Leading with Intent in the Age of Remote Work

Eric Kish
Eric Kish
Aug 9, 2020 · 4 min read

A year ago it would have been difficult to imagine that remote work would become the rule rather than the exception for many of us. Going into our sixth month of the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing those initially resistant to the idea now beginning to adapt to the inevitable. A transition that most likely would have taken another ten years happened in mere months. Now, instead of rushing to and from meetings, we are “Zoom”-ing into meetings. In fact, two months ago I attended a child adoption via web conference in a “virtual court”.

It sounds ridiculous now, but just three years ago IBM, which has embraced remote work for decades, called thousands of employees back to the office. The move stunned its employees as they were now required to either move to be able to commute to work or look for another job. Michelle Peluso, IBM’s chief marketing officer at that time and formerly CEO of fashion startup Gilt, explained that the “only one recipe I know for success includes great people, the right tools, a mission, analysis of results, and one more thing: really creative and inspiring locations.

Before, few companies would have considered working remotely, now most are entering their fifth or sixth month of remote work, and it looks as though remote work might stick around. For software companies like Twitter and Shopify, announcing their intentions to stay fully remote was relatively obvious. However, for hardware companies the decision has not been quite so simple. Few would have imagined that conservative companies from conservative countries, such as Germany, would make remote work a permanent policy. Specifically I am speaking of the momentous announcement by Siemens.

According to Reuters, the German conglomerate is going to allow employees to “work from anywhere” for two or three days a week, and focus on “outcomes” rather than time spent in the office. This was a clear signal about the revolutionary movement the pandemic has kickstarted for workers globally.

Right around the time IBM announced it would be calling employees back to the office, I had just started a new job as CEO with Nanoramic Labs in Boston, MA while maintaining my permanent residence in Boulder, CO. My board agreed to allow me to commute to Boston twice a month and the rest of the time work remote.

Courtesy of The New Yorker

I had made the decision long before joining Nanoramic that where I chose to live would not be reliant on where my job was located and that I would only consider positions where this flexibility was available. Choosing to do this exposed me to the challenges of leading successful teams across different time zones and cultures. I had been preparing for this role for at least fifteen years.

I experimented with different leadership techniques and began developing a set of systems and practices that would support this remote way of managing. This eventually led me to document this under a method I call Intent Driven Management™.

The last time I stepped into my office in Boston was early February, now six months ago. Even if I had wanted to fly to Boston, visiting my office would have been impossible, as the State of Massachusetts requires fourteen days of quarantine for anybody coming in from outside of New England.

Our team was lucky. We had been practicing Intent Driven Management™ as a company since I joined over three years prior. We already had a highly functional infrastructure for remote work and organizational rituals that were enabling independent actions in line with our strategic intent. The Pandemic tested the fabric of our intent driven culture to the limit with amazing results as described in What Makes a Startup Resilient in Crisis like COVID-19.

So what makes this method so effective for remote work? In a remote work environment supervision is a difficult, if not an impossible way to manage. You cannot see from your office if people are doing their job. You need to allow people to work independently without close supervision. And you need 3 things to make this happen:

Intent Driven Management™ achieves the “focus on outcomes” that Siemens had mentioned previously. It provides a practical method to run a company, allowing people to act independently while remaining in line with the company’s strategic intent.

You can discover more about this in my book 5 to 50 to 500: How to build and run scalable organizations

Intent Driven Management

Intent is what drives highly adaptive organizations

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