Eliminate Barriers and Borders by Leading Effectively When You’re Not There

Leading-Effectively-Andy-PhillipsThe days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site and multi-national teams are commonplace. Leading virtual teams is a challenge for most leaders. There is always a risk that the virtual team will become not a team at all but a group of individuals and that the leader is not a leader but someone who spends their time endlessly chasing up the team, checking that everything that needed to be done has been done.

Leading virtual teams effectively means taking leadership best practice and handling it in a way that takes into the account the fact that they team is dispersed over different countries.

What steps can you take to better lead virtual teams?

  1. Define the mission in a way that inspires the team to commit to something bigger than their own contribution. The most inspired people have a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. To do this, you need to explain why the work of the team is valuable. Even in the most commercial environments, there is a clear benefit that the work of the team will deliver. You need to explicitly state this regularly and often. Say it, write it, include it in documentation as often as you can. Every member of the virtual team needs to fully understand the mission of the team and commit to it.
  2. Define the interdependencies of each team member. There is a danger in virtual teams that each member loses sight of how their work is critical to the work of others. While in non-virtual teams you can do this in a casual way, in a virtual team you need to be explicit: a simple chart illustrating how each person’s work enables the work of others. Peer accountability is the most effective motivator and critical to the success of a virtual team.
  3. Set team and individual targets and share with the whole team. Everyone should know what everyone else is accountable for. Don’t just do this once then forget about it. Open sharing of progress against targets is essential. Some people get uneasy about this but in a virtual team you cannot be the sole chaser of work. By openly and explicitly sharing progress against targets and deliverables, the team itself takes on this role.
  4. Meet face-to-face at least once a year. Don’t just have a kick-off meeting. You need to meet up. It is much easier to work as a virtual team when you have actually met. These meetings should focus on points one to three as well as any project-specific issues that need to be tackled. I think it is a good idea to meet face-to-face as new members join.
  5. Agree communication standards and routines. I was once in a team where I spoke to the team leader once every three or four months. It was a disaster. Don’t rely on email to manage. Agree regular calls on a one-to-one and team basis. Provide the team with a monthly key update showing progress against targets and deliverables. Make sure that everyone in the team is comfortable with the level of contact. This is a good topic for discussion at the kick-off meeting. You won’t be able to please everyone but you should have spoken at least once with each member of your team every week. Be careful to take into account time differences. No one is going to be happy having a regular call with you at 10pm in the evening.
  6. Set language protocols. While English is the global business language, not everyone speaks it in quite the same way. Using metaphors or expressions that are unique to your location, such as cricket or baseball references, can be unintelligible to anyone else. While your average Brit understands what is meant by a sticky wicket, it is unlikely that those from elsewhere will. Agree with your team what type of language you will avoid. For non-native speakers prepositional phrases are hard to understand even though the words are simple. Use the Latin version instead. So instead of saying “We are going to call off the meeting” say “We are going to cancel the meeting.” Ask your team what they struggle to understand and build the protocol from that.
  7. Get culture out of the way. Don’t assume that as leader your cultural preferences are the ones the team will adopt. Different cultures have different approaches to risk, change, hierarchy, time and leadership. Don’t leave these to be discovered as you go along. Give time in the kick-off meeting to explore their attitudes to these areas and agree how you will adapt to them. Most cultural differences can be handled through discussion and flexibility. Don’t assume that your way is the best way. It is simply your way. Learn to appreciate the benefits of different approaches. You can formalize this into a team agreement that states how the team will work together. Get the team to write this and then all team members sign up to it.

Don’t assume that your way is the best way. It is simply your way. ~Andy Phillips Tweet this!

To better lead virtual teams you cannot leave anything to chance. The more explicit you are, the more effective the team will be.

What would you do to make leading virtual teams more effective?

About Andy Phillips

I'm Andy the change guerrilla, blogging about small improvements with a big impact. I specialize in managing change programs in diverse and challenging places. I have managed change programs in Africa and Latin America. I am currently based in Colombia working for an educational charity.

Comments

  1. This is a good post. I have recently been challenged to discuss what kind of jobs could be done anywhere – and virtual teams located anywhere could then do this kind of job. This was inspiring and particual useful for me today – thanks.

  2. Hi Andy ~ just playing catch up with Blogathon posts so apologies for that. I loved the post as I worked for many years, as a youth work professional/manager/Head of service, leading and managing geographically dispersed teams of part-time and volunteer staff.

    So your pointers really resonated with me, especially the two about not assuming my culture was their culture and the one about meeting up once a year! I supplemented this latter point by ‘walking the job’ whenever I could and also by attending local team meetings. I even developed my skills in small group supervision, which was a great challenge and a fascinating learning experience.

    Excellent advice and post … and thanks very much for sharing!

    Kind regards

    John

  3. Great insight into what makes a high performing virtual team tick Andy. #2 (defining the interdependencies…) seems to be the thing most often missed in virtual as well as co-located teams. The moment we lose sight of our interconnections we run the risk of important things falling through the cracks only to be noticed after the breakdowns occur. When people start saying in response “but I did my part” its a good clue this critical dimension was missed!

    • The point about interdependencies is critical I think. And also tricky. Some people just don’t want to know how things are connected and that it is just not about their contribution! Thanks for your comment!

  4. So true that leading a virtual team can’t be left to chance.
    I think you voiced a real concern of many when you wrote “There is always a risk that the virtual team will become not a team at all but a group of individuals and that the leader is not a leader but someone who spends their time endlessly chasing up the team, checking that everything that needed to be done has been done.” you share some simple yet critical steps that can be taken to ensure it isn’t left to chance.

  5. I so love this Andy. I lead virtual teams that even at a short 23 miles away have very unique cultures. I expect standardization, sometimes at the risk of ignoring culture. I need to digest all you have put on the plate, but I can see great implications for me. I have a team meeting on Wednesday with all, and I have already changed the agenda based on reading this. Thank you!

    • I remember once being sent an email by someone who sat 10 feet away from me on whether I had seen his hole punch. It is amazing how technology has made virtual teams of even those very close. Really pleased you have found this helpful!

  6. Some great tips, Andy. Applicable to virtual teams AND teams that are co-located. Thanks for sharing.

  7. “Give time in the kick-off meeting to explore their attitudes to these areas and agree how you will adapt to them. Most cultural differences can be handled through discussion and flexibility.”

    Completely agree Andy. Teams who want to make it work together will do so regardless of obstacles like language, but only if given time to get to know each other, agree rules of the road and review process as well as progress. It’s too easy to allow language to be a barrier when it’s actually other things getting in the way. The germans say :put the fish on the table”, the English speakers talk about “the elephant in the room”, and I’m not sure of the metaphor in other languages. The key thing is that there is time and mutual understanding put into what ever is getting in the way, before, during or after when it may take place.

    Nice post, thanks.

    Warm wishes

    David

  8. Thanks Joan. My experience is that native speakers of English assume that they are easy to understand when actually they use a lot of language which is at best ambiguous. Much of what we use has reference to things that are not necessarily understood by others.

  9. Hello Andy, intresting post. I’ve never had the opportunity to lead virtual teams but your recommandations are sounding very pragmatic and executable. especially when you stress the importance of the language protocols. For non native English speaking people who are often not familiar with certain expressions this could be critical. And your observation about cultural differences is also an important one.

    Thank you for sharing,

    Joan

    • Thanks Joan for you comment. I think global teams are growing even in the smallest organizations as so many suppliers now can be spread about all over the world. Thanks!

  10. Hello Andy Phillips, I’m so grateful for this piece. It’s one of my best… Actually, I’ve had this challenge of running my virtual team. This piece is like an elixir to me. With it, I’ll enhance my knowledge and skill, and lead better.

    Thanks!

    Cheers!

Trackbacks

  1. […] The days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site… [FULL POST] […]

  2. […] Leading virtual teams effectively is a challenge, It takes leadership best practice and communication to make this successful.  […]

  3. [...] Leading virtual teams effectively is a challenge, It takes leadership best practice and communication to make this successful.  [...]

  4. [...] [Andy Philips - Todd Nielsen blog]The days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site and multi-national teams are commonplace. Leading virtual teams is a challenge for most leaders. There is always a risk that the virtual team will become not a team at all but a group of individuals and that the leader is not a leader but someone who spends their time endlessly chasing up the team, checking that everything that needed to be done has been done. Leading virtual teams effectively means taking leadership best practice and handling it in a way that takes into the account the fact that they team is dispersed over different countries. What steps can you take to better lead virtual teams?  [...]

  5. [...] [Andy Philips - Todd Nielsen blog]The days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site and multi-national teams are commonplace. Leading virtual teams is a challenge for most leaders. There is always a risk that the virtual team will become not a team at all but a group of individuals and that the leader is not a leader but someone who spends their time endlessly chasing up the team, checking that everything that needed to be done has been done. Leading virtual teams effectively means taking leadership best practice and handling it in a way that takes into the account the fact that they team is dispersed over different countries. What steps can you take to better lead virtual teams?  [...]

  6. [...] The days when your team would be all located together have long gone. Even in the smallest organizations multi-site… [FULL POST] [...]

Speak Your Mind

*