Leading Made Simple

5.5 Steps to Succeed as a “Virtual Leader”

Many leaders had to become acquainted with a remote work environment, fast! When the consequences of the pandemic hit, working from home transitioned from a privilege to a requirement. Two years into the COVID crisis we experience stabilization towards either fully distributed or a hybrid work structure. The traditional in-person office environment has been replaced in most organizations. This transition has impacted leaders on every level of the hierarchy in many ways.

Ken Blanchard’s words come to mind:

“The true test of a leader is what happens when you are not there. …and for virtual leaders, that’s all the time!”

This moves the concept of servant leadership into the spotlight. The most effective and sustainably successful leaders embrace a servant-leadership philosophy. It is transformational in multiple ways, and transformation is desperately needed now. The transactional, activity-based leadership models are outdated and utterly ineffective in a distributed work environment. Leaders must adopt a different approach and potentially make servant leadership a top priority!

The Virtual Leader

There are 5 prominent features virtual leaders must acquire to become effective in this changed environment:

1) Enhanced Accessibility

Do your team members know the best way to reach you? With the multitude of connection options like email, phone, IM, text, video chat, Slack, mobile, etc. Which is the preferred method?

Agree with your team on two options and stick to them: one for urgent matters and one for non-urgent issues.

2) Demonstrate respect for differences in cultures, time zones, ethnicities, and viewpoints

Leadership is not about the leader; it is about those that are led! Consequently, you may do well to hold a meeting at a time convenient for most of your team members rather than your personal preference. Such an approach will demonstrate visible respect for everyone’s contribution. Get to know as much as you can about the people on your team and make a deliberate effort to understand the differences. Embrace the fact that truly diverse teams may be more challenging from a leadership perspective, they are typically more creative, innovative, and productive, too.

3) Become authentically curious and show personal interest

You may already know that recognizing your people, their motivations, their professional aspirations, and personal goals is critical to building trust. It also inspires loyalty, engagement, enthusiasm, and focus. Trust is built on authentic demonstrations of care.

It is impossible to show people on your team that you care without the casual connection that happens naturally when people work together in a physical space. In 1:1 as well as group meetings, effective virtual leaders encourage transparency and personal relationships. They also freely share their own vulnerabilities from time to time, very often a tough ask from a leader!

4) Respect thinking time

By default, virtual leaders aren’t in proximity with their direct reports and the temptation to require frequent progress reports to ensure work is being done is great. Constant activity reporting combined with our always-on, instant-access culture can produce unnecessary stress and unproductive outcomes. Exhausted from operating reactively and documenting every detail, knowledge workers often are left with no time to reflect, innovate, and collaborate thoughtfully to solve problems. Set clear expectations that constructive quiet time is allowed and respected for both individuals and groups.

The clarity in desired outcomes (i.e. SMART goals), as well as visualized ways to measure progress accessible to everyone (i.e. scoreboard), is critical for success in a distributed work environment.

5) Always ask for feedback and act on it accordingly

Providing constructive, unsolicited feedback to a leader is often perceived as risky. In a virtual setup, it becomes more difficult to observe visual clues from body language or eye contact that might indicate discomfort, confusion, or ineffective communication. Leaders of remote teams must become particularly attentive as to how their messages are being received by team members. A powerful tool to manage communication effectiveness is leading with questions, especially critical in a virtual environment. Effective leaders put their egos aside and solicit authentic feedback from team members. Receiving feedback as input without defending the original position can be incredibly challenging but needs to be done.

However, when the gift of feedback is given, accept it graciously and use it to strengthen and benefit the relationship with your team members. They will appreciate the leader’s efforts, and when you then act on the feedback trust will be built!

5.5) Don’t allow an “us and them” culture to evolve!

In a hybrid work environment, it is quite easy to slip into the “us and them” trap. This happens when there are two tribe formations, those that are in the office and those that work remotely. It is crucial that the leaders in hybrid organizations do not foster any favoritisms for one or the other group. This is an area where the digital leader must be deliberate in words and even more in actions. Always remember that people listen to what you do!

These 5.5 suggestions are a good starting point in developing your leadership effectiveness as a virtual leader. Integrating them into your leadership approach will help engage your team and generate better results. It also will help to avoid falling into the “micro-management trap” and makes life more enjoyable for the leader and the team!

Lead well, stay safe, and help your team to succeed! If you would like to explore additional ideas about effective leadership or business strategy let’s talk!

Manfred Gollent

Manfred Gollent is a certified business coach and the founder of QLI International LLC. He works with a variety of clients from Fortune 500 executives to small business entrepreneurs on leadership and strategy development since 2006. Prior to founding QLI International, Manfred has been a turn-around executive in a Fortune 500 company with global operations. During his 30+ years in the corporate world, he led the rebuilding of underperforming subsidiaries in the United States, Europe, and Asia by developing their leadership team and organization, restructuring their market portfolio, operations and efficiency to improve results toward meeting investor’s expectations. Aside from his international corporate career, Manfred has served on company boards in the UK, Belgium, Norway, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States.