Inspiration happens at the funniest times. It occurred for me during a recent bi-weekly 1:1 meeting with my direct report. We were half-way through our Cisco WebEx session when a five-year-old girl appeared on screen to ask her mom a question. I sensed that my direct report was slightly embarrassed and reacted to help ease the tension.
I waved at my camera hoping to grab the little girl’s attention. After unmuting, she asked for my name and what I was talking to her mom about. I answered with a short explanation about our work. This was the most memorable part of the conversation:
Girl: “Why do you need my mom to help?”
Me: “Because she’s the smartest person I know to help me fix it.”
Followed by 5-seconds of silence.
Girl: “Let me know when it’s my turn, OK?”
Me: “Umm, OK!”
These are the moments that matter.
I became a leader at Cisco to demonstrate my ability to manage a team to deliver business outcomes. I won’t lie, having to work from home was difficult for me and I had a hard time adjusting. But this year also helped me to discover a new reason to lead at Cisco: to create real connections that create lifelong employees.
Allow me to share some tips that worked for me as I guided my virtual team through 2020.
TIP #1 – The webcam is the new window to the soul: Leaders use conversation to know more about their employees. In office, you would likely find me in the campus café socializing with my team and talking about family, hobbies, and work goals. Working from home may lack the perk of that perfect mocha latte but I am happy to discover myself using Cisco WebEx to take these conversations to the next level.
We are now being invited into our employee’s homes, seeing their families and pets, and what they are most proud of hung on the walls – use that to connect!
In your video meetings, if you see the dog barking at squirrels or the cat walking across the laptop, bring them in on the conversation! Learn the names of these Cisco fur babies and their personalities while asking about upcoming vet appointments and special events.
Don’t hesitate to ask the question, “What’s behind you?” Does their background have artwork, sports memorabilia, or books? It pays to learn about what brings excitement to the lives of your team and this sometimes, from my experience, leads to great opportunities to match an employee to a dream customer engagement. Cisco employees have previously matched special work projects with their favorite sports league/franchise and others with their favorite entertainment company. Those memories become the best work stories thanks to you as their leader.
TIP #2 – Work/Life balance starts with your example: I WAS GUILTY, on many occasions, of encouraging my employees to take breaks when I didn’t do the same. In the beginning of the year, I converted my hour-long commute to the office and lunch break into a ten-hour workday.
My growth came from a decision to change and I worked harder on finding that balance. Cisco has given employees three “A Day for Me” opportunities to refocus on mental health. In addition, I now let my team know when I am taking time off during the day to offset an upcoming call after hours. My PTO hours are at their limit, so I have started to create more three-day weekends for myself. Your team needs the same guidance, and they will follow your lead.
Know about your employee’s personal obligations that exist within the 9 to 5 workday. Parents are struggling to raise and school their children at home, or perhaps caring for a family member. And it doesn’t just stop there – parents of Cisco fur babies should also feel comfortable informing you about upcoming vet appointments and happenings. Be there for them and adjust your schedule to align to their needs!
Trust your people and lead with empathy.
TIP #3 – Knock down professional development obstacles: My employees, during 1:1s, believed that “now is not the time” to think about the five-year plan. A lot of us have felt the obligation to accept as much work as possible to help the company. This is admirable but you, as their leader, need to keep your people working towards their next goal.
We have a number of tools to keep ourselves in a continuous cycle of education. I have started working more on Degreed for myself and for my direct reports. Others have used our other education platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Udemy to learn about new technologies and skillsets.
Aside from online learning, developing professional networks is important to help make connections and break work silos. I have been fortunate to be nominated this year to participate in Cisco’s Next Generation Leaders Program and the Hispanic IT Executive Council’s (HITEC) Summer Leadership Summit. I have also used my professional network to find opportunities for my team and have helped them become more skilled in their jobs.
Leading through crisis is what we are built for at Cisco. I have enjoyed moments of laughter with my team through Social [Distance] Hours, Virtual Escape Rooms and Trivia, and chatting about my various hairstyles that come from being unable to visit my barber on a regular basis. I feel we are more connected now than ever before, and that’s in large part from embracing these challenges together.
Have some distance leadership tips to share or looking to become a customer obsessed champion with Cisco? Connect with me and let’s chat.
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