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Virtual Leadership – leading from the second row

Leading a widely spread, multi-layered and heterogenous team in purely virtual times can be challenging in many respects.

My client dared to convert a 2-day face-to-face team building off-site into a virtual one. And succeeded.

Why that is interesting and relevant

The situation

A newly formed team of 20 aimed to define a common vision and mission, increase team spirit and cohesion plus agree on priorities and next steps. In 12 virtual hours.

The challenge

Heterogenous starting points and levels of information. Company tenure spanning from one day to decades. Backgrounds ranging from pharmacists to data scientist to chemist. Diverse management levels. Location spread about Germany. Part of the team never before met in person.

How to virtually create trust, engagement and ownership?

How to set sail towards a common goal and with joint forces?

The solution

Audacity to experiment and play with virtual tools, trust in the team’s swarm intelligence and letting the team lead while displaying a servant leadership style.

Additional stressors – technical issues and lack of innate human information can dampen the virtual experience

In virtual settings, technical issues can be a prime spoiler to smooth meetings. Because corporate firewalls interfere with cloud-based tools. Because of insufficient bandwidth at home. Because using the latest virtual technology is not so intuitive altogether. Additionally, not everyone is at ease to flirt with a camera for long hours.

When meeting virtually, we lack information from body language and facial expression. Reading between the lines becomes harder. It may even be impossible to differentiate distinctly who said what. Plus -as in physical contexts- not everyone feels comfortable to contribute in the presence of higher management levels including the big boss.

Hence, it is easy to feel insecure, vulnerable and helpless sitting at home behind a laptop screen. It is easy to virtually hide, mute the microphone and doze off.

Overcoming virtual limitations

When embarking on a joint journey, as a leader you want to ensure the entire team is onboard. You want all voices heard, all opinions expressed, all views considered. As in the physical sphere, you strive to make the team more than the sum of its’ parts.

Successful virtual team building happens when the leader leans back to listen, to guide softly and to make room for the team to explore, brainstorm, argue, shape, decide and own. Providing guidance while stepping back is a fine balance. Guardrails and guidance are essential for keeping everyone focused and to avoid misunderstanding.

10 successful practices recently seen

Make yourself equal – engage a facilitator so you can fully immerge, contribute and become part of the team

Speak last – especially when speaking first seems easy and tempting

Step back – let the team have the largest share of airtime for ideas, thoughts, doubts, questions

Be personal – let others see your homey background and withstand the temptation to cover up your living room with a virtual template

Make yourself vulnerable – maybe you don’t feel so apt yourself to use tools like Mural, Miro or Zoom. Admitting this might take off pressure of others.

Appreciate the efforts – COVID-19 requires more than many employees ever imagined they could handle. Express your gratitude for what each one is willing to make possible for the team.

Encourage the unusual – such as including kids or pets to be part of the virtual meeting. Plus, it is fun.

Express the significance of audacity and experimentation – especially when you doubted the effectiveness of virtual collaboration in the first place

Fool around – explore the full width of fun features of the virtual collaboration tool in a playful and creative way to encourage experimentation

Promise dinner – for when the new usual has arrived and social distancing does not hinder the team from sharing a joint meal

And then what?

Upon conclusion of the two-day team meeting, all 20 individuals had thrown themselves into the virtual endeavor. They did not hesitate to trial (and at times fail) the virtual tools. They juggled family necessities with professional obligations. And most importantly, they had grown closer despite all distance.


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