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Learning to lead virtually

Business Woman Talking To Remote Employee

Leading people in the same location from the same culture is difficult enough, so it’s no surprise that leading global teams from cultures around the world adds a whole other level of complexity. This blueprint for leading virtual projects can enhance the process and your results.

An insightful Ted-Talk by former General Stanley McChrystal,  who led the U.S. Special Forces command and was the overall force commander in Afghanistan, illustrates some challenges of leading virtually in the military in the post-9/11 world. Interestingly, they are the same civilians face in today’s business world:

  • Teams and individuals are spread across the globe.
  • Teams are composed of men and women representing various cultures and age groups.
  • They use new technologies such as virtual meetings, workflow software, email and text to accomplish their mission.

A more light-hearted video illustrates problems that arise when trying to get a virtual team on the same page. Technology not working, calls being dropped, members not knowing to use the technology, and people not paying attention are just a few issues virtual leaders face.

Yet virtual leadership is becoming more important daily as businesses become more global, working across international boundaries to serve customers from different cultures and countries. According to a Gallup poll, 75 percent of employees in large and medium companies spend at least 20% of their time working remotely. And a report by RW3 found that 85% of employees in large and medium businesses work on one or more virtual teams and the same 85% think virtual teams are critical to their productivity.

Clearly, successful virtual teams are fundamental to being competitive and can increase effectiveness and efficiency through improved cross-functional teaming, cross-cultural innovation, shortening speed to market and developing a more cohesive organizational culture.

So how can you learn to successfully lead a virtual team? There are two main components: Creating the virtual team environment before you start your project and managing ongoing virtual meetings.

Creating the virtual team environment

Focus on three key areas when you are creating the virtual team environment: teaming, timing and technology.

  • Teaming: Build the team’s cohesiveness. Getting the team off to a fast start is crucial to success. If possible, at the start of the project get the team together to get to know each another, build relationships and kick off the project. If it’s not, then strive to accomplish these goals in your first virtual session. Do not overlook relationship-building – it’s critical in many cultures and for many individuals. Team members might not trust you or work well with you if you haven’t taken the time to build relationships with them. Commit to a virtual team charter, which should include the mission of the group and your ground rules. The ground rules should cover the agreed-upon language, the technologies you will use, how members will limit background noise and how to ensure full participation. Also take time to understand each member’s work style, especially if people from different countries are on the team. Some people are more direct and others indirect. Some are more egalitarian while others are more used to working in a strict hierarchy. This will help you avoid misunderstandings and conflicts down the road.
  • Timing: Determine the rhythm of the team meetings. The team rhythm will depend on the length and intensity of your project. In general, it is best to hold the meetings the same day and time of the week. However, if there are major time zone differences (e.g. U.S. and China) you might want to take turns so one group isn’t always calling in on their evening time. In addition to the team meeting, consider holding calls with individual team members to see how they are doing, answer questions and just connect personally. You also could hold virtual “office hours” in which you can be reached by instant messenger, phone or text. Finally, consider sending out the meeting information in advance. Some people like to read it ahead of time to prepare or, if they speak a different language, they might need more time to understand it.
  • Technology: Decide which technologies to utilize to conduct the meetings. If you all belong to the same company which technologies you use could already be determined. If not, prioritize robust technologies over those with many features to minimize frustration for the team. It’s also critical that everyone knows how to use the technology, which could take some of your time. It goes without saying you personally need to be proficient in the technologies the team will be using to properly facilitate your team and maintain credibility. You might want to use a mix of technologies to manage the project, such as videoconferencing for the initial meeting and problem solving, teleconferences for status meetings, workflow software for prep, follow-up and work between meetings and instant messaging for quick communications.

On-going management

To manage the virtual team meetings, you need to frame, facilitate and follow up.

  • Frame: Ensure everyone on the team knows what is to be accomplished in each session. Start with having a goal and agenda for each meeting. Sounds simple but it’s crucial to having a productive meeting. Send out any information possible ahead of time, and if you need to hold pre-meetings to prep people or gain agreement, get those completed as well.
  • Facilitate: Run the meeting in a productive manner. Virtual team meetings are even more difficult to manage than regular meetings and you need to take extra care to facilitate them. Some things to do include taking some time up front to build relationships, modify your speaking to ensure understanding, manage turn-taking among team members, mediate cultural gaps and probe for clarity when people seem confused.
  • Follow-up: Ensure members know what was decided and what they need to do before the next session. This is all about ensuring everyone is on the same page and completes their assigned tasks in the interim between meetings. So close with a summary, ask if anyone has questions, and send out the notes from the session. Include what was decided, who is to take what actions by what date and what will happen at the next meeting.

Virtual leadership will only become more important in the years ahead. If you take these steps, you will be well prepared to reap the benefits.

By Mark McNeilly, professor of the practice of marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler