December 8, 2023

Modern leadership skills, such as strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, resilience, and agility, have changed significantly with remote work and digital transformation.

Our latest research, Making of a Modern Leader: Do Your Employees Have the Skills To Lead Through Change? explores what leadership means today and the skills our employees need to connect, inspire, and thrive. The research draws upon a survey of 1,000 people managers globally, trends from Coursera learners, and insights from remote leadership champion GitLab.

In the following Q&A, Gitlab’s Head of Remote Darren Murph, expands upon some pressing questions about leadership in remote working environments. For more about GitLab’s remote leadership practices, check out their “How to Manage a Remote Team” course on Coursera.

Here is what Darren has to say about remote leadership in today’s rapidly changing world of work:

What are the key differences between in-person and remote leadership?

Darren Murph: Remote leadership should overall be more intentional. With in-person leadership, systems are created to optimize the speed of knowledge transfer (eg, How fast can Person A tap Person B on the shoulder and receive an answer?). With remote leadership, they are created to optimize the speed of knowledge retrieval (eg, How can we design knowledge systems so Person A and Person B can seek and find information regardless of time zone or availability?).

Remote leadership should also involve the planning of more intentional in-person interactions, which are vital moments that should not be overlooked or purged from a team’s budget. It should also seek more input from teams through public tools. GitLab, for example, enables everyone to contribute ideas, input, and feedback through comments on the platform, even if you aren’t the person who created the idea.

What are four things every remote leader should get into the habit of doing?

Darren Murph: First, in every scenario, ask, “What do I not know?”. Second, hire for weaknesses. Know your energy vampires and focus on hiring others who receive energy by doing that very work. Third, be eager to learn, change and grow. You need to be interested in evolving as a leader to keep up with the changes in technology and employee needs that come with it. Fourth, value your rest ethic as much as your work ethic. Rest is not in competition with work.

What advice would you give a learning leader looking to upskill teams in leadership?

Darren Murph: Leaders today should see each of their peers and direct reports as whole human beings, not just colleagues. Getting the most out of a report involves a deeper understanding of their purpose portfolio. Work is a slice of that portfolio but not the entire portfolio. Seek to understand what makes them who they are, what gives them energy, and what they seek from work. Today’s workplace leaders must first be willing to be led to a place of human understanding.

Could you share some leadership tips for someone managing a remote team they’ve inherited?

Darren Murph: Absolutely. First and foremost, don’t box people in. Each person is an individual and has nuanced motivations. Discover theirs and unlock their potential. Second, ask how you can be helpful. Don’t assume that the leadership style you prefer is the one that works best for them. Finally, do not relent on documentation. A memos-over-meetings culture creates an atmosphere where business results can be decoupled from linear time, leading to more flexibility and a sense of control.

How do you have high-impact conversations remotely?

Darren Murph: Start with a document. Writing forces clarity of thought. When you write what you’re planning to converse about, it leads to more precision, and it enables more parties to contribute input to the topic at hand. Also, be clear in your ask when scheduling synchronous time for conversations, and include an agenda with the aforementioned document in the calendar invite.

What is essential in remote leadership to navigate uncertain times?

Darren Murph: The truth is that there is no such thing as certain times. The only constant in the business world is change, and modern leaders must internalize a growth mindset to be resilient in the face of tomorrow’s challenges. Practically, leaders can audit their company values ​​and ensure that operating principles are made explicit. Don’t leave workplace expectations to chance. Additionally, empower your teams to be present in their local communities through simple initiatives like Community Impact Outings.

How should leadership assess that everyone is feeling comfortable with technology?

Darren Murph: Your workflows and usage guidelines should be well-documented and easily accessible to everyone on your team. Once that is done, survey your team regularly with questions that will uncover gaps and misunderstandings. As a leader, you must lead by example. This means operating as you expect your team to operate and being open to suggestions on evolving methodologies.

What are the top three priorities for you right now in your “Head of Remote” role?

Darren Murph: I’m evolving, and expanding the reach of TeamOps, a new people practice that makes teamwork an objective discipline. It’s built for all teams — remote, hybrid, and office. I’m also putting together a second team to support the growth of TeamOps, which will be in charge of coordinating the evolution and expansion of GitLab’s Strategy & Operations function. Finally, I’m ensuring that I create memories and impact on my family and community, taking time off to recharge.


Discover how to make your remote leadership practices more successful by downloading our research, “The Making of a Modern Leader: Do Your Employees Have the Skills To Lead Through Change?”

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