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What Do Virtual Team Leaders Need To Be Successful?

What Do Virtual Team Leaders Need To Be Successful?

This week I’m continuing the conversation about leading virtual teams with John Hall and Raghu Viswanathan, senior vice president and vice president, respectively, at a global technology company. John’s closing comment from last week is our starting point:

“If you don’t have the right leader, it’s really hard to execute, regardless of all the phone calls you make.”

Karen: Let’s talk more about that leader. What are the skills and characteristics you’re looking for in leaders of virtual teams?

Raghu: First of all, they’ve got to be senior people who understand how to bridge work differences between countries. They need to be able to translate things back and forth – so if we come up with a strategic initiative in the US and it needs to be executed in China, someone has to translate that down there. At the same time if there are problems in China we need to have those lifted up to us. Of course, you’ve got to have all the managerial and execution skills that you’d expect from a leader. But for me the key is that ability to stay connected and be a bridge.

John: It’s a tough job, because you need to be able to straddle the fence. When somebody says, I know what’s best for my market, and on the other side of the fence you’ve got us saying, but this is how we’re going to do it globally, that manager is in the middle. You’ve got to have the skill set to negotiate and communicate in both directions. And those people are hard to find, because every company wants them.

Karen: What advice would you give someone who was stepping into the position of leading a virtual team for the first time?


  1. Know who your key leaders are. Identify those linchpins, and really build relationships with them. Make sure there’s chemistry between them, make sure they’re compatible, and make sure they can stay aligned. That magic is really critical. I don’t think it’s important to worry about the rest of the team, initially, but those leaders are really important.
  2. Assess whether people are actually compatible with working in a virtual environment. Not everybody is suitable for working in a global, matrixed environment. They’re just not comfortable. Early on, when I inherited this organization, I had 2 or 3 people like that, and we had to weed them out of the organization, even though they had been here for years, because they just weren’t adjusting to the virtual reality we were in.

John: I’d say three things.

  1. The first 90 days of the job, I’d be outbound and traveling. Visit all your remote locations, establishing a relationship on the ground face-to-face, showing that you care and that you’re connected.
  2. Have clear and concise goals, and repeat those goals often, in simple terms. One of the challenges that Raghu and I have is that with people with different languages, and with different abilities in English, sometimes just a little difference in wording makes a huge difference in what we’re trying to go do. So having simple, clear, repeatable, concise goals, with data centered metrics, makes all the difference in the world.
  3. This is what Raghu and I call, “see the bear, shoot the bear.” In the US, we’re paid for executing quickly and accurately. So if we’re out bear hunting and see a bear, we’d shoot it and skin it, and shoot the next bear and skin it, and keep shooting bears all day long, and get a lot of high fives for doing that. But not every country or culture works like that. So if you go to France, it’s not “see the bear, shoot the bear,” it’s “see the bear, take the bear to lunch.” And “how’s the bear feeling,” and “what’s the bear want to talk about.” So, you have to respect the fact that people go bear hunting in different ways.

Your turn: What about you? What would you say are the critical skills and capacities needed by leaders of virtual teams? What advice would you give those leaders? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And tune in next week to hear how John and Raghu use centering practices to be more effective in leading virtual teams!

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