Guest post by business strategy and management education expert Trish Gorman (learn more about Trish at the end of this post)
Most of us realize that high-performing teams are not really “managed.” Instead, they are inspired, connected, directed, motivated and rewarded. But in today’s global workforce, the task of managing virtual teams complicates the management process and throws additional challenges into the mix. Some professionals compare the frustrations of leading a virtual team to “herding cats.” We seek out diversity and strong points of view on our teams, but combine these characteristics with remote locations, tight timelines and resource constraints, and a day at the office can turn into a political and technological obstacle course.
According to a 2010 Virtual Teams Survey Report, respondents identified lack of clear leadership as a major obstacle for virtual teams and cited the need for an improved management process. Despite the difficulties of virtual management, managers must excel in the roles of director, coach and facilitator to move forward in our careers and achieve desired results for our firms. Keeping three things in mind will help you move from serving as a glorified meeting manager to becoming a true team leader.
Steer toward a clear, desirable goal.
Before you dive into what you are doing or how you are doing it, make sure your team understands the why. Your team’s work should never be reduced to a set of tasks to cross off a to-do list. Elevate it to a meaningful mission by highlighting how your team’s work will help your organization stand out. Show everyone how their activities will directly or indirectly help attract new customers or contribute to product development. With busy schedules, it may be tempting to break down the tasks to get the work done, but helping the team envision something larger than the sum of its parts can increase motivation and strengthen performance. Communicate and reinforce the essential reasons why you are all working together in phone calls, emails and through the feedback you give to each team member. This overarching mission keeps the group focused when tasks are difficult and schedules are packed with competing priorities.
Shift your focus from yourself to the team.
All great leaders put their team’s interests ahead of their own. As Jack Welch counsels new leaders, “It’s about them, not about you.” Think about why each person is involved and what’s in it for him or her if the team succeeds. Set up touch points that have value for each team member – financially, professionally or intrinsically. For example, before sending your next email, think about what additional value – such as information sharing, recognition or coaching – you can add beyond addressing the specific task at hand. Can you share an update on a related project? Maybe you can provide a strategic view of how this work fits into the bigger picture. Is there something the team has recently done that deserves praise? Moving from a task focus where you manage others to a mission-led focus where you serve your team opens up the potential for deeper engagement, better alignment and higher performance.
Build connections that create value.
Many teams derail because the leader is just a hub in a “hub and spoke” structure. In these instances, multiple people are working on the same project, but are not truly working together. To get the real benefits of teamwork, you need to make sure the group connects on many levels and that you are not a bottleneck in the process. Teamwork – especially virtual teamwork – is all about inclusion. Consciously or unconsciously team members are thinking, “How do I fit in here?” Alleviate their concerns and make each person feel valued and connected by building and encouraging productive relationships. Especially on a virtual team, people may launch into task mode without cementing bonds with others, a common and critical mistake. The Virtual Teams Survey Report lists inadequate time to build relationships as one of the top five challenges for virtual teams. Investing in the upfront connections matters and can help your team reap significant benefits. Find ways to link team members who have common interests and styles. You’ll stimulate more conversations, creativity, collaborative problem solving and better overall outcomes.
Your role as team leader involves making sure people participate, as well as regularly checking around the “virtual table” to ensure each member’s issues and concerns are addressed. Your own style will shape how you interact. Be mindful of how your team reacts to your messaging, your guidance and even the tone or pitch of your voice. Listen actively and encourage feedback from others. You are the role model for the behaviors you want each team member to practice. Use the mission as a guide, think about what’s in it for your teammates and create value-added connections. Make the extra effort to establish clear goals, clear benefits and clear value and you’ll go from the frustration of herding cats to the joys of leading a vibrant and productive team.
Trish Gorman is the academic dean of the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University, which provides online MBAs and certificate programs to business executives. She is an expert on business strategy and management education and is co-author of “What I Didn’t Learn in Business School” (Harvard Business Press, 2010) with Jay Barney.