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Coaching Virtual Leadership Teams

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Leading from a distance is increasingly a challenge for the most senior in organizations. The biggest challenge is how to create a high-performing, virtual, leadership team. This can be an even bigger challenge if you have what I call a VIM team – Virtual, International and Multicultural – so 3 very large challenges. I coach a number of multinational senior leadership teams and the advice I often give to Chief Executives is that if you have a dispersed virtual team, in many countries, with various functions and from different cultures, then actually it’s really important to invest upfront in building the relationships of that team first. So get that team together, get them to meet face-to-face before they work virtually.

The second piece of advice I give when it comes to creating a high performing team, is that you need to have a compelling, collective endeavour; something that every member of the team is bought into, that they helped to create, that they know is important and they know they can’t achieve working in parallel; they know they can only achieve it if they are all working together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

The third piece of advice is to have structured meetings. If you are trying to create meetings that are virtual, you have to be far more structured and far more focused; you can’t hold people’s attention for as long if they are on Skype or on a video conference call, and I offer a structure (see Leadership Team Coaching) called the CLEAR structure in order to do this effectively:

  • Check in and have a clear contract – set the agenda and what we want to achieve in this meeting

  • Listen – how do we get an update from everybody, their context and their time zone

  • Explore – 2 or 3 areas that we are going to collectively work on to come to a joint answer, so we are thinking together generatively 

  • Action – very easy to come up with a decision virtually without real commitment or buy in – so how are we going to make sure that we have checked that people haven’t just agreed, but really committed to something 

  • Review – how do we constantly review to check back with people – this is the ‘check out’ part of the process – what has been helpful in this meeting, what’s one thing you’re going to take away and do differently, how can we make the next meeting more beneficial etc.

The fourth piece of advice is to have these successful meetings is to make sure you invest in really good technology.  To have a multicultural, virtual meeting is hard enough without the technology breaking down. I’ve worked with some teams where we’ve been holding a meeting with people in 6 different locations, and it felt like the people were all in the same room because the technology allowed for it to feel that way.

Finally, the fifth piece of advice – learn how to virtually celebrate. It is very important to celebrate the successes with the team as a whole. Often what happens in the corridors or the bar after work, or a party to celebrate our successes, needs to be communicated virtually with the rest of the team. How do we create intimacy at a distance? How do we have that sense of being closely in contact across miles?

(Note: This article is edited and based on the video by Peter Hawkins for Henley Business School, entitled 'Leading at a distance.')