Virtual Success: Leading Well

March 29, 2012 — 2 Comments

In order for virtual teams to succeed, organizational leadership must establish a culture that values teamwork, communication, learning and capitalizing on geographical and functional diversity. The key to developing an organizational culture that supports virtual teams is that everyone across the organization is encouraged and enabled to embrace change and be open to virtual teams right from the start.  This starts with senior leadership support and sponsorship – without it,  virtual teams are DOA (Dead on Arrival). It is critical that virtual teams are positioned at the highest levels as vital, value-add resources that provide sustainable competitive advantage for the corporation.

From an organizational perspective, you need to encourage four aspects of leadership that are known to positively impact virtual team performance:

  1. Facilitating open communications
  2. Establishing clear expectations
  3. Allocating resources
  4. Leveraging cultural diversity

Not so different from co-located teams, but considerably more complex in virtual environments. In order to be successful, you will need to enable virtual leaders with the autonomy to get things done and the authority to impact organizational change.

Not everyone can be a successful virtual team leader. It is a complicated role that involves managing learning and development, cross-cultural interactions and team dynamics (just a few of the intricacies involved in leading teams across boundaries and borders). There are very specific skills and competencies that are vital to engaging this level of complexity. Although there are many important components that impact the abilities of successful virtual team leaders – systems thinking, emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence… just to name a few – there are three qualities that are essential to virtual team leadership: courage, openness and empathy.

Courage:  Leaders of virtual teams must be willing to do what it takes to create the conditions for effectiveness, despite the obstacles. They must be willing to make people uncomfortable, sometimes mad, in order to establish and maintain effective team process. Are your virtual team leaders willing to:

  • Challenge group norms?
  • Disrupt established routines within the team and across the organization?
  • Risk the wrath of colleagues and superiors to secure the resources required by the team?

Openness: This requires your virtual team leaders to possess the willingness to relinquish control to a certain extent, while also being willing to embody “cultural humility”.  To be effective they must be able to suspend their own values and beliefs, while simultaneously ensuring  they are respecting and leveraging the full measure of the value, background and experience across the team.  Do your virtual team leaders:

  • Commit to leveraging cultural diversity to determine stronger “third ways” of doing things?
  • Ensure individual and team development and promotion equally across the board?
  • Have strong cross-functional, cross-cultural conflict resolution skills?
  • Make information and documentation readily available in a timely, open manner?

Efficacy and Empathy: Virtual team leaders must be socially responsible and respectful of individual dignity, understanding cultural implications. Do your virtual team leaders have the capacity to:

  • Maintain their ethical standing  as they deal with complex, emotionally-charged situations that arise from cultural misunderstandings?
  • Be sensitive to team members biases, while still promoting cultural diversity?
  • Take responsibility for how relationships evolve in the virtual environment?

In addition to qualities, there are critical competencies that must be present for a virtual leader to succeed. The inherent challenges of leading in a virtual environment requires the development of additional skills that compliment the competencies necessary when leading traditional teams:

  • Managing performance and coaching employees remotely, without traditional forms of feedback
  • Selecting, implementing and maintaining virtual communication and collaboration tools
  • Leading across boundaries and borders
  • Developing and transitioning team members from a distance
  • Building and maintaining trust without significant face to face interactions
  • Building networks in virtual environments – across hierarchical and organization boundaries
  • Developing, adapting and maintaining both team and organizational processes to support virtual environments

Recognize that being a virtual team leader requires an almost superhuman effort.  Amongst other things, your leaders need to: be flexible; be willing to develop, support and maintain the virtual team process; instrumental in facilitating collaborative teamwork; understand, appreciate and reinforce cross-cultural attributes; have the ability to listen and communicate and collaborate effectively across functions and geographies. Most of all, leaders of geographically or functionally dispersed teams need to have both the capacity and the desire to navigate the complex challenges of virtual environments.

Are you equipping your virtual team leaders to lead well?

Please engage the discussion and let us know how you equip your virtual team leaders to lead well. Always feel free to contact me at or by visiting our website at Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders, when we will continue to discuss the complexity of virtual teams.

. Always feel free to contact me at or by visiting our website at Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders, when we will continue to discuss the complexity of virtual teams.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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