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Virtual leadership – feasible or fantasy?

Virtual leadership – feasible or fantasy?

In a week’s time I will be meeting a new group of leaders, ready to start another Next Gen leadership programme. Next Gen is available to members of TUANZ (the association for the users of digital technology and connectivity) and my role is to facilitate the learning and insights. Lucky me! It’s such an enjoyable contract role, one of my faves. I’ve been fortunate to work with TUANZ and the Next Gen programme since 2017. We’ve taken over 70 leaders through the programme – and we’ve always run it as an online offering. Yes, all the sessions are held via video.

The leaders I’ve worked with are usually soaked in tech and tech tools through their professional roles. Pitching Next Gen as a virtual leadership programme four years ago? No problem!

Me, on the other hand. Well, I am not a software engineer, nor accustomed to working on dual monitors all day. I admit that my first few Next Gen groups were not my finest facilitation work. I felt clunky online for a while, not as relaxed as I could be and concerned that the nuances of body language and ‘reading the room’ for vibes were entirely unavailable to me through the thumbnails of Zoom.

With this in mind, I really feel for non-tech leaders everywhere who have braved the virtual world, taken a leap of faith and given online team meetings a go in some shape or form. An awful lot of leaders have found this component of lockdown leadership incredibly daunting.

So, with four years of virtual leadership learning under my belt, I thought I’d use this article to share some gems I’ve picked up from the diverse tech leaders I’ve met, and close with my own thoughts on leading virtual teams into the future.

One story that struck me relates to the transition into alert level 1 in June 2020. Teams had been operating remotely for quite a while by this stage and the return to the office (or not) was a big topic at the time. I was catching up with a Next Gen graduate this year and she shared some really candid discoveries about how her organisation’s choice to continue offering flexible, remote work began to crumble at the edges. She said that by about October 2020 people’s wellbeing became very hard to gauge and team leaders felt lost and rudderless in getting a handle on how their people were really doing. The cumulative effects of too many video meetings and not sitting down over a coffee for an opportune chitchat were beginning to show. Her leadership team made the call to request staff to work from the office, with a 50/50 split option for those who wanted to retain some remote working hours as well. All team meetings had to happen in-person. It was a huge success, a change well worth making.

The takeaway? Sometimes a leader has to suggest the structure and define the non-negotiables for their team.

In this most recent lockdown, I’ve enjoyed hearing leaders drop the pretence and state their very realistic expectations for work-from-home productivity. One senior leader asked her full-time salaried staff for four hours’ work a day, if possible. She was clear that parents on the team had a huge juggle on their hands and did not expect them to ‘catch up’ when babies and toddlers were napping, nor offer their kids screens and endless snacks to keep them quiet if that rubbed against their values. She saw real people, coping with real pressures and living the lockdown in a variety of settings with different levels of support around them.

The takeaway? We’ve never been consistently productive at the office for eight daytime hours. The world keeps turning when you allow your team to get the work done in their own way.

So what do I make of the virtual leadership opportunity? Actually, my own thoughts on virtual leadership are very hopeful. I’ve always been amazed to meet leaders through Next Gen who are in international roles, working closely with colleagues in other time zones and only ever connecting online. It works. It can be very effective, indeed it is necessary for many global organisations. In these times of limited travel, companies are using virtual methods to onboard new staff, make key introductions and establish partnerships and business relationships. Two-dimensional video is not the barrier we may perceive it to be, even if we would much prefer a handshake.

Those of us in NZ-based roles can also find our fit with virtual leadership, but it does invite reflection on the core skills of a leader. Can you take your in-person leadership style and transfer it to a virtual setting? How do you create rapport if there’s no water cooler to lean on while you check out the Olympic highlights together? No, this is a whole new world, one where leaders are going to have to take stock of how well they know their people and their customers – and how well they understand the team’s objectives and workflow as well – before choosing an approach that suits the situation.

Leading a virtual team, be it temporarily during a lockdown, or for a one-off project, is a great opportunity to revisit leadership priorities and delete any approaches that no longer serve. Virtual leadership strips away some hacks that are probably due for retirement anyway. It’s pretty hard to operate strategic ‘desk stop-bys’ when your team are not sitting in the open plan office. Leaders will have to enhance their trust in people and learn how to set their team on a course, then step away. Goodbye micro-managers.

So which kinds of leaders emerge and how do they do it? Without an in-person leadership toolkit, leaders of the future are going to have to re-stock their resource cupboard with empathy, curiosity, presence, listening and strong coaching skills. We need leaders to grab the chance to reframe their roles completely and hone the softer skills that will radiate out into their teams and organisations, whether they are on the couch, in the garden or sitting around a boardroom table.

Successful virtual teams will be marked by people who prioritise empathy, are willing to connect with others at a whole-human level and are curious enough to ask new questions and listen to the ideas that emerge.

I know tech leaders who are out there doing it. I know non-tech leaders who have jumped in the deep end in the last month and are discovering they can swim. This virtual leadership space is an invitation to see people as people, because there will always be more work.

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Acknowledgement, I was inspired by a recent Forbes interview with the godfather of coaching, Steve Chandler. Read it here.

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