Leadership in Virtual Teams

Every morning, I go for a walk in the park. The walk is really just an excuse to listen to a podcast without feeling like I should be doing something else more “productive”.

Quite often during these walks, my mind (encouraged by the repetitive exercise and the sound of the podcast voices’ energy) suddenly solves a problem I’ve been tackling or just wanders off and brings me back something unexpected. This morning, it brought me back a memory. And I thought it was perfect to open the post dedicated to the last component of the Virtual not Distant model, Leadership.

 

Many years ago, when I was in the process of stepping down as director of a small theatre company, I took part in a fundraising session with two of my colleagues, Linda and Erica. They were part of the team of four people who would continue running the company.

Before we could dig into how we should raise money, we had to define where we were going with the company. One of our board members, Pete, was running the session for us and he asked us to draw on a big piece of paper how we imagined the company would be in three years time. (If you’ve ever taken part in a similar exercise, you might know that the reason for using a picture instead of trying to describe it in words, is that in doing this, we often resort to metaphor. The subconscious takes over and we discover something we didn’t realise we felt or thought.)

I can’t remember what Erica drew, but I think it was quite fun and positive in its outlook. I do remember though what Linda came up with: a bus, going down a winding road, with lots of happy people in it. (Her drawing was quite good, she takes art lessons!)

And of course, I remember what I drew. A lonely girl waving good-bye at a train, going away, heading towards the woods.

Pete asked me, “What’s behind the trees?”

“I don’t know.”

“But, what’s in the woods?”

“I don’t know.”

He couldn’t read my drawing, but I could. I had let go. I couldn’t see where the company was going anymore. In any case, I felt like I should be left behind.

 

The Trees in the Woods:
Why Communicating Vision Matters.

‘Leadership’ is often associated with ‘vision’, with knowing where we’re heading to, with having some idea of what we need to get there, why we should bother and who we want to take with us.

Sometimes the vision is ours, sometimes it comes from forces beyond our control. If we’re really lucky, we get to shape the vision with the rest of our team.

Communicating direction, even when we’re clear ourselves, is not always easy. To set direction without micromanaging, especially when we are part of the day to day operations ourselves, takes effort. This effort increases when we can’t see the people we work with every day.

But leading a team is more than setting direction. It requires understanding what people need as a group and as individuals to do their best work.

 

Who Do They Need You to Be?

Leading and managing virtual teams requires even more flexibility than in the co-located space. At times you might need to be the housekeeper or caretaker, making sure that the processes and tools you’re using are working fine. (For a great example of this, check out the interview Matt Rogish and Distributed Teams.)

Other times you might need to take on the role of facilitator, bringing people together and making sure that they have everything they need to do their job. Sometimes you might turn into a monitor, checking and keeping watch over results.

Some teams and situations might require you to set direction and then fade into the background. Other times you might need to take the spotlight to advocate for your team. Often you’ll need to be part teacher, part mentor, part coach, part listening-ear.

You’ll need to be disciplined so that supporting your team members mean you stop paying attention to your own work. You’ll have to make sure that the ability to have access to your work 24 hours a day doesn’t burn you out.

You’ll need to be professional enough to maintain everyone’s respect, while being true to yourself in order to build trust.

 

Making Room for Others to Lead

Like it or not, you’ll have to be humble.

Organisations are turning into less hierarchical environments. This is an opportunity to encourage all team members to improve our team processes, to raise red flags when they see a problem, to take the lead when they have the skill. But that requires that we be humble, that we step to one side while keeping watch, that we can assess when something is a development opportunity and when it’s too big a risk.

In your virtual team or flexible work environment, you’ll need to do all this without seeing your team members every day, without being able to look them in the eye during the tough conversations and without being able to develop rapport with them through a smile.

That’s why your actions need to be deliberate. That’s why your level of self-awareness has to be high. That’s why you can’t leave those informal interactions to chance.

 

Self-Leadership and Digital Wellbeing

If you are part of a virtual team, chances are that you spend all day at your computer. You might be in an office, you might work sometimes from home or you might change where you work from every day.

In any case, look after your health. Make sure that you take breaks. Go out for a walk, take a long coffee break, let your mind wander off to help your creativity. Find people who will support you.

When you’re in a leadership position, it’s important to know people outside your team or organisation, who will support you when you need help. Don’t get too comfortable behind your computer and make sure that every now and then, you make new connections face to face.

Whether you’re seeking work-life balance or work-life fusion, take control of your work patterns. Set boundaries when you can and when you need to be flexible, make sure that flexibility goes both ways: we’re often more accommodating for others than we are to ourselves.

Share your good practice with your team members, but don’t impose it on them. Different people have different needs.

 

Coda

'Leadership' is the last component in the Virtual, not Distant® model. The reason I’ve left it till last is that addressing all the other needs of your team first, we can decide what our team needs us to be.

Of course we need to start with our raw material: ourselves, our expectations, our limitations and aspirations. But above all, we’re team members. It’s just our role is more visible and part of our role, is to help our team work.