Can Channel 4 move to Leeds without senior leaders?

17 Jun 2019 By Dr Simon Hayward

Dr Simon Hayward looks at the challenges of remote leadership the broadcaster – and other organisations – may soon be facing

Channel 4’s CEO Alex Mahon hit the headlines last week when she announced that no senior Channel 4 executives would move to Leeds from London when it opens its new national headquarters in the city. 

To put this in context, Channel 4 will still have a presence in London, as well as creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow. The organisation has also made it clear that some functional heads will make the move to Leeds and its top executives will be expected to visit the city regularly. The real challenge for its most senior leaders is whether they can lead an increasingly geographically dispersed organisation in the fast-moving world of broadcasting from London.

Channel 4 has always been an innovator in an industry which has been transformed in recent years through digital disruption, intense competition and the changing habits of viewers. It also spearheaded the trend for outsourcing and collaboration with other organisations. 

Geographically dispersed teams and remote working are becoming the norm for many broadcasters. So can remote leadership work? The answer is yes, but it’s challenging. For senior leaders who are used to being surrounded by their employees, transitioning to remote leadership often means developing some new skills and behaviours. They need to communicate with more energy and regularity, demonstrate more commitment to their team members, and inculcate trust without being in situ.

One of the most important parts of being a senior leader is establishing a clear purpose and direction for the organisation – articulating clear values, demonstrating them regularly, and bringing them to life through words and actions. This is particularly important during times of transition. Doing this when you are not in the same location is particularly challenging. It takes persistence, skill and energy to make it work in practice.

Remote leaders also need the ability to facilitate virtual teamworking on a geographically neutral basis. For example, it is important that people in the same location as the leader don’t get more airtime or attention than those in remote locations. A helpful technique can be to agree with the team certain ground rules – such as each person’s contribution only lasting one or two minutes – and ensure everyone is invited to contribute regularly, wherever they are located. Again, it needs senior leaders to be highly effective facilitators of dialogue every day for this to work in practice.

We know that trust in senior leaders is essential to build a strong and cohesive company culture. Typically, virtual leaders must work harder to develop levels of trust and mutual understanding in order to foster collaboration, innovation and agility – things the Channel 4 brand is renowned for. But the challenge is that building trust needs time, vulnerability and follow-through from leaders – all of which are significantly more challenging when you are not in the same place. The bottom line is that employees who do relocate to Leeds may feel they have been let down by their leaders who haven’t followed suit.

Of course, Channel 4 is not the first major broadcaster to make a significant shift out of London. I live in the north west and the impact of the BBC moving a sizeable chunk of its operations to Salford in 2011 has been huge. MediaCity is part of one of the UK’s biggest-ever urban regeneration projects and the BBC is central to its hub of media, digital and creative organisations. 

It has also built strategic partnerships with local universities and schools, offering valuable opportunities to students and young people, and engaging with the wider community. Building these connections has benefited both the BBC and the region. For Channel 4, where outsourcing and collaborating with external partners is very much the norm, the move to Leeds represents a huge opportunity for leaders to build an even more diverse network, in line with the organisation’s core purpose of fostering the experimental, encouraging pluralism and boosting innovation.

The challenge, however, is that leaders won’t commit to it by moving to Leeds as well. Ultimately this is likely to undermine confidence in leaders and impair their ability to lead effectively. I worry that Channel 4, which I believe is a national jewel, will ultimately be undermined by its leaders not committing to its future. For this not to be the case will require extraordinary effort to make it work against the odds.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus, author of The Agile Leader and honorary professor at Alliance Manchester Business School

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