Leadership from afar: What I learned from an unplanned year away from my team

Jon Austin, executive creative director of Host/Havas, revisits the last 12 months to build a better workplace future.

Back in February 2020, when COVID-19 was still just a bad flu and the word ‘unprecedented’ was only overused in Cannes case studies, I headed back to New Zealand where my sons are, on the off-chance the borders closed for a couple weeks. 

Cut to 14 months later, and I’ve finally arrived back in Australia, a little de-socialised and a lot wiser about the traits that make an effective leader, regardless of whether you’re doing it from afar or not.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned (and something I wish I’d realised sooner) was the power of rocking the boat.

Away from a team and an office, I found myself questioning my own effectiveness. How could I make a meaningful contribution from afar? If the team could do just fine without me, what was the point of having me? 

Worse still, they were questions I didn’t want to raise. I felt like I didn’t want to rock the boat in case it drew more attention to a precarious situation, when in fact, rocking the boat was exactly what was needed.

The moment I did was the moment I realised that all those things I once considered fragile – creativity, collaboration, culture – are, in fact, as flexible and malleable as clay. I found that creativity isn’t some delicate flower that withers when conditions aren’t perfect. Creativity (and the spirit that drives it) is a weed. It isn’t just resilient; it’s virtually unkillable. 

Understanding that was genuinely transformational. Because, while this pandemic has been awful, it has also forced us to become experts at rapid and significant change; at creating against the odds. And that’s exciting.

So grip the edges and rock the boat. Don’t hope that no one notices your absence. Change enough so that they notice your presence instead. Make new changes to old processes. And if they don’t work, change them again. Hell, even if they do work, change them anyway. Because the difference between feeling unvalued and invaluable, between tired old ways and exciting new ways, can be found in those changes.

I also learned that leading from afar requires proper organisation. Prior to COVID-19, I was not organised. My (literal) 47,000 unread emails were a shrine to creative chaos, and my desk was once described as a terrarium. But what was a vaguely annoying trait up close, quickly revealed itself to be an unfair and intolerable way of working from afar. 

If I wasn’t going to be in the office, I had to ensure people didn’t conflate my physical absence with a dereliction of duty or a downturn in efficiency.

7 Super Effective Email Tactics You Can Use Tomorrow

So, if you’re leading from afar, get organised. And not just whiteboard organised. Spend money on additional childcare. Swallow your pride and lean more heavily on those who can help. That includes your friendly robot support crew too: Alexa, Google, Siri, whatever. Automate the hell out of your home with diary reminders, smart vacuums, and ways of separating your work life from your home life. In doing all that, I realised just how much of my time was being wasted on managing my own chaos.

Fourteen months away also showed me the power of visibility and the importance of finding ways to feel present when you can’t be in the same room. I discovered that, above all else, leadership is an energy game, and if you’re not physically there, that energy needs to go into showing up even more. What became clear was that, if I acted like I was away, it would feel like I was too. So I doubled down on energy. I made myself visible on every department Zoom call; every agency meeting. I shared more work, asked for more opinions, and started more conversations. I made myself more accessible to the agency, and spent more time reviewing and catching up. And when I came back, I returned to incredibly strong team bonds (even with people I’d never met before in person). 

Not to be the wanker quoting Einstein, but in these circumstances, it’s hard to go past his whole “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change” thing.

Yes, we’ve been forced to change. But we’ve proven that we’re all smart enough to handle it. So don’t shy away from change. Don’t even just roll with it. Lean into change. Take the opportunity to change your processes; change your team dynamic; change your work habits; change the way you show up.

Change every bit as radically as this goddamn pandemic has forced us to in every other aspect. Who knows? If you’re anything like me, you may even find yourself a better leader than when you were doing it up close.

Jon Austin is the executive creative director of Host/Havas.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.