Leading a remote workforce has been the biggest challenge most leaders had to deal with these past months. That’s why Ning Wang, CEO of Offensive Security, regularly shares her journey of applying vulnerability at work during hard times.
Offensive Security is a cybersecurity training and certification company. They train people to develop a “try-harder mindset.” With more than 200 hundred employees distributed in 28 countries, Ning has amassed a number of tips for leading a remote workforce.
Forbes: What are the best practices for leaders with a remote workforce?
Ning Wang: When people work from home, work and life are completely intertwined. As leaders, we need to be aware that we need to adjust what we think and what we do. When I do a one-on-one, the kid might pop up to say hi, or the pet could be there. We cannot interpret that as the employee is not treating working seriously. You should welcome and encourage that.
Every leader should know the most important thing is the company is people and it is even more so during the pandemic. It is all about people. I think the most important part of my job is to know the vibe of our people. When you are in the office you can. What is really challenging is that in the office, you see people. From the body language, you know the kind of day they are having. But when you are working from home and in different time zones, like in our situation, it is extremely difficult to feel the vibe.
Forbes: How do you do that when you are not in the office?
NW: 1) Have a lot of one-on-ones
Not just to the people that report to me directly, those are the easier ones. It is really important to have one-on-ones with people on the front-lines: in the engineering department, project management, IT, customer service. My goal is to talk to everyone for at least 10 to 30 minutes once or twice a year. I have no agenda. You would be amazed at how much you learn. Through these things, you know how they are feeling. Some employees have been struggling due to the pandemic. And we pay extra attention to them to be supportive. That’s how I keep track of the vibe of the company, no matter where they are.
2) Implement both synchronous and asynchronous communications
When working in an office, almost all communications are synchronous: meetings in a conference room, one-on-ones, chit chat. When you have a distributed team, or with employees in 15 time zones, you cannot rely on synchronous communication only. You cannot rely on calling or slacking them. You also must design ways that promote effective asynchronous communications that are casual, fast, fun, and informative.
We use email for things that are more formal. We use a team chat and collaboration platform for all frequent and quick communications, which allows people not directly engaged in the communication to digest asynchronously.
3) Pay attention to mental stress
One thing that is really important is mental stress for people, myself included. It is an addition to how we see. Our mental fitness is really important. During one-on-ones, we talk about making sure you sleep enough, eat well, exercise, and have time off.
I even try to set examples. I realize not everyone is able to do that, especially people who used to already have a lot of mental stress before, which is now multiplied due to the pandemic. Just by modeling or telling them it is ok, it is not enough.
As leaders, we need to do extra. On a weekly basis I have an office hour on Zoom and it has almost a water cooler effect, where everybody can connect. We also have a buddy program that we set up; we randomly pair people to really get to know each other.
When you have this type of culture, which is not very common, there are many employees that still don’t adjust or won’t trust when you ask them to speak up. They still think you will not hear them. That’s why Ning decided to rely on vulnerability-based trust to build OffSec’s remote culture.*
When I started two years ago as CEO, I realized I needed to find my own style. Some employees were really open to me. They would say 'you are not like a CEO.' That gave me the courage to say my style as CEO is to be authentic and vulnerable. Both take courage. When you are courageous enough to be yourself and to be vulnerable, you can actually lead better because you connect to people better. It allows them to see you as another human being.
Another thing we do, our executive team creates a summary that we share with the entire company. In the report, we share what happened last week, what’s coming, what is delayed, what we worry about, and the last section is “be vulnerable.” I write that section every week. I share something about my vulnerability. Sometimes about my personal life, or sometimes how I feel about a decision I made at work. And the employees love it. Being vulnerable is a way to build trust with your employees.
Forbes: How do you work on vulnerability?
NW: It is a combination. I grew up in China, I studied physics and made a transition into business. I was at the top of my career as a scientist and then moved to McKinsey to start all over again. It takes a lot of confidence and a willingness to expose yourself. In that journey, taking feedback, being vulnerable and not losing confidence during the process were key.
I also hired an executive coach for myself and the executive team to define what kind of team we want, what kind of norms we want, and the behaviors we want to have. We really want to bring that way of working and being to how we interact daily. The coach first worked with the entire executive team and me. Then the next year she worked with the next level of management, our directors and managers. And the next year we had her work with the whole company.
In addition to the executive team, we use online courses, and we also bring managers and other inspirational people from our network to share their experiences. When we train people on cybersecurity, you never know what the attacker will do to you, and the situations are very different. So we will train you for mindset by giving you real-world examples. The same goes for soft skills. When you invite real managers to share the lessons they learned, the mistakes they made, this provides a hands-on way so that you learn what to try and when.
As leaders, your people and their happiness should come first, especially in times of crisis. There is no one way to achieve it, but you have to try and explore what works best in your company. Trust is key to building psychological safety, but it cannot be achieved without being vulnerable. Leaders need to be the first in line modeling vulnerability showing that they can learn, make mistakes, be open to listening, and accept that they are humans, not heroes.