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Meeting the Challenges of Leading Virtual Teams

Meeting the Challenges of Leading Virtual Teams

A few weeks ago I was talking to a managing director at a local Seattle company. He described how, for the first time in his career, he was leading a team that was entirely remote. He said, “I think things are going well.” But, to his credit, he wanted to investigate, to find out what was working for his team members, and what may not be working so well.

The conversation left me curious. Virtually all of the team coaching work I’ve done has been with groups who share physical space. I began to wonder, how DO virtual teams work? What makes them successful? What are the pitfalls?

So, I turned to some experts for answers. My friend John Hall is a senior vice president at a global technology company. (Not to mention he does great portrait photography work. You can check out his photos at www.JohnHallPortraits.com.) Raghu Viswanathan is a vice president at the same company, and reports to John. Last week, I spoke with them about the challenges of leading virtual teams.

Karen: What are the specific challenges you’ve found in leading virtual teams, and how have you addressed those challenges?

Raghu: In my case, I’ve got teams in India, in Europe, as well as in certain parts of Asia. When people are that distributed, it’s really important to keep the team aligned with your business goals. We’ve worked really hard to stay in constant communication with our teams. I have a standing call Monday mornings, and it’s not a structured call. It’s just us catching up on everything that’s going on around the world, and making sure we’re all current.

The second thing is that having local management in-country is really important – having somebody there on the ground to make sure that people show up, to make sure there’s someone they can talk to if there’s an issue. One of the creative things that we did in my organization is that the local employees in India report to an India manager. They take direction from 4 to 5 strategic leaders on my team who are based in the U.S., but they actually all report up to one in-country manager, who then reports to me. It was a strategic decision we made to make sure that people had local, solid line management, and it has worked out great.

John: We also try to have a lot of clarity about our business objectives, and what our strategic initiatives are. If you get too many things going, it’s hard for all that information to travel around the world uniformly. You have to stick with certain key messages, and focus on metrics to measure success. For example, in 2008 we implemented an e-learning project, and we said, “By September 1st, we’re going to have 100 courses available, and each taught 100 times.” By making that declarative statement, and letting that ripple all the way down through the organization, there was no doubt for anybody on the ground what they had to do to achieve that goal.

Karen: I hear you talking about role clarity, and alignment with business goals, and communication – those are issues that every team deals with and if they’re not working any team would stumble, but you’re saying that they’re even more of an issue with virtual teams.

John: Yes, that’s right. One of the things we’ve done to bridge that gap is make a huge investment in time and money to physically go visit these places around the world. We take the time to build relationships face-to-face.

Secondly, we reinforce that by using a lot of video conferencing, once we’ve established the relationship. The new high end video conferencing is impeccable, it’s just like you’re in the room.

Raghu: It just comes down to really staying in constant communication. I know my personal work life has changed quite a bit. I have a day shift here, and then I have a night shift. It’s not uncommon for me to be on the phone at 11:00 at night, 2-3 days a week, at least. It’s a matter of recognizing that we work in this global environment, and you need to be there for people as a leader.

John: We also try to be sensitive to not only the cultural differences as we work with these teams, but also to pragmatic things like distance and time zones. Though it’s tough, we try not to have too many 2:00 am or 3:00 am calls, where people have to get up and call in. It’s little things like that that people really appreciate.

At a fundamental level, people are people, but we have to be sensitive so that we don’t just impose a standard global model. Achieving that delicate balance between global and local is one of the keys of working well with remote teams. I think that’s the balance that all large corporations struggle with, to find the exact fit.

A good example would be China. A great market, a big upside, great opportunities, but clearly a different business model than the U.S. You don’t want to ignore how they work, and at the same time it’s rife with challenges. For us to have the right remote team there, the key is for us to hire the right person to represent us as a leader and manager. And that person is incredibly hard to find. They need to be very bi-lingual, they need to know the business practices on both sides, and they need to have some domain expertise, whether it’s sales, or delivery, or whatever it is. When you have the right leader there, with the ability to work virtually and be connected with a global team, and at the same time drive business in the local economy, it works great. If you don’t have that person, it’s really hard to execute, regardless of all the phone calls you make.

Stay tuned for more installments

Over the month of June, I’ll be posting a few more installments from my conversation with John and Raghu. We’ll be talking about:

  • the skills and characteristics they look for in virtual team leaders
  • their advice for leaders new to virtual teams
  • how centering practices help them lead their virtual teams more effectively
  • some of the tools and resources available to support working virtually

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Your turn: What’s been your experience leading virtual teams? What challenges have you faced, and how do you meet them? What are your questions about leading virtual teams?

Photo courtesy of BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives, Flickr Creative Commons

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