What Virtual Leaders Must Know
Even the most experienced team leaders can make us weep with boredom. They torture us with their monotone narrations of 10-Mb slide decks. They regale us with irrelevant minutiae, while sidestepping the really important stuff. Their meetings are more like monologues, with everyone else listening from the sidelines. And for the most part, they probably imagine they’re pretty interesting people!
When we experience boring leaders face-to-face, we have to at least pretend to be somewhat interested. We might take notes (even if it’s a shopping list!), throwing in a few occasional nods so we won’t be called on to replay key points. Copious amounts of caffeine help to some degree, as do the many bio breaks we’ll inevitably need as a result. And who hasn’t had a colleague place an “emergency” phone call in extreme cases of ennui?
Tuning out boring virtual leaders is far easier. Once you put yourself on mute, there’s no end to the more important things you can do, like responding to emails, writing up your latest status report, or finding the best price on that new digital camera you’ve been pining for. (If you work from home, this “important” work can extend to laundry, dinner prep, weight-lifting and more.) As long as you’re within earshot of the conversation, your team leader may assume you’re present while in fact you are completely absent.
So, how can boring virtual leaders learn to become more captivating? (And no, it is not an inherent skill that some are just born with!) In this issue, I take a look at some steps even the blandest leader can take to evolve into an engaging, stimulating and captivating leader, from near or far.
- Discover the leadership qualities and attributes your team members find attractive. To play to the crowd, you need to figure out what the crowd clamors for. Members of a sales and marketing team might particularly value charisma and energy, while product engineers might regard a mastery over technical details as more captivating. Cultural differences also can play a role. Some may value your ability to begin and end meetings on time and keep conversations focused, while others look for a leader who’s an exceptional relationship-builder. Pay attention to what seems to spur spirited conversation, and probe further in 1:1 meetings. Survey instruments can also help shed light on preferences, styles and behavioral tendencies pretty quickly, especially when you have few opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
- Demonstrate a genuine interest in your people. Find out what makes your team members tick, both professionally and personally, and use this knowledge to help make meaningful connections. Examples: When Maria mentions that she wants to sharpen her marketing skills, suggest that she take on project launch responsibilities. Hans has indicated that he likes working with younger people, so ask him to help mentor new team members. Margaret has privately expressed guilt about not visiting her aging parents often enough. Ask her how they’re doing every so often, and send Margaret pertinent articles that she might find helpful. When you show interest in others, they’ll suddenly see you as a lot more interesting.
- Pursue your own growth. Let’s face it: If you’re bored with yourself, chances are, you bore others. Constantly look for ways to tune up your mind and stretch yourself, professionally and personally. Want to be a better communicator? Join a writing group or try a class on storytelling or business writing. Feel left behind when it comes to the latest virtual collaboration tools? Ask a tech-savvy colleague (or practically any kid over the age of nine) to show you the ropes. Interested in learning more about China? Take beginner’s Mandarin, steep yourself in the culture by reading books and seeing films, and get some informal cultural coaching from colleagues. And then, buy a nonrefundable ticket to Beijing! People who show they’re open to learning and growing are way more fun than people who act like they already know it all.
- Shake up your meetings. Inject some excitement into your virtual meetings by keeping people on their toes. Instead of having person after person rehashing the status of their deliverables, use meeting time for more interesting interactions, and post status reports in a shared portal. Try asking provocative questions to find new ways to reel people into the conversation. Examples: What’s the smartest thing you’ve done so far this week? Name one step you’ve taken to minimize your project’s biggest risk. What’s one thing you can always count on to get yourself re-energized during these stressful times? Smart leaders have a good sense for knowing when to toss aside the rulebook in favor of sparking the kind of conversations teams need to stay energized, focused and motivated.
- Give generously. People like to be around others who have a knack for coaxing creative ideas and offering fresh insights into vexing problems. Be the kind of leader who comes to conversations prepared to add value that helps to foster confidence, competence, and greater self-sufficiency. For example, you might relay a snippet of a conversation you’ve had with a subject matter expert who was able to shed light on a recurring issue your team is facing. Or you can post pointers to a few recent articles you found about a current hot topic. You want to provide enough valuable information so that people seek you out, but not so much that people start to rely on you instead of themselves for inventiveness and ingenuity.
- Humble yourself. Most people find modesty and humility refreshing and increasingly rare in a world of rabid self-promotion. Shine the light on others’ achievements instead of your own, and err on the side of doling out credit at every opportunity. Include a “kudos” section in team meetings, where you lead the way in citing people for special achievements, completed milestones, or other notable accomplishments. (Examples: I want to thank Maya for being the first one to dial into every team call this month. Let’s hear it for Kim, who delivered the content for our new sales guide a week early. I want to recognize Henry for pitching in for Sue this week while she toured colleges with her son.) Not only does this show that you’re noticing what team members have achieved, but you’re also paving the way for others to acknowledge their peers’ contributions as well.
- Maintain stamina and energy. Leaders who attract others know how to exude enthusiasm and energy, whether they’re facilitating a team meeting, writing an electronic message, making a presentation, or even leaving a voicemail. (And even when people can’t see you, people can hear when you’re tired and lack a certain spark.) To keep energy levels high, make sure to ingest some healthy food (think lean protein!) and drink plenty of water. Right before a team meeting, do something to get your blood flowing, oxygen pumping and mind relaxed, even if it’s just a brisk 10-minute walk. Make sure to sit up straight so you can better project your voice, and dial in early so you can warmly greet each person with a personal comment and a smile.
No one actively aspires to be boring. And yet regrettably, few leaders actively attempt to be interesting. Virtual leaders have to try harder than other managers, given how easy it is for team members to slip away, unnoticed, in a virtual world. Try keeping a journal each week about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and adjust accordingly. And even then, don’t rest on your laurels too long: Change it up often to stay interesting.
See related past issues of Communique: Overcoming Time and Distance to Stay Connected, Engaged and Energized, Worth a Thousand Words: Connecting Virtual Teams through Imagery and Metaphor, and Mentoring From Afar – Go the Distance To Grow Top Talent