For more than a decade, I’ve managed and worked with remote, international teams. Throughout that time I’ve practiced organic leadership — a commitment to empowering a team by embracing flexibility and personal autonomy in a structured environment. During times of uncertainty or change, I’ve seen how taking this approach can lead to more inspired employees, capable of taking on new risks and becoming more impactful members of the organization.
While businesses have doubled down on strategic digital transformation initiatives to increase efficiencies and reduce costs during the pandemic, hesitancy and questions surrounding remote leadership and people development are keeping businesses from achieving the full potential of remote work.
Now especially, organic leadership can make a difference and I challenge leaders to think and act differently in order to build a more resilient company.
Two qualities of organic leadership, in particular, can make organizations more resilient: flexibility and entrepreneurialism. Together, these qualities can keep teams open-minded and creative — essential components to weathering a crisis like COVID-19.
Flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly are critical for any business, but this quality rises in importance amid sudden and dramatic shifts, like widespread remote work. As a team, learning to roll with the punches and make the best of a challenging situation can improve morale and pull everyone in the same direction.
What this looks like in practice can vary, but one practice I’ve carried across every team I’ve managed is to give individual team members opportunities to contribute to different functions or disciplines across the overall team. For example, I regularly bring in members of our sales or customer support team into marketing discussions to build bonds and break down silos between teams.
By adding in these kinds of diverse views and experiences, you can challenge your team to find new paths toward achieving collective goals. It’s through this process that individuals I hired for one role eventually grow into something completely different — and that’s a good thing.
Exposure to different disciplines and practices allows employees to work together to hone skills and identify the strengths or gaps they have in regards to the role they want. Managers that practice organic leadership allow employees to evolve and pursue their passions, which in the process makes them more engaged, creative and committed members of the team.
Of course, creating a flexible team requires making changes to your team structure. In my current role managing a multicultural international office, for instance, we have created fewer layers of management so members of our team can more easily engage with senior leadership and staff across departments. Members of our team are encouraged to ideate, develop and run their own projects. We keep ourselves accountable with regular town hall-style Zoom meetings where we each talk about our work, along with the frustrations and wins.
These practices have also been great for the new remote employees we hire, who are readily introduced to many people and can quickly become accountable to the team.
Fostering entrepreneurialism among employees can help businesses instill creativity, initiative and action across the organization. Entrepreneurial teams are able to move quickly and independently to develop new features, products or processes that solve problems.
When building these teams, especially at the early stages, the No. 1 thing I look for in someone is curiosity. Not everyone has the same background or experience, but curiosity will push them to experiment and try things you had never considered. With new hires, I’ll work closely with them at first to better understand what interests and excites them, and then nurture that in their work moving forward through the goals we set and projects they take on.
I learned early in my career that it is impossible for one person to take on all the work and that as a leader my job was to create a supportive structure that encourages people to experiment and direct that into growth for the company. As an example, our marketing team has a quarterly meeting devoted entirely to pitching the team on new campaigns and content ideas centered around growth metrics like increased traffic or social media engagement. Individuals vote on what projects they think will be most impactful and then individuals or small teams elect to take on the projects they’re passionate about. This has resulted in some of the highest impact projects our team has ever taken on.
Organic leadership enables spaces like this to take place and thrive. It provides a structure for employees to build creative solutions while contributing to the overall business. And it can lead to new efficiencies in the office as well as help staff uncover new interests, talents and roles they’d like to grow into.
Applying organic leadership to your organization turns growth into a team sport. It doesn’t only inspire greater commitment and performance from staff, it also helps the business be more nimble and adapt to market shocks faster. At the end of the day, organic leadership is about trusting that your team is full of capable, smart and ambitious people and unleashing them to achieve their fullest potential.