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Leading Distributed Teams Asynchronously w/Laurel Farrer, CEO & Founder of Distribute Consulting

In our recent asynchronous interview with remote work expert, Laurel Farrer, CEO and Founder of Distribute Consulting, she shared the daily habits and routines she's built over the past 15 years working remotely that help her successfully lead her distributed team. Over the years, Laurel has been unlocking the power of distributed workforces to create an impact in corporate and socio-economic infrastructures. If you're not yet familiar with Distribute Consulting, here's a quick snippet of how they got started.👇

The Beginnings of Distribute Consulting

In the last five years, Laurel became hungry for virtual organizational development resources that take the concepts and best practices from organizational development and behavior and adapt them for the virtual business world. Since these concepts and methods for distributed teams hadn't yet existed, she decided to build them. The idea was to create a company that looked more deeply at operational efficiency and organizational models of distributed teams.

"I approached a lot of consulting firms and agencies encouraging them to think about this as a potential content stream, and nobody was interested because nobody really believed that remote work was ever going to amount to a thing. I am a very, very firm believer and passionate advocate of remote work. And so I was not willing to let it go."

As Laurel shared, back then, she and her team were willing to look at the unsexy side of remote work and really what it takes to be successful at the company level. There were lots of people talking about managing remote teams or being remote workers, but nobody was talking about the organizational structure. It was the organizational aspects that she wanted to focus on and specialize in, and so from this, Distribute Consulting was born.

Laurel, together with her team, runs the world's foremost consulting firm and virtual organizational development think tank specializing exclusively in remote work. Apart from Laurel's role at Distribute Consulting, she is also a regular Forbes contributor and an all-around expert on the topic of remote work. If you're a leader yourself or aspire to lead remotely, Laurel's interview is sure to offer up some solid tips for success.

Leading Distributed Teams

Although Laurel considers herself a natural-born leader in many ways, she also shared that there was a lot of growth that took place to be able to fully step into her role as a remote CEO.

"I've always had leadership experience. I grew up volunteering a lot. I've always enjoyed public speaking, even as a teenager. I was always very active in my communities, and I had two very business-oriented parents, so I grew up in the business world a lot. The skills of the business world were always very comfortable for me."

Despite all of the leadership experience Laurel had, she pointed out that being a CEO instead of a COO, like she used to be, wasn't instinctual at all, and it's something that was challenging at first.

"I didn't ever plan on my entrepreneurship journey being long-term, and I didn't especially plan on it growing a startup underneath of me. So that was a very unexpected opportunity and it was one that I had to work hard to embrace, to appreciate, and to grow into, that has been difficult."

As a leader of a distributed team, Laurel had to create a very intentional structure of career development resources around her to ensure her growth into the role. This consisted of her reading new books, working with a mentor, and having a lot of accountability meetings with her team. She also shared that there were many emotional acceptance processes that she had to go through. During her experience growing as a leader, she has built up some strong habits and rituals that help her stay on top of her game daily. We'll share a few with you here.

Keys to Success for Leaders of Distributed Teams

Success is made up of many factors - here are a few learnings from Laurel's experience running distributed teams that other remote leaders should can apply.

Create a set of non-negotiable habits & routines for yourself

One of the habits Laurel lives by that aids to her success as a remote leader is the habit of taking time for self-care. I know what you're thinking. Yes, we've heard it before, and it's necessary, but it's not an easy habit to keep up with. Maybe so, but it's one of the most effective habits for success.

It's also one of the habits most, if not all of us have neglected at one point or another during the 2020/2021 pandemic. As Laurel shared, the hyper-growth of remote work in 2020 was pretty indescribable for every remote work expert in the world. In 2019, they were only a small group of advocates, which were given very little credibility or recognition, then in March 2020, because of the pandemic, their reach exploded. They were on every media channel that you could ever imagine and in every massive network and publishing platform. All the while, these remote work advocates like Laurel, were just trying to keep their businesses alive and figuring out what the pandemic meant for them professionally. Plus, there was a massive reset that needed to take place regarding their expectations and a new learning curve as to how to take care of themselves and their household during an international pandemic.

"It was a really hard time and all of us burned out, hard. So because of that, because of the stress, and overwhelming chaos of the hyper-growth of our industry in 2020, self-care is something that is non-negotiable now for anybody in the remote work industry."

For Laurel, self-care looks like eating a healthy breakfast, going outside, and getting some fresh air and exercise.

"Work-life balance isn't just having a personal life and a professional life, work-life balance really comes from diving as deeply into your personal life as you do your professional life."

It's not always easy to practice what we preach, but for Laurel, she makes a healthy work-life balance a non-negotiable. What this means for her, is that when she's working, she is fully immersed in her work; then, in turn, she intentionally creates a lot of time, space and attention, and places intention towards her personal life, including her family, loved ones, herself and her hobbies.

"That mini version of exercise, healthy eating, and fresh air at the beginning and the end of each day is really important, even though it sounds so simple, it didn't happen for most of 2020, and so it's something I don't take for granted."

Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Like many leaders of distributed teams or any leaders for that matter, Laurel understands the importance of self-development and growth. When asked, what advice she would give to her former self, before she became a founder, her response was - Have more confidence in yourself and really understand imposter syndrome, and how to manage it in a way that will enable you to have more confidence in yourself.

"I've really come to understand imposter syndrome at a very deep and personal level. And so much of my confidence and success in the role of being a founder and a CEO has come as I've come to accept that I am qualified to be in this role."

Laurel shared that the more she has worked to prevent and resolve imposter syndrome in her life, the more that she's felt confident in her role.

Learn how to build your company's shared brain

Any remote work manager will tell you that documentation is the lifeblood of remote teams. At Distribute Consulting, they lean very heavily into documentation and transparency as a team of remote work experts. They aim to keep their team in the loop with everything that they're working on.

"We provide regular touch points in which we get to come together as a team, understand what each other's working on, help each other bust through blocks and get feedback. Then, we separate and work independently again. So, that's the transparency part. Then the documentation part; we're religious about our handbook and about making sure that written communication is always the default so that we have a paper trail."

Agility is your key to scaling

There are obvious differences between scaling a remote-first company vs. scaling an office-first one, but one main key stands out - Agility.

Laurel explained that agility is the reason she got into remote work in the first place. In her previous position as COO within a small company, there came a point at which they experienced a critical stage of growth. At this moment, they were needing a bigger office for their larger team to meet the demand of the high season, but the challenge was, they were a bootstrapped company. As a result, they were forced to get creative and adapt quickly, finding ways to streamline their costs and get through the high season without needing to take out a loan or raise funding.

"We were just about to expand into a larger office, but the irony was that nobody was going to be in the office during the high season."

It was at this moment that the company decided that it would make more sense to have everyone work from home, thus completely eliminating the cost of real estate. This was the first step that they needed to take to be able to build an entire virtual operational infrastructure. Laurel believes this is the part that many organizations miss when they're thinking about going remote. They often only consider their real estate and think they can just continue operating how they did in the office by just using digital channels.

"It is not just moving the location of your workforce. It's working together in a way that removes location or dependence on location from your entire operational model."

Leading distributed teams is much more than just undergoing a workplace transformation. And, when it comes to scaling a successful remote-first company the key lies in agility.

Learn to lean more on asynchronous communication

As Laurel shared, when leading remotely, it's not only crucial to have the right digital tools, but it's also essential to focus more on emotional intelligence, soft skills, and the communication methods within your team.

Getting clear on how your team will communicate and collaborate asynchronously is a large key to whether you succeed remotely.

To close off our interview with Laurel, we wanted to ask one final question, and that was, whether there was a particular founder that inspired her, and what about their habits or management style was inspiring. Her response shared a beautiful reminder for us all and revealed what it really means to be a successful leader, not only just for distributed teams, but what it takes to lead in business and in life.

Learn more about Distribute Consulting - Supporting the world's leading businesses and governments to convert their business operations from physical to virtual, build products and content for the remote work market, and leverage workplace flexibility to solve global concerns.