How to Inspire Remote Teams and Unleash Their Best Work with Todd Henry


In this presentation, Todd Henry talks through some helpful practices for leaders as well as tips for how to motivate a team, what success in leadership looks like and how to avoid burnout.

He begins by talking through five key practices for leaders to develop.  They can be summarized under the acronym FRESH and constitute a necessary infrastructure for effective leadership:

  1. FOCUS: First clearly define the problem you’re addressing, then how to resolve it.
  2. RELATIONSHIPS: Through getting to know others, we learn more fully about ourselves.
  3. ENERGY: Remember, it’s not a limitless resource, especially when you’re doing “emotional labor” (Lewis Hyde).
  4. STIMULI: How are you managing the stimuli you receive and what are you actively seeking to inspire, educate you and make you think?
  5. HOURS: Time should not just be spent; it should be invested.

He talks about processes that streamline your leadership, such as fending off the “ping” of distracting bits and pieces of work that demand your attention but may not be urgent priorities.

How Should a Leader offer Clear Direction?

Although this will depend on the personality of the individuals in your team, it will help to clarify three things:

  • Expectation – what the end product should be.
  • Process – how the work will be carried out.
  • Timeline – when it needs to be completed.

A handy tip is not to tell staff precisely what to do, but make sure they understand what you want the outcome to be.  This way you build trust.  “Trust is the currency of creative teams”, says Todd.

Although the team begins with wide autonomy and an opportunity to try things out, experiment and work on multiple iterations, as the project moves on you will funnel down to much clearer goals, with less creative freedom.

What Does Success in Leadership Look Like?

Different projects have different risk profiles.  Entrepreneurs can be thought of as risk mitigators, rather than risk-takers.

In the early stages of a creative project, you give people permission to fail and clarify with them what will happen if they do, bearing in mind that this means you take responsibility for your team’s failures.  Mostly, you make it clear that you have their backs.

You must define what is an acceptable level of failure and what the consequences of such a failure might be.  Todd talks about an Air Academy general who asked his team to do one thing per day that could get him fired – an extreme example of extending trust!

Success is not the same as being liked.  In fact, it is preferable to maintain some boundaries and a bit of professional distance.   Good leaders inspire by example – by doing, rather than saying.

Allocating Time for Creativity

Todd talks about the importance of providing your team with time for personal growth, ideation, and development, giving the example of a CFO who mandated three hours per week for this purpose.  However, if you promise such a thing, you have to see it through – don’t “declare undeclarables” and then fail to live up to them.  Trust is earned daily and can be quickly lost.

The Fishbowl and the Well

Todd gives this metaphor – leadership is like living in a fishbowl on a firing range.  Everyone can see you and may feel free to take pot shots.  One key takeaway is that you can earn respect by admitting the mistakes you make and course correcting.

There are several ways to make life easier in the fishbowl, including making time to focus on #1.  Many leaders have a problem with this, and often overcommit and make themselves too available.

He asks that leaders make time to “replenish the well”.  In other words, to recharge your batteries and make sure you are inspired and feeling energised and creative.   Key part of this is making sure you spend time off grid – which means no checking emails and business apps when taking time off.

The concept of “meshing” is vital to achieving a better level of creativity.

The Three Work Areas

These are encapsulated in the Three Ms:

  1. Mapping (planning)
  2. Making (executing the plan)
  3. Meshing (replenishment)

Often the third part of this work cycle is overlooked, but it’s what positions you to be maximally creative.  If neglected, you’re merely being a “driver” of work rather than a creative leader.

Dealing with Cultural Barriers

Differences in culture and age can make a difference to your effective leadership style.  On the former question, Todd talks about a Proctor & Gamble executive who took up a leadership position at Google.  He found he was immensely well-liked at P&G but his style was considered threatening at Google.  The Google staff did not understand his acerbic and teasing management style.

Millennial and Gen Z workers can sometimes prove excellent at hard work and focus but may not be as good at prioritizing, particularly in areas of work where they have no interest.  It may be necessary to take more time with such staff members to explain the priorities more firmly.  If expectations are still not met, then it may be necessary to talk about the consequences of continued failure to deliver.

As a leader you can’t chase being liked and being effective at the same time.  One will always compromise the other a little.  Somewhere in between, a balance can be struck.  Remember that a team is NOT a family.

Don’t try to become your team’s friend either.  Sometimes the best indicator of a healthy team is when they socialize outside of work and don’t invite you.

Interviewing Tips

In response to a question, Todd gave some pointers on good team building when interviewing hopeful recruits.  To find out if a would-be employees’ priorities and values match your own, Todd suggested asking open questions in the form “tell me about a time when…”, thereby allowing them to tell a story that illustrates what values they hold.

Meshing and Time Management

Todd gave some tips for more effectively replenishing your well of energy and creativity:

  • Empty your email in-box and don’t use it for storage.
  • Consider using time management apps such as Omnifocus and Calendly.
  • Move less time critical emails elsewhere.
  • Adjust your self-expectations if it turns out you’re trying to do too much.
  • Always build in off-grid time.

Meshing is about self-development – improving your skills and developing yourself, finding your voice.  It may even include spending time on a creative non-work hobby.

FURTHER READING (books by Todd Henry):

“Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need”.

“The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice”.

“The Motivation Code: Discover the Hidden Forces that Drive Your Best Work”.

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