Managing a remote team? Time to tend the garden

By Steve Strauss, USA TODAY Senior Small Business Columnist and Voya Contributor

It is likely a vast understatement to say that whatever training and experience you have had to date has not even remotely prepared you to lead a team at a moment like this.

Your employees are under stress; heck, you are under stress, and your organization is likely under extreme stress. And of course, all of that stress is compounded by the fact that your typical tools for rallying and motivating people are not easily at your disposal when everyone is working remotely.

What’s a leader to do?

Here’s one answer: This situation is akin to the one retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal inherited when he took command of the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at the nadir of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2003.)

Like you, McChrystal was dealing with a unique, deadly, dispiriting opponent (like coronavirus), and his team was remote, spread out in many different locales.

Sound familiar?

Many years later, the general wrote a book about that experience and how he helped turn the tide. McChrystal says that the “chess master” approach to military leadership that he had been taught coming up the ranks was ill-suited for either managing a remote army or even dealing with such a new, unconventional opponent. Instead he says, he “backed into a far better approach – that of a gardener.”

“What does a gardener do? I don’t think a gardener grows anything. Only plants can do that, but gardeners are not unimportant. They prepare the ground, they plant, they water, they weed, they feed, they protect, and then they get to harvest.”  - Stanley McChrystal, retired four-star general

What McChrystal realized was that in such situations, a leader can get the most out of his or her troops – not by dictating and micromanaging – but instead by nurturing and creating an environment and ecosystem that fosters independent growth. By helping the plants grow, by fertilizing, watering, weeding and feeding, the gardener allows the individual plants in the garden to flourish and bloom into a beautiful whole.

In the case of the JSOC, that approach helped turn the tide of a deadly war. In your case, managing remotely in this way just might improve morale and help you get the most out of your team too.

What does that look like?

I think it really is a matter of smart tools and soft skills.

Smart tools

One of the great things about running a small business these days is that there are just so many impressive tools out there designed to help you manage your business professionally, and, yes, when need be, remotely.

Here are some of your options:

  • Collaboration tools:  Remote work tools have come of age. Today, people can work on documents in the cloud, together and at the same time if needed. All of these sorts of cloud-based tools allow you to work remotely and collaboratively with texting, video chats, online meetings and more.
  • Remote tools: Tech companies are offering a plethora of free remote work tools right now.
  • Video Chats: Yes, I know, you are zooming. I am too. We all are zooming. The good news is that Zoom is offering some great deals right now.

Soft skills

As indicated, tending the garden of employees today requires a different skill set. Here is what the experts say works best:

  • Engage regularly: As you have well seen, people can get lonely and unmotivated when working from home (not to mention distracted.) That is why it is vital that you as leader stay in contact. Have regular check-ins. Chat. Share. Text. Collaborate.
  • Video chat: I have found that one of the unexpected benefits of this undesired quarantine is that video chats have helped break down barriers. Who knew that that stone-faced colleague has a sweet baby at home, or a goofy dog, or whatever? The beauty of video chatting with people at home is that you get to know them in a way that you otherwise would not, and as a leader of a team, that is valuable.
  • Make them accountable: By setting standards, having deadlines, and making clear expectations with regard to outcomes and deliverables, you are letting your team know that, even though they are at home, they are still at work.
  • Listen: Master salesman Tom Hopkins says that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should listen more than we should speak.

Wise words, that.

You get the idea. I am suggesting that what your team probably needs right now, and what will help you get the best out of them during this trying time, is for you to not be the chess master leader, managing and dictating from the top down, but instead, be the gardener.

By creating an ecosystem that supports and nurtures your troops during their time of need, you are actually encouraging them to grow stronger as people and employees. Then, when the sun comes out again (because it will) your business will reap the bounty of a grateful, strong, committed garden, err, team.  


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Steve Strauss

Often called “America’s most popular small business columnist,” Steve Strauss is a best-selling author and senior USA TODAY columnist whose content and media appearances reach millions. Steve is also an attorney, small business influencer, and the author of 17 books, including The Small Business Bible.

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