain trust when you work in the same office as the team you lead. But if your teammates are spread across many locations, it’s imperative that you build two-way trust with them, empowering them to operate remotely and ensuring that they stay rather than quit.

Bill Amelio said it well. “When you make commitments, you need to keep them. That is the best way to build trust and credibility. It is the little things. If I say I am going to give you a raise on such and such day and that actually happens, then I build trust and credibility. Or if I tell you I am going to remove an obstacle that is in your way and I actually get it done, then that builds a lot of trust and confidence in your leadership.”

More from Geoff Smart, Ph.D.
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