Virtual Leadership

Guest blogger Jeffrey Shepard  is a CEO, Executive Producer, University Professor, consultant, a PhD student working on defending his dissertation, writer, closet poet and a friend of mine. He owns successful businesses in the New York and Cincinnati, Ohio areas  and is involved in pre-launch of several .com companies.

In a recent conversation Dr. Loyd and I talked about the evolution and popularity of the internet, virtual teams, advances in technology and the future of leadership.  We both agreed that some of the “rules” of the past are being broken and re-written to adapt to a changing “follower” as well as a new environment. 

I spend most of my time in technology based business and or “cloud” based companies, and much of my academic research concerns collaboration and virtual teams. Using “cloud” based software, and tools such as Skype, salesforce.com, and Google Docs, we are now able to work and lead in the same “space” with colleagues around the globe while being at the same time in the comfort of our own home (or Starbucks!).  What remains constant is that to be successful you still have to build great teams, provide them with the tools they need for success and effectively ensure team communication.

Virtual teams are exciting! As a leader you can assemble really effective teams without the geographic restrictions you once had.  For example, as a leader in the area of technology, I have members of my teams in many countries and time zones.  To be an effective leader I need to make sure that I set expectations and follow-up on managing projects with them while also providing timely feedback.  It’s fascinating (and challenging!) to lead people in different parts of the world, especially where the concept of “space” and “time” are differently defined than our earlier traditional experiences.  Looking at this new virtual environment from a leadership perspective, you are not able to lead and or manage the same way every day. Small adjustments to your leadership style and expectations are necessary.  These styles actually evolve as we discuss the new way we interact.

For example, even though we now can use web cameras to have more intimate meetings virtually, we can’t micromanage and or see what someone is doing during the course of the day.  Leaders are forced to trust their employees or followers to manage themselves.  This means that you look to your team for results and not for details on how they get to them.  A very different style than what some have experienced with the “old” management system with many layers. It has been my experience that setting clear expectations with detailed outcomes/requirements will bring your team the success that you desire.

Space is also redefined in this style of leadership.  We are starting to see the hours of the traditional workday as being defined as flexible in nature for some.  With the increased importance of deadlines and completed tasks, is it really important that your team work between the hours of 9-5PM?  In fact, some teams are set up to support one another by having periods that are open to collaborate via web tools such as instant messenger.  Other companies use cellular technology and require team members to be “logged in” during certain periods during the course of the day.  In this environment a good leader understands what is required of her team and makes the necessary adjustments to get the most efficient quality work for the team.  A leader in this environment needs to understand the technology and how to best use it for team optimal performance.  This skill set needs to be taught to future leaders who lead in this environment. 

Finally communication has changed.  First off, e-mail changed the way we communicate with our fellow teammates, managers, clients, and subordinates. Unfortunately I have personally experienced managers that have not been effective with e-mail as a communication tool.  For a virtual team leader this is a serious problem. Virtual teams demand intensive communication.

I have personally found that e-mail is good in some cases to communicate small tasks.  When a situation requires some complexity it is sometimes best to utilize other tools such as video calls (SKYPE) or chat.  In very rare situations it is important to meet in person.  Some successful virtual teams spend time together in person to build rapport and comfort.  Other successful virtual teams never see each other.   As a leader it is important that you gain an understanding of what is needed, what works, and how to best understand the needs of your team.

With technology we now have a new set of rules that governs the way people not only manage but lead.  It requires us to react to our new environment, and adjust communication and management styles.   It is not uncommon for virtual teams to outperform those that share the same office if they are led properly.  Good leadership will/must shift to adapt to the way we work and collaborate in the virtual environment.

Click here for Jeffrey’s blog.

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3 thoughts on “Virtual Leadership

  1. Even in non-virtual teams, I think the trend for leadership shares some of these same elements. Especially your point about setting clear expectations with detailed outcomes, and trusting people to do their jobs without micro-managing.

  2. This is a fantastic article with some great points. I agree with shrinkingthecamel with regards to the lessons learned from virtual teams being applicable in the non-virtual world. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the lessons being learned in the virtual team setting are things that companies pay tens-of-thousands if not hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to teach their leadership teams.

    One challenge in dealing with virtual teams that I think really needs to be addressed is the possibility of removing the human element. All too often members of a team that have become virtual pull away from each other because the face-to-face interaction that you get from working in a physical office (ie, walking down the hall and stopping to have a conversation with a colleague) requires more work by all parties. It’s also the leader’s responsibility to help facilitate the team’s success in utilizing the virtual setting. This is definitely a needed perspective, and I hope that the message is heard loud and clear in our ever advancing and ever changing business environment.

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