KARIN ZASTROW

blogging about DIRECT LEADERSHIP

Everyday leadership – virtually!

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Yesterday I was asked what I consider the key elements of virtual or distance leadership.
The three words that come to my mind, now that I take a moment to think about it, are: clarity, consistency and trust. Actually the very same I would use about non-virtual leadership. Why? Because the core challenges involved in leading a team whose members are geographically scattered is no different from leading people in your proximity. The difference is that the communication channel you have at your disposal with people, who are not in your proximity is quite narrow. Consequently the crucial clarity, consistency and trust must be created in an environment where nothing comes for free.

When leading in proximity, your staff will see you and hear you in all kinds of interactions: both your formal interactions with staff and the informal ones; how you interact with other leaders; with clients and superiors; how you sound when answering the phone and it’s your 6-year old who tells you that about what happened at school today, etc. All of this comes for free, simply by virtue of working in proximity with you and having the ability to interact with you outside the formal settings. And it all contributes to your staff’s image of you as someone who speaks clearly, cares about and trusts in people, walks your talk – or doesn’t. All of these impressions eventually translate into a certain amount of mutual trust and alignment between you and the people geographically close to you.

When you work with virtual staff, this important ‘intangible’ of leadership is unlikely to build up unless you make a conscious and consistent effort to be clear, consistent and develop a positive and trusting relationship with the virtual staff.

It goes without saying that visions, values and goals need to be clear. From the companywide overriding visions and values and all the way down to this periods targets for each individual.

Likewise, you must use whatever technology you can get your hands on, which will expand the bandwidth of your communication. Forget about telephone conferences – get webcams installed so that you can have videoconferences. Make it a staff member’s explicit responsibility to stay on track of the technological improvements that happen every week – and make sure he or she keeps you posted, when there is a chance to upgrade the technology you use to stay in touch with each other. This is not only a matter of having the newest technology, it is also a clear signal to your virtual staff that you consider your relationship with them so important, that you want the best possible communication channels.

However besides these two, you create clarity, consistency and trust in three ways:

First, you should name your own leadership deliverables:

a) that your job as a leader is to deploy strategy, develop the organization, ensure the knowledge flow and the team’s wellbeing, nurture their individual career and competency development, facilitate decisions and ensure short term productivity.
b) that you will be a radar for positive and negative vibes in each of these areas in order to catch those situations when you must intervene as a leader
c) that you may choose to intervene as either the initiator, the coach or the referee

Secondly, you should use the leadership deliverables as your framework for discussions with individuals and the team as a whole. This will show the consistency, which is crucial when the bandwidth is narrow, and moreover it will give you the additional benefit that your staff will be inclined to monitor themselves in the same areas. In this way, they will experience your ‘presence’ even if you are geographically distant.

Thirdly, you should take the lead in creating an open dialogue. Be straight about your own thoughts and feelings in relation to work (what you like/dislike). Be curious and explorative, rather than judgmental and defensive. Ask for the same from your staff and intervene if you experience unconstructive behaviours.

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Written by Karin Zastrow

June 28, 2011 at 10:36

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