When executives can't get to know their crew: 6 suggestions for beginning a brand new function with no handshake – visitor blogger Julie Freeman

In February 2020 I accepted an assignment as interim CEO of a leading scientific society. The CEO and President-elect expected me to keep the 130 employees engaged and calm until the new CEO comes on board to ensure that the esteemed company's programs continue to function effectively.

I knew there would be some challenges leading the team. Transitions are always unsettling. This had a number of elements that increased stress levels – – An effective and popular CEO was retiring and the team was concerned about changes I might make, as well as changes the new CEO might introduce. In addition, the board of directors was ready to adopt a visionary strategic plan, and employees wondered what role they would play in the future of the company.

But the stressor I wasn't expecting was the COVID-related shutdown. My assignment, which ran from March 29th to August 14th, was completely virtual. I have never met any of the employees or CEOs in person. I wondered how I could develop employee trust and engagement if I couldn't walk down the hall to greet employees or have face-to-face meetings with them.

While Zoom and other video conferencing tools can enable face-to-face interactions, it's not the only tool a new leader is offering – – or any leader – – Needs to get in touch with employees and earn their trust.

Unsurprisingly, a guest blog on the Grossman Group's website stated that the most important tool in the market leader's toolbox is communication. But how do you communicate? That worked for me and I believe it can work for others.

6 tips to get you started without meeting your team in person

  1. Be vulnerable. On the first day at work, I started my email with everyone with the words, “This is a scary day for me.” And it was. This admission was well received by employees who dealt with many of their own fears and showed that I am human.
  2. Share some personal parts of your life. When I introduced myself at the first meeting of all employees, I naturally spoke about my priorities during my time as Interim CEO and how we would work together. However, the most popular part of my presentation was the pictures I showed of my family. For employees dealing with many family issues from home, this was a way to relate to me.
  3. Listen and keep listening. I started my assignment with an individual meeting with each senior team member to learn more about their responsibilities and challenges. Then I had open office hours and invited everyone to get on a Zoom call to introduce themselves and chat a little about their work. We used breakout rooms during all employees' meetings to give everyone the opportunity to contribute ideas. During my entire working hours, I received suggestions from employees. We weren't able to implement all of them, but I was able to respond to every suggestion so the staff knew they were being heard. And I did.
  4. Listen to more than just work problems. New leadership creates a transition for both the organization and its employees. William Bridges, in his book "Managing Transitions," emphasizes that leaders must allow employees to express concern about the transition without judging them. Managers and I discussed Bridges' perspective that employees whose fears have been heard are more receptive to plans to move beyond the transition period. I encouraged them to listen to their teams' concerns. However, it wasn't just the uncertainty about the transition that sparked fears among employees. The death of George Floyd deeply affected many employees and we gave them space and several forums to process these feelings.
  5. Give employees a voice. After the Board of Directors approved its strategic plan, the team was tasked with developing a multi-year implementation plan. Managers could have developed the plan, but I wanted to involve as many employees as possible. I felt that a variety of viewpoints and ideas would add to the plan, and I thought if the staff were involved in developing the first draft, they would be able to see their role in realizing the ambitions of the strategic plan. I asked for volunteers, both in leadership roles and team members. 84 of the 130 employees were involved in the planning. They valued the opportunity to have a voice in the future of society and reported that they saw work as an opportunity for professional development.
  6. Say thank you. Whenever an employee made extra effort; For example, when I was working through midnight on accepting proposals for the annual meeting, I would write thank you emails and would often receive replies thanking them for their appreciation for these efforts. These thank you notes and answers to these questions helped connect with individual employees.

My experience is by no means unique. While not all future leaders will spend all of their time running an organization virtually, they could take on a new role without meeting their employees. Managers at all levels will continue to choose to leave a position for personal or professional reasons, and new leaders will take their places. Even if it is possible to return to the office, many employees will resist returning to the office. They have made themselves comfortable working from home and have proven that they can do their jobs as effectively as they can in the office. In-person meetings with co-workers may no longer be possible.

The world of work may have changed forever, but regardless of the channel, the importance of two-way communication with executives will never change.

If you apply them today, which of these tips will help you to virtually lead and involve your employees?

– Julie Freeman

About Julie

Julie_FreemanJulie Freeman, ABC, APR, an association leader and communications professional, has chaired a number of professional associations, including the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Since leaving IABC, she has used her communication skills to guide three scientific societies through their transitions. As a senior thoughtAs a partner in the Grossman Group team, Julie developed executive communications plans for Fortune 500 companies.

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