How can I be a GREAT leader in a virtual world?

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

When everyone is working in the same place and the culture is positive, leadership is magical. You feel like the charismatic boss you are as you build relationships, observe behavior, take the team out to lunch, mentor, coach, share knowledge, and motivate your people to achieve great things for themselves and your business. Then, all of a sudden when everything goes virtual, you feel lost.  

No more personal contact. No casual conversations in the hallway. No telling when people come and leave or how productively they work. How do you become a great virtual leader practically over night? First, realize that many of the leadership traits and skills you already have go with you into the virtual world: empathy, fairness, listening, vision—they all apply. You’ll also have some unique and significant challenges that require you to focus less on managing and controlling and more on flexibility and patience.  

Effective leadership basics haven’t changed through the centuries; but the rules of engagement with your teams are not quite the same. As you transfer those skills from in-person to virtual environments, it takes a little more heart and a little less head. If you apply the things that have made you a successful leader in the past, have faith that you’ll learn to become an equally effective virtual leader.  

 What great virtual leaders do differently 

According to pre-pandemic research by behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman, here’s a summary of what the best virtual leaders do differently: 

  •  Take the initiative in communicating with people at least once or twice a week and convey a personal interest in them and how they’re doing. 
  • Champion change by empowering their people to suggest and make changes as well as make decisions. 
  • Ensure everyone has the necessary equipment and resources to do their work. 
  • Effectively convey the organization’s strategy and goals and ensure employees see their link to achieving them. 
  • Have in-depth knowledge and experience in the organization’s core technology and have a high level of comfort using it to facilitate interaction. 
  • Represent their people’s interests, advocate for them in the larger organization, and practice a high-touch style of leadership. 
  • Encourage collaboration with others in the organization, serving as a link between them, and don’t tolerate competition. 

 The nitty-gritty of virtual meetings 

In addition to making sure that you do all of the things that differentiate you as a great leader, in the virtual world, you have to run exceptional meetings. One-on-one or in teams, meetings are your primary form of communication. Keep in mind that you may be leading hybrid teams, with some people working remotely and some at the office. Be sure that you are inclusive of everyone and use the same process across the board.  

Following are suggestions for making your virtual meetings more inspirational, productive, and interactive: 

  • Set expectations in advance for dress, confidentiality, topics, objectives, and participation. 
  • Provide an agenda and list of attendees in advance. 
  • Make sure you and everyone in the meeting have essential technology and a shared screen if possible. 
  • Use a real background rather than a fake one to establish a sense of authenticity and approachability. 
  • Make meetings shorter, less than an hour if possible, because they are more intense and tiring. 
  • Talk about what’s going on in the organization as a whole; tie in vision, values, purpose, and strategies. 
  • Introduce attendees before beginning the meeting if unknown to others; and initiate a few minutes of small talk before getting down to business, as would happen naturally in person.  
  • Ensure opportunity for individual participation every few minutes. 
  • Gauge understanding throughout the meeting. 
  • Make sure each attendee leaves the meeting knowing what they need to do as the next step and follow up with a complete list of to-dos in writing. 
  • Expect unexpected interruptions and be patient with them. 
  • Don’t make it all serious. Find time to have fun with your virtual team through team-building exercises, games and quizzes, silly communications, and surprise treats delivered individually. Make creativity and fun part of your virtual culture. 

Taking care of yourself 

Every great leader realizes that their effectiveness is enhanced if they first take care of themselves—both physically and emotionally. This is especially true when you’re leading virtually, and it takes more time and thought to ensure the wellbeing of your people. Don’t risk burnout. Take care of yourself by taking time to get enough sleep, eat healthily, exercise, take breaks, and have fun. 

Virtual workplaces in one form or another are a permanent part of the future of work. This is a great opportunity to rid yourself of old-fashioned leadership styles that no longer apply and become attuned to the needs, preferences, and circumstances of 21st Century workers.

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Erik Isernhagen CEO, LINX Multimedia

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