Virtual leadership

I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with a woman who works for one of the Big Four auditing companies. She’s essentially what I would call a virtual employee: her supervisors are in cities across the globe, her peers are across the globe, the employees she supervises are across the globe. In other words, they’re basically doing everything over the phone or online using various collaboration tools. I felt like I was immersed in Wikinomics.

She then proceeded to ask me some really hard questions about ‘virtual management’ and ‘virtual leadership development’:

  • How do you effectively lead a workgroup of people you’ve never met face-to-face (and may never meet)?
  • How do you effectively supervise the work of these people?
  • How do you facilitate those often ad hoc, ongoing opportunities for leadership development (for yourself and/or those you supervise) in such a work environment?

Having never been in this situation, of course I had no good answers for her. I did recommend that she contact some of the big technology companies or other global companies that are her firm’s clients and ask their Human Resources people her questions. I’m guessing that they have done some work in this area as they develop their geographically-disparate workforces.

Any thoughts on this issue? Anyone know of work that’s been done in the business arena on this?

10 Responses to “Virtual leadership”

  1. I run an e-publishing studio consisting of 5 partners plus various freelancers. Nobody lives in the same city, although four of us live in the same state. While I’m sure work has been done on the issue of virtual leadership, it isn’t something that has trickled down to little guys like us.

    However, from personal experience I can say that one critical component is picking up that phone. In a day and age when e-mail is the preferred method of communication for virtual teams (both because of its cost and asynchronous nature), having regular teleconferences helps everyone feel connected and part of a team. We find it motivating because it reminds us that other team members count on our contribution.

  2. Hi Scott,
    I think Preston is right, there are a lot of people just figuring this out on the fly. Plus, I think leadership is just one part of the puzzle.

    My brother builds computer-controlled stage attractions for amusement parks (explosions, lighting, elevators, flames, etc.). He just finished building a realistic training simulator for the Navy. There were 14 companies working together to plan and build this simulator. He told me that there was no advanced planning on how they would communicate, it just happened organically as the technical people figured out what they needed.

    Here’s an article about it.

    The article mentions that they used Google Sketchup to share 3-d models, but there were a lot of diferent online tools that made this possible.

  3. You ask a great question. For many years, I was the CEO of technology companies. Starting in the 80s we had distributed development teams who that all had parts of the development process. From this experience, I have developed some simple approaches to virtual management.

    For teams, if an initial face-to-face meeting is not possible, you start with a video or audio conference call where the team’s purpose and operating standards are agreed upon.

    For teams or individuals, virtual leadership approaches can be simple if some rigor is used. The biggest challenge for leadership (whether virtual or local) is lack of clear expectations. We use an approach that clarifies expectations and commitments and uses this approach to managing the completion of work. We have found the results are as good as when people are located in the same facility.

    Other leadership attributes such as leading by example, inspiration, helping overcome obstacles are carried out in the same way if people are local or remote. The method of communication is different. The increase in the reliance of email as a principle medium of communication, brings with it some special leadership issues. The virtual leader must take some time in their email correspondence to bring their sense of the other person’s personality into their communications.

    Hope this is useful.

    Thomas White

  4. I’m taking a class in current business theory and need to know what “globally literate means. Can you help me?

  5. I work for a leadership training firm and have been studying this phenomenon for years. Although it’s tough to sum up the learnings – here are 3 thoughts:
    – many individuals who have poor or mediocre leadership skills get away with it in a face to face environment because they may have a pleasing personality. In a virtual environment poor leadership (bad meetings, poor feedback skills, lack of organization,, etc) is a disaster
    – don’t assume anything when working virtually, silence doesn’t mean people agree/disagree, care/don’t care – constantly check in and get involvement and conversation
    – being successful in a virtual environment is all about practices and disciplines – trust is not based on who you are – but based on expectations about how quickly you follow up on emails.
    It’s a shame that people are having to figure this out by trial and area.
    Look up Virtual Teams Handbook – at Ken Blanchard companies

  6. We’ve been working on this one for quite some time, and I think we’ve “cracked the code.” The answer, in any form of communication is “feedback.” Communication lives or dies on feedback. We need to know how we’re being received and how others are receiving us. The problem in the virtual space is the loss of feedback.

    You can check out our site at to see how we’ve addressed the issue of feedback in the virtual domain.


  7. In 2009 it’s time for companies to embrace and equip their managers with virtual meeting guidelines, training/team decision making in Second Life, video cam sessions, Skype, Twitter and other tools that allow people to communication quickly and cost effectively. A key to virtual team success is getting the team members to trust each other—and to do this when they are disbursed means forcing them to collaborate in new ways, frequently. More at

  8. I don’t think anything is more important (and annoying/aggravating) than good ‘ol fashioned ice breakers. It’s a very basic and highly transposable concept that is effective in every field and setting. In order to effectively communicate and work together you have to know the people you’re attempting to effectively communicate and work with. I would suggest basic questionaires for all parties involved assessing work styles and habits, best hours for productivity, best form of effective communication, and perhaps a basic SWOT(strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. This would help to create awareness of what each member can contribute and will help to avoid time wasting due to miscommunication. Just a thought.

  9. AS a member of the education community it is interesting to read how e-leadership is developing – it gives us a better understanding of our students and how to guide them in the right direction (with their strong interest in technology). Knowing the tech doesn’t mean they are good with it (or good leaders to start with). Helping them build good communication skills as a base to point them in a more “global” direction is key…but how do we do this? I think it starts with the business community stepping in to help schools/teachers build the strong base with students. This could be a very exciting turning point in education – I hope.

  10. As a high school English teacher who is involved in an online graduate program, I am not only working on honing my own online communication skills, but also now realizing that many students leave high school ill-prepared for online learning. I have found this discussion fascinating because we educators need to hear from business leaders as to what skills students need to have to survive and succeed in the workplace– today and tomorrow.

    One more idea: this might seem minor, but one thing that has helped me adapt to an online learning environment is by looking at the picture of the person (or people) in my class with whom I am communicating (if they have one uploaded). It helps me to see them to be able to connect with them.

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