As more organizations work virtually, managers of traditional work teams are tapped to lead geographically dispersed teams. When thrust into this unfamiliar territory, many managers flounder, especially those who rely on command-and-control tactics to get work done across locations, functions, cultures and time zones.
Joining me in writing this month’s Communiqué is my friend and colleague, Bart Bolton, Principal of Lifetime Learning, a consulting organization focused on developing leadership skills in senior IT managers. Bart makes important distinctions between management and leadership skills. I called Bart to brainstorm which skills are most vital for leaders of virtual teams. Here’s a summary of just some of those skills we believe are especially important for those who lead geographically dispersed teams:
- Ability to articulate and communicate a compelling vision: Simply put, an effective leader needs to know how to provide hope, which can come in the form of a vision. This is challenging for all leaders in a world full of increasingly inattentive thinkers. But it’s infinitely tougher for someone who has to keep people focused on long-range goals from afar. Getting input and gaining agreement on a unifying vision is one thing. Reminding people how their contributions tie into the whole is even more important when people can opt out silently. Successful virtual leaders need to help team members stay focused on both the forest and the trees, often at the same time.
- Fostering a spirit of collaboration: Simply telling people they need to work together just won’t cut it. Successful distance leaders must find ways to enable people to collaborate, which may mean removing formidable obstacles. For example, team members need easy access to the right tools so they can get questions answered, documents posted and ideas shared. They also need to create a team environment that encourages open and frequent communication among those who most need to work together. The thoughtful design of team meetings that encourage live interaction is essential. Shared operating principles that call out how team members collaborate, and under what circumstances, should be explicit, especially as new team members come on board.
- Establishing trust and demonstrating credibility: Without trust, distance leaders will find it exceedingly difficult to galvanize and mobilize teams, even when members are direct reports. People on virtual teams can become disenfranchised and disengaged under the radar, with no one noticing until it’s too late. While different people may have different notions about what constitutes trustworthy behavior, leaders who honor their word and show personal integrity will garner good will and trust far faster than those who don’t. Virtual leaders also need to consciously create a team environment that cultivates trust among team members.
- Leading from the heart: Successful distance leaders have finely-tuned intuition that clues them in about what people are thinking and feeling in the absence of vital visual cues. Leaders must not only intuit what’s going on, but they must also know how to inspire team members on both an intellectual and emotional level. Rallying people around the ROI of a current project, for example, can only take them so far (unless they’re receiving direct compensation based on ROI). People are energized only when they feel that their contributions matter and their participation is valued by others. Even for managers who are considered to be charismatic in person, inspiring people from afar requires new skills and sensibilities.
- Coping with ambiguity and constant change: Members of today’s virtual organizations tend to have multiple reporting relationships. Some may work directly for a team leader, some indirectly, and for some, it depends on the project or the day. For a virtual leader, this will mean knowing how to operate effectively despite constantly shifting allegiances, inconsistent communication paths, and frequent disruptions to workflow. Distance leaders need to be comfortable moving forward despite a whole host of variables that will likely change frequently. They also need to learn how to accelerate decision-making without necessarily having all of the data they’d prefer to have.
- Respect for cultural, generational differences: Within any given global organization, the composition of a virtual team is likely to include a wide range of cultures and multiple generations. This means that leaders must learn enough about these differences so that they can make some well-informed generalizations about the best methods, channels and frequency of team communications. For example, baby boomers might feel uncomfortable restricting team communications to mostly IM and texts, while Gen-X’ers might chafe at having to attend con calls without being able to multitask. Similarly, some cultures might be wary about candidly voicing opinions in front of the whole team, while others thrive on playing the role of devil’s advocate.
- Sizing up skills and strengths to enable effective collaboration: Without having much (or any) direct contact with team members on a regular basis, virtual leaders need to know how to parlay the strengths, styles and preferences of all team members so that the whole team benefits. Such an assessment can be tricky with only limited firsthand knowledge or direct observation. Tools like DiSC, Myers-Briggs and others may help. Likewise, conducting a skills inventory can help, as can surveys or phone interviews, depending on the size of the team. Armed with this knowledge, distance leaders need to know how to organize assignments and activities to maximize opportunities for learning and growth.
There’s a saying that credibility = 80% relationships + 20% expertise. For virtual team leaders, establishing that credibility and demonstrating strong leadership requires learning many new skills, only some of which are covered here. Certainly, deep listening skills and excellent communication abilities are also vital, as well as the ability to set well-reasoned performance metrics that hold people accountable for their commitments. To thrive as a leader in the virtual world, be aware of which skills are most lacking, and carve out a realistic plan to close the gap.
To find out how Guided Insights can help virtual team leaders develop the skills, tips and tools to success in the virtual world, visit our website.
Take a look at tips to maintain momentum for virtual leaders, taken from our popular Leading Remote Teams webinar, part of our Bridging the Distance series.
For guidelines to build trust and social capital in a virtual world, see our white paper, co-written with Julia Young and Charles Feltman.