A conversation with Navin Mahadeo


Head of Debit Order Management and Transactional Capability, Card Issuing, SA

NM:   What do you understand by the concept “powerful leadership from a distance”?

LM:   The world is now more integrated. It requires knowledge workers to work in cross-functional self-managed teams spanning many geographies. These teams may work on huge projects or programmes, or may provide services to a large corporate or multinational. If you are chosen to lead such a team, it is important to:

  • create an environment of collaboration, trust and teamwork; 
  • gain buy-in for the overall goal or objective; 
  • empower the team to be self-managed: They need to be able to drive the work themselves and to make as many decisions as possible; and, lastly,
  • ensure clarity about roles and responsibilities. 

Once you have established these elements, it becomes easier to lead and inspire the team from a distance. I have enjoyed leading from a distance and I have always trusted my teams to do the right thing, to manage the programme or business as their own and to succeed as a team. 

NM:   How could you strengthen communication and trust while leading from a distance?

LM: Trust is the most important element of your working relationship with your teams at a distance. The team has to trust you implicitly; they must know that you always have their interests at heart, that you support their work and that you will always empower them to do their work.

In addition to this, you, as a leader, have to implicitly and unconditionally trust the team, appreciate their work, understand the challenges they face and celebrate their achievements.

In my experience, the next important matter to attend to is communication. I focus on the following things:

  • Communication must be based on honesty, transparency and mutual respect between myself as a leader and those I am entrusted with leading;
  • Communication should be at the centre of the business and not an add-on. This means that communicating skills and abilities are key capabilities that a leader must build;
  • Communication must be multifaceted. It needs to take place between the leader and his or her direct reports; between the leader and the second layer of leaders; between the leader and all the staff as a group; between the leader and various teams and between the leader all staff at an individual level. It must also take place both formally and informally.
  • Traditional and new methods of communication, as well as various communication media, including social media, are all useful in addressing the constant need for alignment.
  • Personal visits complete regular communication. Such visits must be carefully planned to achieve the following objectives:
  • Ensure that the leader is fully briefed on the team’s progress, challenges, opportunities and the obstacles it faces;
  • The leader must be able to articulate his or her objectives, his or her assessment of progress, his or her understanding of the constraints and the commitments he or she is making for the future
  • There must be opportunities for engagement, for fun, for dialogue, for meeting clients and for resolving issues.

Throughout, the leader will embody the communication, the objectives, the principles and values in his or her words, body language, and gestures, so it is essential to get these things right. The most important thing is how the people feel at the end of a visit.

One of my favourite quotes aptly captures this; “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

Communication is everything, and each day I learn from the people I work with. I’ve grown and developed as a leader because of their inputs, guidance, feedback, criticism and advice; that is the most valuable communication.

NM:   In your opinion, are you leading or being led from a distance? What does it mean to you, leading or being led from a distance?

LM:   It is always difficult to judge whether I’m leading or not. My colleagues, scattered across 17 countries on the African continent and in China, must be the judges of this. Each one of them, as individuals and as teams, can and should be able to say whether I am leading effectively from a distance. I can only lead if I: 

  • create clarity about key objective for teams;
  • empower them to drive their businesses to success; 
  • inspire them to succeed; 
  • communicate regularly and effectively 
  • provide the tools and resources for them to succeed; 
  • guide them in their work; 
  • create opportunities for growth and development; and 
  • offer them rewards, recognition and remuneration commensurate with their delivery, abilities, skills, potential and the market.

NM:   Do you think leading from a distance is effective way to lead? Why?

LM:   Yes I think it is, because the alternative is mind-numbing micromanagement and disempowerment. In any leadership context where physical distance is a given, each leader must find the most creative and innovative ways to constantly feel the pulse of the team and understand how they feel, personally and professionally.

We must:

  • keep abreast of developments in the various markets so that we always appreciate the competitive context within which teams operate;
  • manage career development and succession planning to ensure that teams do not see physical distance as a disadvantage; and
  • ensure there is always alignment between our views, positions and priorities with those of the local leadership, so that staff always have clarity of purpose.

NM:   What are the key challenges when leading/being led from a distance?

LM:   A number of challenges that arise from leading from a distance. These include:

  • Communication challenges;
  • A sense of distance between the teams in the local markets and the head office or central leadership;
  • Possible conflicts in priorities: What you, as a leader, may regard as important may not match what the local teams see as being urgent, given local conditions;
  • Teams in distant markets may feel disadvantaged compared with the teams working closer to the leader.

NM:   What could be done to help solve challenges created by leading from distance?

As outlined earlier, a number of systematic and methodical leadership interventions are necessary to ensure that the challenges of leading from a distance are overcome. These include:

  • Clarity of purpose and objectives; 
  • Role clarity for individuals and for teams; 
  • Fostering a spirit of collaboration and teamwork; 
  • Regular, interactive and authentic two-way communication between leaders and their teams;
  • Harnessing the latest communication methods to ensure leadership visibility; and
  • Creating an environment of trust, built on regular formal and informal feedback mechanisms.

NM:   Can technology assist in addressing issues and challenges? How?

LM:   In essence, leadership must create self-directed, self-managed, empowered and multidisciplinary teams. A mixture of old and new methods enables leaders to do this effectively.

Technology is an enabler of authentic, empowering, visible and inspiring leadership. It is and never can be a substitute for such leadership.

Leaders need to master being authentic, empowering, visible and inspiring to foster employee engagement. They can use technology in the process.

Physical leadership visibility and technologically enhanced communication tools reinforce each other. Leaders should harness whatever is available to them. At the moment, that includes FaceTime, WhatsApp, email, Skype, social media…

In the end, teams want to be able to answer yes to the following questions:

  • Does our leader give us clear direction?
  • Does our leader clarify his or her expectations of me as an individual and of my team? 
  • Does our leader remove obstacles in our path?
  • Does our leader give us the tools and resources to do our work?
  • Does our leader provide an empowering and conducive environment for our success? 
  • Does our leader trust us to do our job and do we trust him in his role?
  • Does our leader understand the regulatory, political, economic and competitive context in which we operate?
  • Does our leader compensate us, reward us, recognise us and celebrate our achievements just as he or she does for the teams closest to him or her?