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How to Become an Effective Virtual Leader?

In this digital age or more known to some as the post-pandemic era, many leaders are in search of identifying ways to be more effective to lead their teams virtually. With remote working proclaimed to be the new normal for many organisations, leaders are still grappling with the idea of managing their teams virtually for an indefinite period of time. And an even more daunting prospect, leaders are expected to make this transition as smooth as possible for their employees without impacting team performance.

The shift to leading teams virtually can be a challenging task for many. The overnight switch to virtual work forced many of us to adapt to uncomfortable circumstances. In spite of this, today’s leaders are required to be equipped with the know-how to effectively manage their teams virtually. To do this successfully, leaders will first need to identify the top must-have traits of an effective virtual leader. Second, many leaders will be forced to unlearn what they already know to allow room to learn the new characteristics of a virtual leader. While learning these new traits, leaders still need to be able to keep their teams motivated and engaged. This could be a challenging task, but not mission impossible either. As there are a plethora of articles and studies discussing similar traits associated with the virtual leader such as excellent communication skills, good listening skills and so on, this article will not focus on these commonly discussed traits. Instead, the aim is to deep dive into 5 outstanding attributes that make an effective virtual leader. These attributes have been carefully observed across leaders that are currently managing high performing teams virtually.

The one common trait that sets leaders apart whether on premise or virtually is possessing a high level of emotional intelligence. This transferable skill set comprises traits such as empathy, social skills, self-awareness, self-regulation and the ability to motivate a team. In addition, being technologically savvy will also give you the added advantage of managing your virtual teams effectively.  

Let us now identify these 5 key attributes that make an effective virtual leader.

1.Be a facilitator and moderator – focus on the outcome

A facilitator is a person that guides a group of individuals to move towards an outcome with good participation and full buy-in from each individual involved. The facilitator provides structure and has mastered the art of giving instructions/setting guidelines with great clarity – to help the team progress forward to achieve the outcome they are looking for. On the other hand, effective leaders must also undertake the role of a moderator from time to time. Moderators enjoy asking leading questions to elicit innovative ideas from their teams. Moderators provide the framework for discussion, but most often probe for a deeper level of thinking from each individual to get a better solution. The key difference between these two roles are, the facilitator is responsible for the process of achieving an outcome whereas the moderator is focused on driving stimulating and lively discussions to gain deeper insights on a particular topic that is being discussed. Each leader will have to decide when to play the ‘facilitator’ or ‘moderator’ role according to the situation. Each role should encourage team participation and the leader is able to avoid delivering a monologue. Be a leader that prioritises the end result (outcome) and worries less on how the work is done. Focussing on the outcome enables your team to be more efficient and empowered.

2.Learn to lead with charisma

“So how do you learn charisma? Many people believe that it’s impossible. They say that charismatic people are born that way—as naturally expressive and persuasive extroverts. Charisma is not all innate; it’s a learnable skill or, rather, a set of skills that have been practiced since antiquity.” (Learning Charisma, by John Antonakis, Marika Fenley and Sue Liechti, Harvard Business Review).

Leaders with a strong sense of charisma are able to attract, motivate and influence their teams towards the future. They do this by painting an inspiring vision for their teams. They are very clear with the goals they want to achieve – allowing them to exhibit a strong sense of confidence, and doing great things with the team. In addition, these leaders are excellent with forming an emotional connection with their followers. This helps them build a sense of purpose with each individual. Their passion and conviction in their beliefs gets them the buy-in even in an ambiguous environment. On the other hand, leaders with strong charisma focus on techniques such as storytelling and using simple language to convey their message. With a strong know-how to achieve their goals, these leaders are often regarded as individuals who provide direction and those that have earnt their authority and credibility from their teams. To learn charisma, you will first need to put into practice some of these characteristics rigorously, and then have a good deployment strategy in place.

3.Trust your team and build a collaboration culture

Lead with trust. Start by developing a framework of values together with your team. Discuss, share openly and agree on originating a set of ethical values that should be integrated into the team’s culture. Hold each individual accountable to these values in their daily interaction with the team. Be respectful of each individual’s time, ideas and opinions during meetings and discussions. Unite the team to form a spirit of collaboration and work together towards a shared purpose. Be personable with each individual on the team. Encourage open discussions to drive creativity, and move away from shaming and blaming. Have a mindset that prioritises co-creation and avoid the command and control approach (Ozlem Sarioglu, Forbes). Celebrate your wins publicly on a regular basis, giving recognition towards individuals that have performed well. Be genuine and ensure your people feel valued on your team. Make them feel they are a priority to you and they will be inspired to give their best work to you and the organisation. If trust is breached at any point, resist handling the situation openly and confrontationally. Keep it private between you and the individual. Seek feedback, listen and be receptive. Recognise that you will need to allow time to rebuild the trust that was once broken.

4.Think global, develop a growth mindset and leverage technology

Virtual leaders should develop a global mindset. Remote managing has removed barriers that used to be common obstacles for global growth expansion. Today, sales executives have the luxury of expanding their reach across global territories, at minimal cost. HR managers and Directors can source for candidates across different regions making sure they focus on hiring the best individuals based on experience and skill set without being restricted by location or the constraints of issuing work permits/visas. This has significantly increased the scope of search, offering greater opportunity to an organisation. In addition, organisations are forced to adopt technology at an accelerated pace to continue to achieve front-of-mind awareness with their customers. For example, in the food & beverage industry, most restaurants have adapted to an e-commerce platform to continue to promote their food to customers – to survive through the lockdown period. With barriers to entry across countries (virtually) significantly lowered, there is no better time for virtual leaders to exploit this opportunity for the benefit of the team and the organisation.

5.Data-driven decision making

Managing remotely can make reaching a consensus amongst key stakeholders a complex and stressful process. The consequences of making the wrong decisions could also be extremely costly. Now is the time to use data to inform your decision-making process. In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of this approach is that it allows leaders to become more confident in the decisions they make. With data insights, you are able to identify upcoming trends, patterns, elements that are working well for the business and what is not. Data-driven decisions are made with a reliance on facts and not generic opinions. It also creates awareness of your decision-making biases and allows you to remove them from your decision-making process. One thing to note, just because a decision is made on insights derived from data, it does not always mean it is correct. A flawed data collection process will contribute to inaccurate decisions. Research studies have shown that decision making based on instinct alone is usually at 90% accuracy. In conclusion, when making decisions, make use of actionable data insights as much as possible, but go with your gut.

Putting theory into practice

If you are a leader managing virtually and are in search for ways to cope with the new normal of leading teams, this article will help you identify 5 areas you could work on for greater results. It often starts with a certain amount of self-awareness. Leaders that are self-aware and have a desire to be effective towards their teams, will need to learn these traits quickly to stay engaged with their followers. I hope this article allows you to focus on the areas that matter most, to become an effective virtual leader.

Kenneth A Thevarajah is a Sales Director who believes that value creation and customer centricity is the key for every sales engagement. With over 15 years of experience across multiple industries, Kenneth is a ‘Learning Evangelist’ and a proud dad.

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