For new readers: To get started in this series - go to the first post.
In the fourth post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I wanted to talk about curiosity and why it is important.
Remote work is still an emerging way of working and setting up a company fully distributed is still not the most common setup. The tools and processes we have right now work ok, but as remote work will evolve as will everything else with it. Adapting to every little change can be hard, but learning and improving while the world around us changes will be crucial for ourselves and the distributed teams we work in.
How can you as a leader create a culture where change and learning is second nature?
“Stay hungry, stay foolish”
Most of you probably read or watched Steve Jobs speech at Stanford in 2005. The title with which this video became known are his last words in that video: “Stay hungry and stay foolish”. Even though this is already 14 years ago, I think it is more true than ever - especially when we are talking about a new way of working.
Curiosity or “Staying hungry” means nothing less than a hunger for new experiences and knowledge, an openness to change. There are a lot of philosophers and smart people I could quote here, but the essence of what they all say/said is: If you start to get satisfied with the status quo, that is the moment where it’ll all comes to a standstill, with everything around you still moving ahead.
Why am I putting such a focus on curiosity? Studies and experiences show that curiosity encourages us to view difficult situations with more creativity. It forces us to think around the corner and also keep our teammates in close contact. You’ll start to communicate more by asking more relevant questions. This results in creating more interest and more motivation for yourself and your team. And we know how important communication is in distributed teams. So anything you can do to communicate more is a win, in my opinion.
As a leader you function as a role model, you have a certain responsibility. Modeling curiosity could be one. Keep asking questions. I know that sometimes we rather want to stay quiet and not ask those vulnerable questions, because we feel we could be judged incompetent or indecisive. Or we don’t want to bother other people. But it is important for you to keep leaning into your curiosity to plant the seed for others and make it seem normal. There is this old stigma that as a leader you have to know everything and come up with all the solutions. I disagree with that. A leader should rather ask the right questions and therefore allow others to figure it out on their own and create a culture of growth and curiosity.
By practicing humility, we can acknowledge that we don’t know the answer to everything. Accepting that our knowledge is finite - “Staying foolish” - allows us to see that the world around us, our work and our team members are always changing and that the future will diverge from the present. This is highly relevant for how we work in remote setups. Our work is different than what it used to be, and we know that a lot will change in the next years. Let’s challenge the status quo and find what works for us right now - but remember to do this continuously.
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” - Steve Jobs
- Continue to challenge the status quo in your team/company - Improve consistently
- Act as a role model for curiosity and ask questions
- Practice humility and know that you don’t know the answer everything
Bias towards action
Working in a fully distributed team across multiple timezones sometimes also has its downsides. Especially when it comes to collaboration. If you want to respect normal working hours, you can’t force people to come online for a meeting at 11pm on their Wednesday.
Let’s say I am working on a proposal for a change we need to make in one of our apps, but I need feedback from the Designer (Taiwan) and and Engineer (SF) right now, as I need to send it off. What do I do? I know that this is a rather extreme example, but it can happen, and it did already in my team.
Well there is one option of waiting, which is not great if you need to keep things moving forward. Then there is option number two: cultivating a bias towards action. What I mean by that is: Make the decision to the best of your knowledge in that moment and fix it later if it needs fixing. You won’t be able to wait on your distributed teammates all the time, and then being able to actually make the decision will be a crucial skill to learn.
At Buffer we call this Entrpreneurial Spirit. Quite a long and complicated sounding word, but it embodies exactly that feeling of tending towards action. Being an “Entrepreneur” shouldn’t be limited to only the founder or the CEO, but to everyone. We can all be one. The mindset of an entrepreneur focuses on “doing” above everything else. Entrepreneurs are on a quest to help their users and to continue to make their service or product better and better. They identify problems and solve them. They make mistakes and learn from them. Remote Work and being an Entrepreneur is results orientated, and cares about what the outcome is, what will be delivered to the customer.
In this process of integrating Entrepreneurial Spirit did I step on toes? - Oh Yes of course I did! And you will too. Did I make mistakes? Yes, and you will most definitely make mistakes too. But all of that is OK - and even wished for. The Entrepreneurial spirit is about approaching problems with curiosity and seeing mistakes as an opportunity for growth instead of something to be feared. And it’s about doing what needs to be done, even if that means taking risks outside of your defined role.
How can you inspire your team and yourself to live the Entrepreneurial Spirit?
- If you notice something that needs to be done and a decision maker isn’t immediately clear, assuming that you are the person to do it.
- Starting the video call instead of waiting for someone else to
- you get stuck, asking “what is the simplest possible thing I can do right now to move my area forward/deliver value to our customer?”
- Celebrating mistakes and forgiving any toe-stepping in favour of moving things forward quickly
Help your team and yourself to step into their ownership, to get comfortable stepping on toes and learn to be OK making some mistakes!
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
A culture where a growth mindset is being cultivated is a culture where all employees are seen as having the potential and are encouraged to develop, and are rewarded for improvement. With a growth mindset you belief that improvement is possible and that failures are opportunities to learn. Similar to curiosity this is something where you as a leader can help in modelling that behaviour. You can ask yourself if your current approaches actually help people see their potential and whether failures and feedback are seen as an improvement by you.
Within our distributed teams and companies, I think it is key providing an environment in which it is safe to learn. There are simple things you as a leader or your company can do to lay the groundwork for that. At Buffer we have a Growth Mindset Fund of $850/year. We can use this to attend conferences, courses, get a career or leadership coach, subscribe to relevant magazines, etc. It also states in our handbook: “Growing as individuals and within our roles makes for a stronger, better and more fulfilled company, so we provide resources toward growth, development and learning”. Check out this article by Workplaceless telling you why it is not a good idea to ignore such a Stipend.
If you as a leader or the company can at least encourage such a mindset, it will help the individual, the team and ultimately also the company in the long run. Of course be aware that it is not easy to attain a growth mindset fast. Especially in companies where failure and feedback is paired with criticism and defensiveness, our brain gets triggered with its fixed-mindset.
Another thing you can do to start a more growth mindset focused culture are Hackathons. We just recently finished our “Hackweek” at Buffer and it is always a huge fun to watch everyone be excited about different projects. Within Hackathons you and your team are collaborating across different disciplines and teams, you step outside your normal day job and exercise even your leadership skills. They are a great resource for new ideas too.
- Create a culture where everyone is seen as having the potential to improve
- See failures and feedback as opportunites to learn
- Allow your team to step outside their boundaries and create different Perks like a Growth Stipend or Hackathons
Finishing today’s post with my favorite quote from Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
Whether it is life itself, my work, my career or how I approach remote work - everything is moving forward and I feel it is important to stay curious and be adaptable!
Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌