Being in a leadership role requires a collection of fundamental skills and abilities and leading virtual teams is no different. There is some crossover in these skills, and issues such as communication, performance management and people development are congruent to all leadership roles. However, what is clear is that the virtual team leader needs to develop certain competencies and skills over and above those in a more traditional leadership position.
These competencies and skills can be broken down into seven key areas, supported by the core competency of leadership, which is fundamental.
This is the foundation and core competency of the virtual leader. As with any leadership role, the virtual leader needs to be able to inspire and motivate their team. They need strong communication, developmental and interpersonal skills and an ability to adapt to different requirements. These are all fundamental skills of a leader and it’s important to point out that virtual leaders need exactly the same skills as a starting point.
Key ‘Leadership’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Guides the virtual team and informs them of exactly what they are responsible for
- Empowers team members by giving them authority, resources, information and accountability
- Responds to communication from team members within 24 hours
- Provides regular review meetings for team members to ensure they are focused on results
- Ensures that there is a process in place for information sharing, problem-solving and decision making for the team
- Is flexible and does not bind the team to rules and regulations
Building trust within a team can be difficult and this is especially challenging for virtual teams where the usual interactions and opportunities for trust to develop are reduced. This makes it especially important for virtual team managers to focus on this aspect of leadership. Trust is a cornerstone to ensuring effective relationships within your virtual team. Staff members need to feel that they can trust their manager and this must be reciprocated.
The way for a leader to develop trust in a virtual team is to start with this principle in mind from the outset. A good manager will focus on the team ethos and the fact that achievements are based on ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. This inclusive approach will help develop a relationship of combined responsibility, which helps form the basis of trusting relationships.
Key ‘Trust Builder’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Demonstrates openness and honesty at every stage and encourages the same from the team
- Trusts others first – demonstrates trust, which garners mutual respect. Sets an example
- Communicates frequently and consistently and ensures everyone receives the same message and context
- Does what they say they will and follows up on actions and promises
- Is accessible and responsive to team requests
- Provides a consistent approach and becomes predictable in their actions
- Celebrates success and gives appropriate recognition
- Shows an interest in the social, family and home aspect of the team
A good virtual manager will set the targets that they want their staff member to achieve, but leave the task-oriented, day-to-day decision making down to the individual. They may also make it clear what constraints and boundaries the person must adhere to, but ultimately allow them space to get on with the job without unnecessary interruption.
This is a clear move away from micro-management into an area where team members are empowered to be able to achieve their own results. This is especially important in virtual teams as the manager might not always be around to respond to issues that arise and so the team member needs the autonomy to make decisions.
Key ‘Results Focused’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Focused on results and the ‘end goal’ rather than task and process
- Clearly outlines the constraints and boundaries for the project
- Supports and backs the team and their decisions
- Ensures the teamwork to a basic set of principles and guidelines
- Sets performance goals and expected outcomes with the team
- Assesses individual’s performance against goals regularly
A facilitator helps things happen more easily and a key part of the virtual manager’s job is to solve problems and help find ways around issues that obstruct the team member from doing their job. This might mean creating opportunities for team communication where issues and problems can be resolved, or addressing specific organisational problems where management support is required to resolve interdepartmental complications.
In a virtual environment, it can be hard to ensure things run smoothly and make sure that you are able to bring together the tools, information and tools necessary to ensure the job gets done. It requires a wide understanding of the functions of the team and an ability to effectively communicate in order to address problems that occur. You’ll need to ensure you understand; budgets, tools, training, information, personnel and team dynamics.
Key ‘Facilitator’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Provides good team meeting preparation and facilitation (virtual or face-to-face)
- Focuses on the team dynamics and addresses issues that arise
- Implements effective problem-solving techniques
- Helps the team resolve inter-departmental issues
- Helps the team resolve issues within the team
- Supports the team where decisions are needed and authority is required
When a team is spread out geographically or is unable to mix with other people within the organisation on a regular basis, it becomes even more important that the virtual manager is able to network and build relationships with other departments.
Virtual managers have a duty to try to develop connections that will provide their team with contacts and resource support that helps them achieve their goals. This means building associations, developing a strong network and strengthening links within the organisation and outside where possible. Knowing someone who can fix a problem that springs up can be a lifesaver for a member of staff who has no ability to go knocking on doors.
Key ‘Networker’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Creates opportunities to meet people in different departments
- Introduces themselves to key staff members and people that can support their team
- Develops relationships with senior staff members and influencers
- Attends high profile meeting opportunities
- Presents opportunities for team members to work with relevant contacts
Having a strong awareness of business challenges and focusing on the direction of the organisation is an important part of a virtual manager’s make-up. They should be able to understand the strategy of the business and then cascade this to the team in a way that they will understand and relate to. Key to this is understanding the impact that their team has on the performance of the organisation.
A good strategist will be aware of product or service changes that arise, what is happening from a departmental perspective, the financial performance of the organisation, variations in customer requirements, industry changes and how all this impacts on their team.
Key ‘Strategist’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Understands and communicates what is happening within the organisation
- Discusses information about the product/service offering of the organisation regularly
- Reviews and communicates changes that affect the business and their specific team
- Keeps the team informed about financial performance of the organisation
- Shows a keenness to meet the needs of the customer at all times
- Announces changes to company strategy as they occur
For managing a virtual team, technology is invaluable. It is likely to be the main method of communicating with your team whether on an individual basis or as a whole. It is also one of the key methods of saving money for an organisation that has employees spread far and wide. The cost of travelling, meeting venues and other associated costs has become a burden for many organisations where cost-saving has become almost as important as generating revenue. For these reasons, you must become an advocate for technology.
Being a technology advocate means understanding the tools that are available to you, knowing which method is best to use when understanding which team member prefers which type of communication and ensuring that you promote the use of technology to your team at every opportunity.
Different tools could be; e-mails, telephone, conference calls, video-conferencing, screen shares, instant messaging, team portals/sharepoints, social networking.
Key ‘Technology Advocate’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Understands each tool available within the organisation and how to use them
- Ensures the team know how to use the tools effectively
- Identifies which tools are preferred by which team members and finding methods of using the relevant one
- Incorporates different ways of using the tools to suit the requirement
- Promotes the use of tools within the team and highlights the benefits and cost-saving
A good virtual leader will be focused on the development and progression of their team members. This means creating a constructive approach to coaching. The aim should be to help team members work effectively, build competency, develop and apply their skills while learning from their mistakes. The leader as coach will need to provide support in technical development, business skills and interpersonal practices both for the team and individuals within it.
It is likely that coaching will take up most of a virtual team leaders time and whether part of a performance management process or as a more generalist approach, coaching and development will be one of the key instruments of team progression and individual performance achievement.
Key ‘Coach’ traits of an effective virtual team leader:
- Promotes problem-solving techniques and autonomy by asking questions rather than giving answers
- Provides opportunities for team members to communicate together and work to solve issues
- Allows time and money for training and development opportunities
- Manages the performance of team members effectively
- Provides effective feedback and is also open to personal feedback
- Looks for opportunities for team members to develop and progress
Trainer Bubble provide several different products that are useful in developing those that need to Lead a Virtual Team and train Remote Workers. We provide classroom training course materials on this topic, virtual training materials as well as an e-learning course.