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Leadership from Afar: What I Learned from an Unplanned Year Away from the Office


When Covid-19 closed New Zealand's borders, Jon Austin, ECD at Host/Havas learnt quickly what it is like leading a team from afar for a year

Leadership from Afar: What I Learned from an Unplanned Year Away from the Office

Back in February 2020, when COVID was still just a bad flu and the word ‘unprecedented’ was only overused in Cannes case studies, I made the decision to head back to NZ where my sons are, on the off chance the borders closed for a bit. “I’ll be back in two weeks”, I told my team. "Three weeks max". 

Jump cut to 13 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.

The hardest part of being away was genuinely not knowing when I’d be back.

It went from jokes about it being a couple of weeks, to whispers of it being a couple of months, to a disconcertingly silent information blackout. People stopped making predictions. It could have been another two weeks or another two years. 

We’re an industry that operates on information. The more of it we have, the more effective we can be. And so, in the complete and utter absence of it, I found myself quickly questioning my own effectiveness. How would this impact a busy team? And even more worrying, if they could do just fine without me, what was the point of having me? How could I possibly lead the creative output of an agency when creativity has always gone hand-in-hand with spontaneity, hallway chats, and proximity? All of those beautiful things that COVID had stolen from me, and Zoom just couldn’t replicate.

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 the situation, when in fact, rocking the boat was exactly what was needed.

I found support in a phenomenal management team who were willing to significantly change processes to accommodate my remote leadership, and in a broader agency who wholeheartedly leaned into and even improved on those changes. It showed me that creativity isn’t some delicate flower that withers and dies when conditions aren’t perfect. Creativity is a weed. It isn’t just resilient; it’s virtually unkillable.  It can find every tiny gap to push through and thrive. 

Understanding that was genuinely transformational. 

Suddenly, process changes around creativity changed from concerning to exciting. What else could we try? Where else could we push? We left cameras on all day. We trialled new and interesting collaboration platforms. We went from the traditional Bernbachian teams model to an SNL writer’s rooms approach. We streamlined and changed the review process. Sure, some things worked better than others, but many changes made while I was remote we’re keeping in place moving forward. And now that ‘process’ isn’t just some rigid, fixed thing, we’ll keep experimenting and finding new ways to rock the boat more often. 

The inference is that the success of those significant changes, which helped me lead from afar, was largely dependent on others. And that’s totally accurate. In fact, it was one of the biggest things I learned while working remotely.

I’d instinctively known that leadership is a two-way street, but hundreds of miles away from my team, I really felt it for the first time. Sure, you need to galvanise and motivate and steer people, but you will only ever rise as high as those people are willing to prop you up. And so, when leading under challenging circumstances, you need to have people who genuinely want you to succeed. 

And that takes great culture.

I’ve heard it said that you can’t build culture over Zoom, but I really do challenge that. In his book ‘No Bullshit Leadership’ Chris Hirst describes culture as an environment that allows a team to outperform. 

The key pillars of that - transparency, autonomy, accountability, feedback – can be done from anywhere.

So, as a management team, we doubled down on those pillars.
Our agency culture and happiness scores, and scores around belief in leadership have never been higher.

I also learned that leading from afar requires organisation. Proper, frictionless organisation. Prior to COVID, 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, very 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 make sure that people didn’t conflate my physical absence with a dereliction of duty or a downturn in efficiency. So I got organised. And not just whiteboard and markers organised. I spent money on additional childcare. I leaned more heavily on our brilliant EA and Head of Creative Services. I automated a lot of my home to constantly serve up reminders and information. I swallowed my pride and got help from my wonderful mum. And in doing all that, I realised just how much of my time was wasted on managing my own chaos. Now that I’m back, I plan on finding new ways of getting organised, so I can have more time and energy to invest in the team and the work.

But perhaps the greatest learning I took from my unplanned out of office experience was 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. When you’re in a high pressure, fast paced environment, the old ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage rings really true. And 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 Zoom call; every agency meeting; every Friday get together. 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. In many ways, I was more there than I had been before I left.
And when I finally came back, I returned to incredibly strong team bonds (even with people I’d never met before in person).

Don’t get me wrong – not all of my learnings were positive, leadership-defining epiphanies. I also realised how lonely I was away from my team; how, despite priding myself on things like resilience and grit, there were times when I genuinely worried for my mental health. 
But returning to Australia revealed just how much my team and I had been forced to adapt at speed and under pressure. And, as an industry that prides itself on problem solving, I was proud that many of those solutions and radical shifts in mindset, proved not just beneficial when working remote, but when we were finally reunited too.

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Host/Havas, Thu, 10 Jun 2021 10:26:40 GMT