Leadership is never an easy path. When you throw a virtual environment into the mix, there are even more challenges.
The qualities of a good leader are thrown more sharply into focus when you need to successfully manage a team that is entirely remote. There’s no such thing as “management by walking around,” or any of those leadership styles that benefit from being in an office.
The fundamentals of being a good leader remain the same, but there are unique aspects to managing well remotely. You’ve got to consider the logistical issues of scheduling across time zones, communicating virtually and overall, how you’re going to foster teamwork remotely.
Here’s what you need to know about leadership qualities for a great virtual leader:
- Be a connector
- Be a communicator
- Be an information manager
- Be a process analyst
Effective leadership skills
Not all leaders will be cut out to manage a virtual team well. Some skills, such as providing direction and feedback remain the same, but you have to look at the context of the virtual environment. If putting a lot of thought and time into how you communicate isn’t for you, then you would struggle as a virtual leader.
Key skills of effective virtual leaders include:
Be a connector
It’s vital that you’re able to unite your remote team around a shared sense of purpose and clear goals. Research from Harvard shows that leaders need to develop a common identity and understanding for their virtual teams, as without it, virtual team members are especially prone to “us versus them” thinking and the perils of incomplete information.
You can’t have silos developing in virtual teams – that’s when team members start working against one another, or lose sight of overall goals. A good virtual leader needs to be a connector – the glue among the team.
Finding ways to bond as a virtual team is one of the tasks a good leader should do to encourage that teamwork. You can’t usually do an in-person team-building session, but you can set up “norms” that become part of the team culture. For example, what if everyone met for virtual coffee on Fridays? There are a lot of things you can do, but you have to gear those activities for a remote environment.
Be a communicator
“Digital dependence often impedes information exchange, however. In face-to-face teams, participants can rely on nonverbal and contextual cues to provide insight into what’s going on. When we walk into an in-person meeting, for example, we can immediately sense the individual and collective moods of the people in the room—information that we use (consciously or not) to tailor subsequent interactions. Having to rely on digital communication erodes the transmission of this crucial type of intelligence.”
Have you ever seen the mess resulting from misinterpreted or poorly-executed written communications? Most virtual teams rely on tools such as chat apps and email, but those are missing the vital contextual clues that voice or in-person communication provide. Tone and body language are important parts of the process, so with those often missing, you need to be extra-good with your words!
In the end though, you can’t be averse to picking up the phone (or video chat). Sometimes it’s not worth ping-ponging back and forth – make sure your meaning was made clear, rather than have someone offended because they misunderstood.
Be an information manager
A virtual environment is entirely based on information and how it is managed. There’s a real danger of team members going into information overload if there aren’t clear processes in place to manage their work.
A good virtual leader is a master at documenting and managing information. They don’t allow decisions or ideas to slip through the cracks – they enforce a “document everything” policy with their team too.
Be a process analyst
The most successful virtual teams have got processes down to a fine art. As a leader, you need to at least be able to give your team a place to start, with processes clearly articulated in steps.
Over time, team members can offer suggestions to improve processes, but if you haven’t given them a start, it can take time to rise above the chaos! Processes in a virtual team can be impeded in ways that those in co-located teams aren’t. When you’re in an office, you might simply walk over and ask someone a question; when you’re working remotely, you send them a message, wait for a response, have questions about the response, ping them back… The back and forth can be a productivity killer.
Key characteristics of virtual leaders
What sort of person does well in the virtual environment? Here are the characteristics of a leader:
Enjoys being present
You may be separated by distance, but that’s no excuse to keep your head down behind your screen. An effective virtual leader gets involved – they enjoy being present among their team and they know what’s happening among their people.
This can take some extra effort on the part of the leader. It’s all too easy to get caught up in getting tasks done, especially when your team aren’t immediately around you. A present virtual leader takes deliberate steps to engage all team members, to give them feedback and to understand them better.
Has technical knowledge
If there’s one thing that can stall the effectiveness of virtual teams, it’s having to muddle around figuring out the tools and software you will use to facilitate your operations. When you think of in-house teams, new employees tend to have all the tools they need to do their jobs from day one – the same should go for virtual teams.
It’s important that you understand and have key systems in place, particularly communication, project management and any special tools that directly help to get the job done. The virtual environment is run on technology, so a good leader must understand it. As Michael D. Watkins points out in an article for Harvard Business Review:
“It’s essential not to sacrifice reliability in a quest to be on the cutting edge. If the team has to struggle to get connected or wastes time making elements of the collaboration suite work, it undermines the whole endeavor.”
Comfortable with delegation
Effective leadership means trusting your team and expecting that trust in return. In a virtual environment, you might be tempted to hold back, just in case someone might let you down, but this is not an efficient way to operate.
Trust that your team members are capable and will perform the tasks you give them to an expected standard. Being comfortable with delegation is important, otherwise you will become the bottleneck in the team. After all, you can’t do everything, right?
If you’re not in close proximity to team members, some things will inevitably take more time – get used to it! You’re saving on things like office overhead, but in return, you have to expect that communication is not as fast and things might not happen as quickly.
Great leaders tend to have patience anyway, but you really need to have that honed when you work virtually. Using the right project management tools to assign and track tasks can go a long way toward maintaining efficiency, but it will never be perfect.
Invests in relationships
What makes a person loyal to your company? What makes team members keen to stay on? Usually, it is a sense of belonging and feeling valued, developed when great leaders take the time to invest in relationships.
Relationships are always more challenging at a distance, so an effective virtual leader takes the time to invest in them. They take deliberate actions in the name of building those relationships, while encouraging team members to do the same with each other.
The qualities of a good leader for a virtual team mirror those required of any leader in many ways. However, aspects such as communication and team-building tend to take extra effort when you work virtually.
Your team may be out of site, but in no way can they be out of mind. An effective virtual leader finds ways to stay engaged with the team and foster a sense of belonging among the members. They use a combination of the right tools and good communication.
Distributed teams are not just a trend, they’re becoming a new normal. Developing leaders who are comfortable managing in this way is more and more important.