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 begins 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 may want to consider four aspects of leadership that are known to positively impact virtual team performance:
- Facilitating open communications
- Establishing clear expectations
- Allocating resources
- 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 have the drive to get things done and 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 will impact your ability to lead successful virtual teams – 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: As a leader of virtual teams, a willingness to do what it takes to create the conditions for effectiveness, despite the obstacles is critical to success. Occasionally, you may need to make people uncomfortable, sometimes mad, to establish and maintain effective team process. Are you willing to:
- Challenge group norms?
- Disrupt established routines within the team and across the organization?
- Risk challenging colleagues and superiors to secure the resources required by the team?
Openness: This requires a willingness to relinquish control to a certain extent, while also embracing “cultural humility”. To be effective you must be able to suspend your own values and beliefs, while simultaneously ensuring you are respecting and leveraging the full measure of the value, background and experience across the team. Will you:
- Commit to leveraging cultural diversity to determine stronger “third ways” of doing things?
- Ensure individual and team development and promotion equally across the board?
- Leverage 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 you have the capacity to:
- Maintain your ethical standing as you 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 virtual environments?
In addition to qualities, there are critical competencies that also need to be present for a virtual leader to succeed. The inherent challenges of leading in a virtual environment will require the development of additional 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, you may need to:
Be flexible – Be willing to develop, support and maintain the virtual team process – Be 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, as a leader of geographically or functionally dispersed teams you must have both the capacity and the desire to navigate the complex challenges of virtual environments.
Are you prepared to lead well for Virtual Success?
Please engage the discussion and let us know how you lead well. Always feel free to contact me at Sheri.Msherilmackey@gmail.com. Check back soon for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders, when we will continue to discuss the complexity of virtual teams.