Leadership of Virtual teams: Strategies and Tactical tools

The reality is that the composition of my teams in the past 8 years of my work at Accenture has increasingly become more virtual. I know there have been times I’ve struggled to adapt to the differences in being a part of, and managing, these teams that are not all located together. Further challenging the situation is the frequency with which the teams change, and the typically aggressive schedule for completing the work. Unfortunately, the training and mentorship I’ve received from Accenture to date on managing virtual teams amounted to little more than cross-cultural awareness and how-tos for the collaboration tools available.

Yesterday I attended a great lunchtime learning webinar hosted by the Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) on “Real Leadership in Today’s Virtual World”.  Finally, some strategic and tactical tools to learn! The lecturer was Kris Wadia, Founder and CEO of Humanized Leadership, a global Executive Coaching and Performance Diagnostics firm. He is also a former Senior Executive at Accenture, which further piqued my interest.

The session had a great structure to it: general overview and context of why real leadership matters particularly with virtual teams, business impact of challenges of virtual teams, how to identify challenges before they arise, and techniques and tools to apply. The whole hour was highly engaging and informative, and had an effective use of chat windows to pose questions during the session. (If they open up the webinar replay I will post an update with the link)

I won’t rehash the entire presentation, and several items I already use, but there were several strategies and tactical tools that really resonated with me to keep in mind going forward:

  1. Voice training—With virtual teams, conference calls are a necessity to operate, yet it had not occurred to me how my voice could, and should, be trained to maximize the communication potential over the phone: clarity, pitch, intonation, personality and endurance. Kris highly recommended getting a voice coach to assess your voice and help train it to maximize this tool.
  2. You need to explicitly invest more time to build trust in virtual teams—Kris put forth that real leadership is getting people to do what they want to do that also fulfills the overall goal of the team, as opposed to getting people to do the tasks that you need them to do for the team. The latter operates on a transactional task basis, the former more on a relationship/trust basis. Guess which one will be more likely to respond to your emails, have a higher team morale and pull together to support each other when times get tough? The thing is, the leader has to explicitly invest the time to get the team to this point. One recommendation is to replace one of the recurring team meeting agenda with non-transactional work topics, every month or bi-weekly. You can gain a lot of insight into people’s motivations, challenges, worries, etc, by understanding them outside of their immediate tasks in their roles. This insight is then very powerful for how you continue to lead and direct your teams.
  3. Stop conference calls that are status update rehashes—Set the expectation that teams will have prepared for conference calls by reading everyone’s statuses in advance, so the conference calls can be used for value-added discussion
  4. Rotate the chair of the team conference calls—Direct a different team member to chair each regular team conference call, including setting the agenda. This is a strategy to get further insight into the areas of concern for the particular team member. Also, combined with #2 above, it should combat the symptom of silence from other attendees on calls, as people are prepared to discuss.
  5. Battle assumptions by proactively addressing items—This could mean anything from giving a warning at the beginning of a conference call that you will be taking notes so they may hear the keyboard typing (and that you’re not working on emails), to informing your meeting participants that you are using the timer on your smartphone to keep track of time (and that you’re not just checking emails or FB), to simply reviewing the definition of terms or problem, so everyone is on the same page and differences in understanding can be addressed.

I’ll be using these points going forward. I’d love to hear any other tools and strategies that work well for you too.

On a slightly different note, one of the things Kris Wadia has in his repertoire of offerings within his firm Humanized Leadership is a methodology for assessing the effectiveness of virtual teams with a score. Teams can then be reevaluated after a certain time to see whether their effectiveness has improved or declined, in tandem with training and mentorship of team members.

I find it fascinating that he’s figured out a way to put an objective score on this facet of leadership often described as a “soft skill” that does not lend itself well to objective measurement. A soft skill that is often demonstrated at high degrees by women. This opens up the door for being able to include the leadership effectiveness score as an objective data point in performance reviews, as opposed to anecdotal inputs that currently outline this area. Taking it another step further, organizations will suddenly have to sit up and take notice of these quiet leaders who have been making their organizations work better without them realizing it.

I’m going to take a wild stab and predict that the recognition of women’s contributions, and their salaries to follow, would start to rise. Now…who do we have to put this in front of to start implementing it at our workplace??