The traditional leadership model, where you at least had the possibility of meeting colleagues and developing relationships in-person may have had its challenges, but at least the unwritten rules were clear.
Running any organisation required significant knowledge, interpersonal skills and a relentless focus on achieving the target outcomes. It also often required regular travel and yielded a significant carbon footprint.
Now, the current virtual leader has it particularly hard and may even feel guilty about doing work at all when the world is suffering. But organisations are relying on virtual leadership to be successful on an industrial scale. High-performing organisations must continue to deliver their agendas in order to transform their capability in the market – and learning never stops.
Superficially, virtual leadership seems challenging. It’s easy assume it will be more difficult to build trust remotely than in-person. But by taking on board a simple four factor model, and flexing your style, your chances of success are much greater.
Let’s start with the increasing importance of emotional intelligence. It’s all about building connections, continuing to have the conversations, going ahead with meetings, being flexible and employing empathy. Listening carefully will reap rewards, as you will build connections and you will win work once the crisis ends. Why? Because of the connections you’ve built.
In the era of virtual working, the need to give each other positive and explicit displays of emotional intelligence is even more evident. It means signalling a sincere interest in the other person by active listening to what is said. It also means being flexible about the original agenda and asking open questions to draw out feelings, wants and needs.
An effective virtual leader builds a strong degree of trust as a foundation for collaborative working.
Moving onto conceptual agility, virtual leaders must develop their conceptual agility in rapidly changing times. Leadership means investing the time in the diary to plan for multiple scenarios and making effective contingency plans. It means developing the ability to think in terms of ‘what if’ and it may mean thinking along the lines of the external customer, cybersecurity and technology to develop new strategies.
The current hiatus is actually a big opportunity for high-performing organisations. For example, those with significant change agendas may need to upskill their workforce more rapidly than ever before, through an effective learning and development strategy. Organisations that continue to facilitate learning send a clear signal to their talent that people and their careers matter.
Halting recruitment, key talent programmes or suspending business change activities at a time of crisis in the past has generally led to unintended consequences in the future. No surprise that the future talent did not want to join such organisations when the tap was turned back on.
The clear message now needs to be that strategy and change never stops.
Virtual leaders with low conceptual agility may form a viewpoint readily through their acquired knowledge, only to struggle to recognise when the world changes and that their viewpoint is no longer relevant to the current predicament. When working virtually in challenging times, good leaders embrace complexity by actively seeking multiple viewpoints, sometimes contradictory to their own, on important topics and make high quality decisions.
A third factor for virtual success is of course collaboration. Ironically, there is arguably now more collaboration in virtual working than ever before. With large populations of managers and professional staff working from home in the global service industry, the corporate world seems flatter. Many individuals are being more supportive of one another, encouraged by the virtual leader on video calls and followed up in email messaging:
“Have great weekends, stay safe, and be there for each other.”
Collaboration is truly about getting out of one’s organisational silo, bringing others together and creating business value for the organisation, for the common and private good.
Lines will increasingly blur between what is internal and what is external to the organisation with greater virtual working. Virtual leaders may wish to develop greater choice within delivery capability as the risk to supply chain in increased internally and externally with the current global context. Tracking performance against core KPIs and measuring progress against target outcomes becomes more important as the mood changes: indeed, one consequence of increased objectivity is that there may be a ‘diversity dividend’ in the new world of virtual working.
Virtual leadership also requires a key final ingredient: the ability to inspire others. When working virtually, it is even more important to congratulate the team for success and reward appropriately.
The success could range from softer factors such as improved engagement within an existing team through better collaboration to harder factors including commercial success. The language leaders use in team chat calls and in follow-up email messaging, in the absence of the in-person contact, must be clear, bold and simple. There’s a need to show some vulnerability and openness in tone, and what is said, and how it is said, must also reflect the organisational values, for example, carefully reflecting team success, rather than the success of a single individual.
In summary then, virtual leadership needn’t be hard. There is nothing implied in the word ‘virtual’ of which to be scared. But to tilt your odds of success as a virtual leader, measure yourself against a simple four-factor model. With a new way of working for many, virtual leaders have an outstanding opportunity to flex their style and consciously practise emotional intelligence, conceptual agility, collaboration and perhaps to find being an inspirational leader to others is refreshingly inspiring to oneself.