Discerning the Essential Skills for Leading Virtual Teams

Leading Virtual Teams

Leading Virtual Teams

My friend and colleague Julia Young and I are collaborating closely –from 3,000 miles away–to create a blended (virtual, asynchronous and face to face) training program, Leading Virtual Teams, for a new client. The catalyst for the course: As this company continues to expand internationally by merger and acquisition, teams have become more dispersed, and collaboration has become infinitely more challenging, especially across time zones.

As we interviewed a representative set of senior managers to better understand their challenges, we asked each one: Which is more critical for people to learn, how to plan and run more productive virtual meetings or how to lead successful virtual teams? We knew they needed us to cover each, but we wondered how best to divide the content for this audience.

People were split pretty much down the middle. Some felt that virtual meetings, because they are so pervasive in this organization, really deserved more airtime. (And, reasoned one, any good virtual team leader has to be able to crack the code for leading successful remote meetings.) Others felt that leading virtual teams, given that so few people have had any type of training in this area, probably merited the lion’s share of the time.

It was not until our final interview that the distinction became clear, thanks to a group of HR managers. They agreed that the topic of virtual meetings was critical for nearly everyone who works there, since nearly all teams have at least some remote workers. At the same time, they felt we could probably cover the topic relatively quickly, by identifying the challenges and “gotchas” and giving plenty of useful tips and tools to address them.

Learning how to successfully lead virtual teams, however, requires considerably more time, as the topic is more nuanced and requires deep conversations to really understand how to surface and address some of the toughest challenges of motivating and integrating remote teams. That’s because there are so many layers and versions of virtual teams, each of which may require a somewhat different approach.

For example, leading a project team where you have no authority over the team members is very different from leading a team whose members work for you. A team representing multiple cultures, languages and generations requires different leadership skills than one where members belong to a more homogeneous culture. Company culture, labor practices and politics all have to be considered as well. There are relatively few “rules of the road” that apply equally to all versions of virtual teams. Team leaders need to determine the critical success factors that merit the most attention, and then discover the best ways to address them in their own unique situations.

In the end, we divided the day in half, filling the morning with activities where people could learn and practice dozens of virtual meeting tips. The afternoon was set aside for people to tackle rich, complicated case studies to help them identify and address recurring issues related to leading virtual teams.

The bottom line: You can teach people how to run great virtual meetings by giving them a lot of useful tips, followed by practice in real-life situations. Knowing how to lead successful virtual teams, however, involves many layers of knowledge that take much longer to cultivate and adapt. The implication for HR and OD professionals: When considering how best to gear up your organizations to thrive in the virtual world, carefully consider what combination of learning/training is needed to arm people with the skills they need to succeed. Err on the high side, allowing plenty of time for discussion for the real learning to sink in.

Over to you, dear readers: Do you have experiences in the realm of leading virtual meetings or leading virtual teams to share?

posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy


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  1. One of the best ways to prepare yourself to lead or work in a virtual team is to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before you. That’s why at the Wide Teams website, I post interviews every week with people who are members of working geographically dispersed teams. Last week I posted an interview with a group of managers from Intridea, a completely distributed team spread across North America and China. I hope that these interviews will be helpful for leaders who are venturing into dispersed team management for the first time.

  2. Jack #

    Virtual Businesses are of different types, you could have one person working from home running his business from virtual offices around the world to benefit having an address in different countries.

    Then you have businesses that have members around the world working in virtual teams that require effective leadership to run them. One important step is ongoing analysis of leader-follower/employee interaction so no communication is lost. The composition of virtual teams is important. I also think of it as how would you run a team if you were face to face and then relate them to the virtual world.

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