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3 Key Skills All Virtual Leaders Must Master
By Richard Lepsinger

Leading a team in the 21st century increasingly means directing people who are located in different offices, different time zones and even different countries.

We tend to assume a good leader will be an equally effective virtual leader, but that’s not always the case.

Our own research on virtual teams has found that more than one in every four teams is not fully functional. Leadership plays an important role in determining the success of a virtual team.

Virtual leaders experience unique challenges, including more opportunities for miscommunication, language and time zone barriers and more challenges managing accountability.

To be equally effective as a virtual leader as you are in person, it’s critical to master these three skills.

Running High Quality Virtual Meetings

As a virtual leader, your ability to run an effective meeting will be a determining factor in how well your team collaborates and ultimately accomplishes its goals.

Virtual leaders must adequately prepare for meetings, keep the conversation on track and clearly define next steps. Here are six tips for leading better virtual meetings:

  • Build an effective agenda
  • Choose technology that fosters collaboration
  • Address time zone barriers
  • Minimize distractions and off-topic discussions
  • Reinforce shared responsibility
  • Balance tasks and trust

Even if you’re confident in your ability to host effective virtual meetings, there are always opportunities for improvement. Ask your team for feedback on what you can do to make meetings more productive, and involve them in the process. You might consider designating one team member to take notes and follow up and appointing another to make sure the discussion stays on topic. Using cameras to increase the visibility of your team members during a meeting can also minimize the temptation to multi-task.

Building Trust in Virtual Teams

When your team members trust each other, they’re more engaged, more productive and more willing to be proactive. Yet in a survey of 600 virtual team members, 81 percent reported establishing rapport and trust is their greatest challenge. Nearly half of respondents have never met other members of their team in person, and 30 percent see each other only once a year.

There are four factors that make someone trustworthy: Credibility, reliability, intimacy and self orientation, or thinking about others more than thinking about yourself. Here are a few tips that can help you and your team members improve in all four factors:

  1. Admit when you don’t know something
  2. Make your work visible
  3. Call just to chat from time to time; find common interests outside of work
  4. Arrange for people from different locations to work together on projects

Building trust takes time and energy, but the outcome-building a stronger, more engaged team- is well worth the effort.

Managing Accountability

Members of a virtual team are often expected to work autonomously, so it’s easier to feel disconnected or distracted. As a virtual leader, you play a crucial role in holding them accountable for completing their work. Accountability involves three main elements: Action, a timetable and checkpoints.

Here are some tips for improving accountability in your virtual team:

  • Use action plans and project management sites to clarify expectations and designate who is responsible
  • Set specific deadlines on a shared site, and use automatic reminders
  • Agree to check in at key milestones

Effective virtual leaders use technology to bridge the gaps that naturally exist among virtual teams. They unite their team around shared goals, set realistic milestones to achieve those goals and hold team members accountable.

Richard Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

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