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Virtual Leadership Development

7 December 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Today’s globalization trends have forced many companies to pick members of project teams from diverse ethnic groups, around the globe and have them communicate virtually–by phone, e-mail and videoconference–thereby saving both time and money. While co-located teams often benefit most from a leader who acts as a facilitator, virtual teams need more a manager who provides clearly defined direction and guidance. 

Leaders of virtual teams need to concentrate on creating a highly defined process where team members deliver specific results in a repeated sequence. Reliability and trust, is thus firmly established after two or three project cycles. Accordingly, later on, face-to face meetings can be limited to once a year or so. Even though there are firmly established processes, the most difficult tasks for leaders of global teams is to recognize that their styles of decision-making may have an impact by deep-rooted cultural beliefs.  Hence, a good global team leader is the one who is willing to try out different kinds of decision-making processes in line with cultural sensitivity. 


Leader’s role 
When a new virtual team is created, it typically begins as nothing more than a collection of individuals. The leader’s role from the start is to develop these individuals into a coherent and well integrated work unit that provides the capability for the team to self-manage itself. To achieve this, leaders must create a team orientation, which includes motivational factors like promoting a common goal, creating positive affect and shaping perceptions. A team orientation represents the bond that ties the members to each other and the team mission. Once this environment is created, there are two functions leaders must focus on namely - performance management and team development. 

Since leadership in virtual teams is expressed through technology, leaders and team members must be able to make sense of collaborative virtual office tools in order to make the most use of them. Tools leaders choose to use should be aligned with their efforts to improve performance, develop team relationships and communicate important project-related information. Some of the more critical tools required for virtual working include – communication through e-mails, organising and planning through online calendars, direct communication via voice, instant messaging  and online data/file storing and sharing mechanisms.
 
To be in line with the team leader’s responsibility of performance management and team development, access to people and information is vital. Virtual collaborative tools help to bridge the distance and to bring in transparency to project teams. Activity awareness which includes awareness of team members and their projects, availability awareness or knowing team members schedules, process awareness involving an understanding of the project sequence and how individuals’ tasks fit in to the overall project and social awareness, which includes knowledge about team members and their social environments lead to team synergy.




Stretch assignments 
It is important to understand that developing virtual leadership competencies arise from the responsibilities, roles and challenges of a virtual leader. While some of the competencies are common to any leadership setting, there are some competencies more relevant in a virtual working environment. 

For example, (i) Global leaders must be open minded and flexible in thought. This allows them to work in a variety of settings, with diverse types of people and with a willingness to listen to new ideas. (ii) Leaders should have an interest and sensitivity in new cultures. A healthy curiosity about people, their lives and work that is void of judgment will allow them to be empathetic and get along well with others. (iii) Global leaders must be able to deal with complexity and be prepared to make decisions that encompass multiple variables, considerable ambiguity and evolving environments. (iv) Leaders must be resilient, resourceful, optimistic, and energetic. Creativity and positive attitudes will allow leaders to take on important challenges and high levels of physical and emotional energy will keep them from getting discouraged. (v) Leaders must maintain honesty and integrity. Without this ability, the critical component of trust is impossible to develop and maintain. (vi) Leaders must have a stable personal life and, when applicable, a family that supports a global commitment to work. (vii) Leaders must bring value-added technical or business skills that lend credibility to their role.

Training and development of future leaders, specifically those leaders who lead in virtual settings, needs to more specifically address the unique challenges of e-leadership and must incorporate training design tools that actively reflect these challenges. One common practice in developing global leaders is providing them with international experiences during the early stages of their career. Most of the successful multinational companies use early overseas experience in talent development. At the initial stages of the careers, by being part of global teams also, members may begin to understand global issues, culture, complexities and their own weaknesses. 

Stretch assignments are another way to push people beyond their actual or perceived limits and therefore provide powerful learning opportunities. Global giants such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and many other organisations use these experiences to see how well candidates can perform complex tasks that are central to the business.

Providing employees with opportunities to reflect upon assignments and learn - both before the assignment and after - enhances the probability of internalizing their learnings. Communicating big assignments well in advance of the start date can offer valuable time to reflect on the meaning and needs of the job. Similarly, if structured time either individually or within a group is given to those finishing complex assignment, they are able to garner additional insight and learning. Research has shown that learning is reinforced though such reflection.

By now I have taken the readers of my leadership article series through various theoretical aspects and frameworks in defining leadership attributes and evolution of leadership studies from Great man theory to e-leadership. With that background knowledge, what is more important and relevant would be IF leadership skills could be acquired, how we could develop leaders to face present day challenges. We will start writing on practical applications on leadership development backed by live case studies in January 2016. Until then – see you later. 

(This is the 31st column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at gamining@gmail.com)
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