Leading Virtual Teams Effectively

Leading-Virtual-Teams-Effectively-Chris-LemaDo you remember playing the telephone game as a kid? You’d say one thing to the person sitting next to you, and they’d pass on your message. Then the next person would pass on what they thought they heard and so on. The real fun of the game was when you heard the last person share what they thought was the message, and the first person share the message after that.

Leading Virtual Teams is Tough

For almost two decades I’ve been managing remote staff. In some cases these were full teams located in one place far from me. In other cases it was an entire team spread across three countries, with no two people within 100 miles of each other.

Leading a virtual team – one where members are distributed all over the place – can take that telephone game to a whole new level of crazy. And if you’ve been leading in a remote context there’s a good chance you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Leading Virtual Teams is Counter Intuitive

What I know to be true is that when it comes to leading virtual teams effectively, you can’t simply add a weekly phone call or regularly emailed report to your normal leadership strategies and hope for success. Leadership in this context requires something else.

In fact, the most central thing I’ve learned is that it’s all unintuitive. By that I simply mean, leading virtual teams effectively requires you to embrace two new leadership paradigms because, like the telephone game, what you think you know may not be what you need to know.

It Means Managing Less

One of the things we all tend to do in situations we’re uncomfortable in is to limit the degrees to which things can fail. So we control more and release freedom less. This puts us, we think, in a stronger leadership position.

But that’s not always the truth. The truth is that we’ll never develop ownership by assigning tasks. And that can quickly become a vicious cycle where we create the lack of ownership by the way we’re leading our virtual teams.

Instead, assign roles and goals. Get out of the task business. It will drive greater ownership over tasks simply out of necessity’s sake. After all, if you don’t own the tasks, someone must. And why should it be anyone other than the people with the roles assigned to pursue the goals?

In this way you step out of task management, and step into the leadership work of clearing the roadblocks and providing the air cover that your virtual team needs.

It Means Embracing Peer Pressure

We’ve all learned, from early on, that peer pressure was something we were supposed to reject. But we never stopped to question if some kinds of peer pressure was good.

I run a daily “pulse” call with my different virtual teams. That call can last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and it’s where I share context so that team members can make better decisions. It’s also where I hear about roadblocks that may be in the way, and anything else that someone thinks I need to know.

But the most important aspect of the call is when each team member answers the question – “What is done done?” No, that’s not a typo. It’s there twice on purpose. Because I want to know what is actually complete. Not partially or mostly done (with an attached modifier after the word “Done”). Instead, I want to know what’s so done that the only word after it is done.

As we “walk” around our virtual meeting room, each person shares what’s done done. They don’t share activity. They share accomplishment. And there’s no trouble when a person doesn’t have anything to share on any given day. But after a couple of days, there is mounting peer pressure.

The fear of peer rejection is stronger than the fear of looking weak.” ~Chris Lema (Tweet This)

No one wants to be the slacker, the slowest one on the team. And so they do what comes naturally – they ask for help. First from each other. And then from me. But they don’t hide for days. Because tomorrow’s another day where they can shine, where they can get something done, or help someone else on the team succeed.

What about Your Experience Leading Virtual Teams?

Are you leading virtual teams? What other paradigms have I missed? Share them with me in the comments.

About Chris Lema

Chris Lema is the VP of Software Engineering at Emphasys Software, where he manages high performers and oversees product development and innovation. He's a blogger (chrislema.com), ebook author (virtual teams) and coaches startups on staff development and the creation of high performance teams.


  1. I love ‘What’s done done?’! I lead a geographically dispersed team, and I’m looking forward to introducing the concept of sharing accomplishment vs activity. Thanks!

  2. Thank you Chris … I really enjoyed the article!

    In social media we often have such virtual teams where problems may arise when people try to “manage” situations and try to control things.

    But I would not say that the procedure we should adopt is all unintuitive. I often realize that doing things by heart and by intuition is often the best.

    I like this slogan:
    “The fear of peer rejection is stronger than the fear of looking weak.” ~ Chris Lema

    This I see in social media so often – people don’t want to appear weak. They are dishonest to themselves and don’t tell the truth – they often lie themselves in order to appear strong in front of others.

    I tend to say the truth even if people won’t like it.

    Thank you for this wonderful inspiration today!

    Best regards

    Karin Sebelin

  3. Excellent insight Chris. One of the things I have found when it comes to assigning roles is to make sure people know what they are promising to each other and depending on each other for (and as you point out the result, not the task) to deliver the shared result. The paradigm i am point to is that defining your role is about defining clear interconnections vs. boundaries/”boxes”. Many more breakdowns happen when people are focused on their box rather than their inter-dependencies, Besides,when things break down you don’t want to lose valuable time from having to referee or having to get everyone together across time zones to redefine the “boxes” vs. just work together to make progress.

    • Absolutely right. Helping people know how to interact with each other – the hand-offs – is critical. And I do it in a public meeting (our daily call) so everyone is clear about where their own responsibility lies.

      In my book on Virtual Teams, I also talk about the difference between accountability and ownership – because handing something off to someone else doesn’t change ownership. I may lend you the keys to my car – but it’s still my car.

  4. Leading virtual teams is a unique beast indeed. I love your suggestions! I think one of the most confronting things for a leader of virtual teams is the discomfort that comes from it revealing the desire to control things on behalf of the leader.

    No one wants that to be true about themselves, but virtual teams stretch a leader in areas otherwise untouched.

    Thanks for your insight!

  5. Chris, don’t I know how tough leading virtual teams can be. I lead a teams across 6 countries and this is challenging.

    One paradigm you may have left out is leading teams that don’t report directly to you administratively (day-to-day management but only from a functionally. Keeping delivery of plans can be very frustrating. I therefore have to develop tools and methods that help the team inspired to deliver their outcomes that directly affect my overall performance. This keeps both parties happier, in sync and accountable.

    • That’s exactly right. Inspiration is critical. I often have 2-5 minutes at the start or end of a call that is for context sharing, which serves the inspirational aspects you’re talking about.

  6. Never an easy task, Chris. One thing I’ve found of value, make those members not present feel as though they are in the room. I’m part of several boards where members are geo dispersed . One thing we’ve found helpful for engagement and attention, whoever is hosting the virtual meeting does so in a space where they can place a photo and a name card at a chair for all members who are virtual. We’ve found It makes them feel present and helps them stay engaged wen they have a seat at the virtual table.

  7. Great to read about the challenges of managing virtual teams – I also see many of these challenges eve with clients who manage teams on different floors in the same building!
    In particular I love your comment about how many managers control more and release freedom less – I call this Container Management and it can become a vicious vortex that sucks the life out of the team. Just as you say you never create ownership by assigning tasks.
    Assigning roles and goals sounds like a great way to get more juice and engagement from talented employees.
    Thanks for the wisdom.

  8. Hello Chris,

    I have never lead virtual teams but your insights are very intresting. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Have a nice day,


  9. Hi Chris

    Thanks for these insights. I often coach international leaders where managing their virtual teams is their biggest challenge. Apart from the cultural challenges of dealing with people for and in other countries, the absence of the control they are use to is probably the most frequent discussion.

    So I Ioved your counter intuitive tips and will definitely be using them. Thanks!!

  10. Thanks for sharing Chris and sharing your experience with us. I have never had to manage a virtual team, but I feel many of the points you made are applicable in many areas of leadership.

    I agree that we must assign goals and roles. I have heard it said that we should assign responsibilities not tasks. When we do this, we give them the ability to use their gifts and creativity.

  11. Great post, Chris! for years i was a part of and led virtual teams. You are right on when you talk about having people own goals vs tasks. Makes a huge difference to engagement and success. The other thing we did, that you don’t touch on in this post, is we still did teambuilding – virtually. We ate lunch together, we had baby showers and we were more than a group of people with shared goals, we became friends too.

    Morning huddles with done done also works well for face to face – it’s a great practice!

    Thanks, Chris!

  12. Great post Chris.Leading virtual teams can be extremely frustrating. It is funny but I also perform a “Done, Done” type of variation in a morning huddle and teach about peer pressure, or what I call joint accountability methods that help drive execution. It is great to see validation from your experience as well and appreciate the article.


  13. Hi Chris ~ I fully support the comments of both Kate and Susan! In particular I love the comment about assigning roles and goals, as opposed to tasks. This, I believe, is important for any team success, especially a virtual one! Great post, so thanks for sharing! John :)

  14. Hi Chris,
    Great points about key challenges of virtual teams. Virtual teams also need inspiration that sustains across the distance. Developing and keeping a sense of unity is tough for any team — for distributed virtual teams it can be even tougher.

    Thankfully with technology connecting people more easily, distance doesn’t have to block connectedness.

    So let’s have a party of virtual inspiration and keep people floating toward success!

    Great that you have brought the subject of leading virtually teams to the forefront here for all to remember, explore, and discuss.

    Thank you for this,

  15. Hi Chris. This is a great post! I really appreciate your comment about assigning roles and goals – as opposed to tasks. The buy-in that comes with that approach certainly does propel a team forward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experiences!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. Roles and Goals have made a huge difference on every team I’ve managed – with the ancillary benefit of reduced staff attrition. Turns out employees appreciate it too!


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