David Barkoe, founder and CEO of Carve Communications, says it’s possible to effectively lead teams, even virtual ones, through any challenge.

From our discussion, you’ll take away critical insights on maximizing your leadership when times are seemingly tough or merely uncertain. Here are excerpts from the full video interview:

What's your advice on how to successfully lead a team during times that seem to be better, but might still be somewhat uncertain?

I do believe that this year will be an improvement over 2023. We're already witnessing some positive signs. Unfortunately, it's crucial to recognize that challenges often begin before they become apparent to many.

When adversity strikes, is everyone united in purpose? Are they rowing together, in sync and with determination? That's a motto and a theme we have here at Carve because those who want to be in the boat stand out. When they're all rowing in the same direction, it helps turn around the bad quicker.

It's about ensuring everyone is aligned, and moving in the same direction, and that the leader is avoiding excessive micromanagement. Considering the uncertainty of future challenges is essential in maintaining unity. Who knows what lies ahead in 2027, 2028, or 2030?

Let's discuss PR a bit. It's akin to an organization laying the groundwork, and establishing relationships with the local community, media, and influencers, during prosperous times. This ensures their support and that good will endure through changes. Simultaneously, leading through uncertain and challenging times is the true test of a great leader. Guiding in good times may be somewhat easier than in tough times.

I find the analogy of turning around and seeing followers behind you, people rowing in the same boat, as you mentioned, profoundly significant. It underscores the importance of leadership periodically checking in on their team's morale and engagement.

What are you observing? What's the big picture? In an era of employee disengagement, turning around more frequently is crucial. If they're not engaged, you're the leader. What will you do about it? It's also important to distinguish simple engagement with the company or brand from the day-to-day work.

Those are two distinct things. Yes, everyone must complete their tasks and deliver for clients and partners. But do they also contribute to your company or brand during weekly stand-up calls? Do they seem engaged or bored?

Are they joining in a Zoom happy hour at your invitation, or are they attending live events if you're back in the office? There are two ways to assess engagement and ensure everyone is on board. It's crucial to pay attention to these indicators.

What can agency owners and leaders of other communications organizations do to improve motivation, morale, and culture during trying or uncertain times?

My firm belief is that if you interview the rest of my team, they’ll tell you it's about listening, engaging, opening my door, and making them feel empowered to help the company push through as much as possible. It’s about giving them more control, not less. If things are going badly, I shouldn't jump in and try to fix everything myself.

You don't do a 180 of what you've been doing during the good times. That micromanagement turns people off. Everybody wants to be empowered and enabled.

And that's both in great times as we've grown, as well as tougher times when we stagnated here for a few months. Now we’re looking at growth again, and it doesn't matter if they're the interim getting paid hourly or a mid-level staffer or a VP. It’s important to give everybody a seat at that “Solution Table. Why?

Because sometimes it might be something big, sometimes something small. But most of the time, I don't have those answers because I'm not doing the work daily. They're the ones out there seeing it, hearing it, listening to it, engaging it, activating it.

Thanks for opening that door. One phrase I hear from leaders is "What if they bring me ideas and I just don't think it's right like?’

Your response is important and will affect how often they bring ideas to you. One powerful response is "Thank you for bringing me that idea. We're not running with it this time. Here's the direction we’re going to go, and I need you in the boat with me on this initiative. But keep bringing in ideas, because next time we may just implement yours.”

I have to comment on what you said about no micromanagement. It's proven to lead to disengagement because the idea is “You can't do it, only I can do it.” Who wants to work for someone like that? People stop. They say, "You're so smart. Go ahead, do it yourself."

And then what happens to your leadership legacy? No one says, "They were a great micromanager!" I believe micromanagement and effective leadership are mutually exclusive. While wanting to control everything may be understandable and tempting, it's important to consider the long-term implications.

As a leader, you must pause and consider, "What's the long-term strategy here?" Additionally, as you progress in your leadership role, whether you're an owner like myself or a senior account executive who has advanced to an account director or higher positions, it's essential to evaluate how people are working for you and with you.

You relinquish those responsibilities. What you do as a CEO and owner is not the same as what you did as a VP, or even six years ago. This is a challenge I face, and I'm sure others do too: “Am I not doing enough?” “Shouldn't I be doing that?”

That’s when the leader must remind themself: “No, I shouldn’t! That's why I have a team. That's why I pay people.” Whether you're an owner, a VP-level executive in an agency, or in-house, the answer remains “No!”

It's crucial to remember that regardless of your role, individuals are available to perform that work effectively. Part of this means letting go of the notion that only you can handle it, or that you've done it all. As you progress from being a learner to a practitioner to a manager, and finally to a leader, it's important to encourage yourself to ask, "In this moment, if I were a leader, what would I do?"

How Do You Drive Culture Among Remote or Partially Remote Teams?

We operate as a fully remote team. During the early months of the COVID pandemic, we let go of our office space in Miami, and our team members moved all across the country. I have made minimal efforts to actively shape the company culture other than giving my team the keys.

We're approaching nearly four years, which is difficult for all of us to believe. Throughout this time, I have never dictated that things must be done a certain way or followed a specific path. I’ve asked our team of nine people that has now grown to 23 members, "What do you want? What is going to make you happy in this virtual world?”

I say this a lot: I do not know what a 26-year-old living in an apartment in New York City wants. I don't know what somebody who's 24 living in their parents’ attic right now wants to create culture.

Five years ago, when we were all in office, we could do things together as a team. I gave the team the keys to the culture train long ago, and it's worked out tremendously. All they do is ask, “Can we do this?”

Yes, we can achieve this because I understand that fostering such an environment is key to cultivating the virtual culture that we cannot replicate in person. This approach aligns with the way our business operates, and I believe it has been highly successful. I've witnessed members of my team step up and express a desire to contribute to the creation of our culture, which has been truly inspiring.


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.