IT Management: Virtual team leadership

Communication strategies and discipline are required to effectively lead virtual teams in this highly connected world.

Camille Preston, Ph.D., PCC

Effective communication while managing remote relationships is essential to success in the virtual world. Associates, team members and clients must all have effective remote relationships in order to thrive in today’s continually developing marketplace. Virtual management skills are more essential than ever. When one person understands effectively leading virtual teams, he can improve his team’s results. When the entire organization practices and embraces leading virtual effectiveness, it achieves sustainable success.

Workers these days are often overwhelmed and overloaded. They’re unable to unplug. People check their e-mails in bed, answer phone calls in the bathroom, text at all hours of the night and update their Facebook status every few minutes. So many of us want to be more and want to do more, and yet this cycle will never end. We need to adapt, navigate and manage the virtual overload we all experience.

As the speed of business increases, more and more professionals are finding themselves isolated and overworked. Fostering high-performing, effective collaboration has become even more challenging as individuals shift jobs and responsibilities more often, colleagues work on more projects more frequently, teams form and disperse with even faster turnover, and businesses are continuing to transition to remote collaborations.

More than 300 million active users spend an average of more than 8 billion minutes worldwide on Facebook every day. LinkedIn has more than 50 million members in 200 countries and territories around the world. With more technology, we can become more connected, yet we feel even less connected. You need to understand these changes and appreciate your evolving relationships.

Doing business

How you do business is shifting. Businesses are more global, more electronic, more communication-oriented and more accountable. As people become more connected, they are simultaneously becoming more detached. In the Industrial Age, businesses and leaders focused on their capital assets and bottom line. They delivered results, despite the potential human costs. In the Information Age, virtual leaders realize that people must balance results with relationships. With whom you collaborate and how is becoming as important as the task at hand.

Some companies are reporting that as much as one-third of their total communications spending is for mobility. Because so many employees are mobile, it has become more comfortable to continue to communicate that way. As many as 50 percent to 70 percent of mobile phone minutes are used within the company where fixed-line or Wi-Fi communications are easily available.

Work relationships are also changing. Almost one in five employees reports feeling disengaged. More virtual employees are engaged than their peers who work with their entire team present (34 percent versus 28 percent).

In “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job,” Patrick Lencioni shared that people are miserable when they feel anonymous, their work is irrelevant and their results are immeasurable. Because of the current speed of business—people are going so fast, teams are changing so quickly, projects are evolving and adapting to changing market demands—many people are miserable at work.

Associates often complain that getting to know colleagues takes too much effort, energy and time; they’re too focused on making deadlines to have “time to connect”; team-building activities often feel canned; and investing time into relationships is a waste because teams are always shifting.

You’ve heard the one constant is change. You are constantly changing and developing for an even better way to manage, lead and empower your teams. And yet few have developed new strategies to comfortably, consistently and proactively adapt to this change. Virtual leaders appreciate how change helps them to be effective, efficient and sustainable.

Effective leaders create time to focus on what matters most, communicate concisely and successfully connect to those around them. Create your relationship before you meet with the person. Know your outcomes before the meeting.

Leading in a virtual world

To be effective in the business world, you must be able to build relationships quickly and remotely. Virtual leaders learn who they’re working with, what matters most to this person and how to set this person up to be most successful.

Virtual leaders have the ability to do this with anyone, anywhere:

  • Individuals are more engaged when they know their purpose.
  • Effective communication means understanding who you work with and how to leverage strengths.
  • Teams are more effective when they establish genuine relationships.
  • Effective communication builds connections, creates measurable outcomes and links tasks to outcomes.
  • Organizations that promote transparent relationships benefit from increased engagement, efficiency and mutual respect.
  • Effective communication creates the structure to predict, plan and prepare.
  • Leaders are clear on the outcomes and flexible in the approach.

How virtual leadership is different

Effective leaders appreciate that managing and leading remotely is different. To compete in a global economy, everyone needs to be on board. Virtual leaders first grow themselves and then support others’ development. Virtual leaders encourage each member of their team to be aligned, invested and inspired.

Virtual leaders know individuals feel valued when they see that their contributions have an impact. Acknowledge the individuals’ accomplishments and celebrate the small wins. Teams must trust and respect one another even more to collaborate virtually. Leaders must promote open communication, engage in active debates and leverage team members’ strengths. Organizations that build transparency also build trust.

Virtual leaders are prepared. They embrace new strategies to connect, communicate, collaborate and create. To be an effective virtual leader, you should:

  • Encourage open communication.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Define the parameters before the meeting.
  • Understand the best way and time to contact each person (e-mail, phone, text and time zone).

The consequences of not changing

Think back to a “nightmare” project, a dysfunctional team, or a draining assignment. What was the energy like? What was your motivation for working? How long did this project take? Certainly, you can recall a workplace communication challenge. The ideas might not have been engaging, the colleagues weren’t invested or the outcomes felt irrelevant. Working virtually magnifies the importance of communication.

When you don’t know colleagues as well, you make assumptions that may not be true. When you can’t see your coworkers in person, you miss body language—and 55 percent of communication is body language. When you have fewer opportunities for informal conversation, you’re less engaged in conversations.

How would it feel to work on projects where you knew their purpose and could see the impact? To collaborate with people you knew were invested? To work where you knew your coworkers strengths and leveraged them regularly? Consider these four steps to mastering virtual effectiveness:

  1. Care to Collaborate: Virtual leaders take time to know with whom they’re collaborating, what matters most to them, how to set the other person up for success and where to leverage synergies.
  2. Connect to Communicate: Virtual leaders take time to proactively communicate in order to maximize their productivity.
  3. Filter to Focus: Virtual leaders filter incoming information, focus on what matters most, and then are flexible in how they achieve these outcomes.
  4. Pause for Perspective: Virtual leaders know they must take time to pause, get perspective, recalibrate plans and celebrate.

Care to collaborate

How often do you know the person with whom you’re collaborating? Virtual leaders take time to proactively listen to understand their team members’ beliefs and values. They know that within each associate is a creative and resourceful team member, and they lead the team in a manner to which the team responds most effectively.

Demonstrate caring by having open body posture. Be aware of how you present yourself to others. What would make them even more eager to work with you? Uncross your arms during a conversation. Nod yes or no while discussing with the person.

Connect to communicate

How often do you listen to learn, before you speak? Do you understand who your audience is, what matters to the listener, how to best connect their way? Do you assess the impact of your communication?

Virtual leaders take time to proactively understand their audience, outlined in Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (connect with the who). They determine what matters most to them (connect with the what). They identify how to communicate in ways that resonate (connect with the how).

What does it look like when someone is disinterested in a conversation? Do they have good posture, or do they fidget? Do they stretch or slouch? You should use your hands to portray location and time. Maintain alert and engaging posture. Leaders connect with others through communication (physiology, tone or language).

Filter to focus

How often do you actively “delete” unnecessary noise (such as e-mails, conversations, Web sites or chatter)? How do you know what result you must accomplish, within what specific time frame? How often do you read (e-mails, paper, Web sites) with a clear outcome or time frame? Do you have clear outcomes and time frames for managing your e-mail inbox?

Virtual leaders take time to proactively filter incoming information. They build systems to organize information so as to “access” it when needed. They focus on the outcomes, and they’re flexible on the approach.

Focus is directly related to physiology. When you change your physiology you shift your focus. You need to filter the volume, variety, velocity and veracity of information in order to focus on the outcome. Leave your desk once an hour to move around. Take stretch breaks. Move your hands or walk around while brainstorming.

Pause for perspective

How often do you find stillness—within you and around you? Step back from daily demands to focus on what matters most? Identify outcomes to achieve versus “tasks to do”?

Virtual leaders take time to proactively get perspective. They take a deep breath and analyze the situation. They recalibrate plans and give and get feedback. They reward, rejuvenate and renew. In the current “go, go, go” culture, celebration is necessary.

Are you on the balcony or the dance floor of life? Too much time amid the action, moving and shaking of life can be exhausting. Ronald Heifetz uses a phenomenal metaphor in “Leadership Without Easy Answers” (Belknap Press, 1998) that compares time on the dance floor and time observing from the balcony.

Virtual leaders know how to balance their time between actions on the dance floor and perspectives on the balcony. Taking time to pause is a mental, physical and emotional activity. Shake your body out before pausing. Notice where you have tension and where you’re holding emotions. What surroundings or physical environments help you get perspective? Pause where you are, see what you have accomplished and recalibrate to ensure your outcomes.

Strategies for becoming more virtually effective are important. Turning these insights into action is essential. Next, you must identify what you want to achieve. To fully leverage these strategies, you must understand what you want to achieve and why, what you did in the past, and what specific actions you must take to expedite the outcomes.

Virtual leaders maximize their learning by integrating insights and applying them to their own life. Create an action plan of how you’ll apply these ideas and follow through. What will you do differently? Why must you do it differently? How will you achieve your outcomes?

Remember, virtual leaders know how to:

  1. Care to Collaborate
  2. Connect to Communicate
  3. Filter to Focus
  4. Pause for Perspective

What you have done in the past has gotten you to where you are now. To move forward to the next step, you’ll have to do something different. Know what’s important to yourself and others, and ultimately you’ll know how to maintain and motivate. You’ll be an even more effective leader.

Find time every day to strengthen your virtual effectiveness with colleagues and associates. You don’t need to limit your virtual effectiveness only to work—use these applicable and versatile techniques with your friends, family and new relationships. The key is to do it, and do it your way. Practice makes permanent, so what type of virtual effectiveness are you practicing?

Camille L. Preston

Camille L. Preston is founder and principal of AIM Leadership, the coaching and training company focused on improving individual, team and organizational effectiveness. Dr. Preston has coached leaders and executives around the world; developed curricula; delivered trainings; and facilitated strategic retreat sessions for organizations and teams within the corporate, private, government, and non-profit sectors. She has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Virginia, an executive coaching certificate from Georgetown University, advanced leadership training from the Center for Creative Leadership, NLP and Neurostrategies certification from SRI, and is certified to administer numerous assessments.