The Long Distance Relationship
With the rapid increase in technology over the past years leaders are beginning to use email, smart phones, video conferencing, etc as substitutes for actually being “present” in the office leading their teams. Could it be that the abundance of technology is giving leaders a false sense of “being connected” to their employees that just doesn’t exist?
This phenomenon is becoming a challenge for many companies. The result is a level of employees who are not being adequately mentored and trained in preparation for advancing to the next level of leadership. Without the daily one-on-one input of their leaders, employees are not as effective at their jobs and are not growing and developing at the rate one would expect.
A phone call or an email a few times each day is no substitute for good old “leadership by walking around.”
I have personally been told by some of these employees that they are frustrated by the “absentee leader” and they feel they are stagnating as a result of the situation.
It’s Me or the Dog!
I remember seeing ads for a television show that aired sometime in the past few years called “It’s Me or the Dog.” While I never actually watched the show, my understanding is that it would highlight a couple who had a dog that one spouse loved and the other spouse could not stand. An ultimatum was issued by the spouse who disliked the animal that a choice had to be made…”pick me or the dog because this isn’t working.”
In these times where funding for large contracts is scarce, we are seeing more and more small projects that can only support a team of one or two people. Now, more than any time in recent history, we need employees who are prepared with the skills to take a small project from start to finish, serving the customer and working relatively independently with little oversight from their leader. Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified people because of the last few years of attempted “long-distance leadership.”
It is critical that we begin to see a reversal of this trend and leaders realize that they need to be in the office on a regular basis leading their teams. “It’s me or the dog” is turning into “It’s the Team or the Leader.”
I am a strong believer in leading by example. If the example that is set communicates that it is acceptable for the leader to be out of the office most of the week, leaving the team to fend for itself, what can we expect the next generation of leaders to do?
At some point, the intrigue of the technology that allows leaders to work long distance will have faded and we will see the technology used simply as a tool to help facilitate our day-to-day work and not as a substitute for personal interaction in the workplace.
The Millennials are Coming!
Companies will be challenged in the next few years to be innovative with how they structure their organizations and cultures to attract and retain the Millennials (aka “Generation Next”) who are in high school and college right now. Innovative approaches to the leadership of this generation will be interesting to observe.
Unlike previous generations who are still learning to integrate technology into their lives, the Millennials are the first generation to have had access to such a vast amount of 24/7 information and technology since they were born. Using it in every aspect of their lives comes naturally to them.
The Millennials are often referred to as “Digital Natives” while previous generations are “Digital Emigrants.”
Millennials will demand a work environment that is flexible and technologically advanced. They typically have grown up with very hands-on parents and teachers and will likely expect this from their employers. Millennials will want leaders who are very accessible (absentee leadership will not cut it with Generation Next). Millennials tend to be likely to look for structured organizations that are well run and follow clear policies and procedures.
This generation is typically driven to succeed and expects to be rewarded for their accomplishments. They view their time as limited and will likely not want to waste it trying to help “fix” a dysfunctional organization but instead will just look elsewhere for employment. Therefore, organizations must structure (or restructure) the work environment to facilitate open communication with well-defined expectations of employees at all levels.
Companies that wish to compete for, and retain, the best talent of the Millennial generation must begin preparing previous generations for the inevitable transformation that will occur at some point in the next several years. They might want to start the process by reigning in their “absentee leaders.”
Does your company have a policy about how often leaders with direct reports are required to physically be in the office? Is your company aware of the unique characteristics and values of the Millennials and have you began to integrate these values into your existing culture? What other issues do you see happening within the teams of your “absentee leaders?”
Ken Jones, AIA, LEED AP is a Vice President at Grimm + Parker Architects in MD
A service-focused leader, Ken helps create meaningful architecture + client success
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- Leading Virtual Teams to Real Results (blogs.hbr.org)
- How to Lead the Millennial Generation (psychologytoday.com)
- High Stakes: The Employee Engagement Game (linked2leadership.com)