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Closing the gap - leadership in the virtual environment: commentary with Richard Harris & Kate Cowie

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Seven key challenges in leading across distance

Richard Harris is a former Board member and senior officer at the Boston-based Forum Corporation, a global work-place learning company. While at Forum, his positions included Managing Director for Great Britain and Head of Global Research.

He is currently a consultant in private practice, advising companies which include Analog Devices, Glaxco, New York Times Company, Royal Dutch shell and United Technologies.

Kate Cowie is Founder and Director of The Chaos Game Ltd., a UK-based consultancy practice which specializes in helping organizational leaders implement strategic change solutions in response to rapidly shifting and increasingly chaotic conditions.

They write here about the forces driving the trend toward the virtual work-place, and how leaders will need to rise to the key challenges of distance management.

Where do you work?

It wasn’t that long ago – in the memory of most workers today – that people “went” to work. The work place was actually a “place” and people went there to earn a living. Some people still do. If you assemble circuit boards for Intel or automobiles for BMW, you will go to the place where the tools you need to do your job are kept. For the rest of us, a change has taken place that has fundamentally altered the way that work gets done. A typical project, for example, is planned in a series of meetings, launched in a rented conference room in an airport hotel, executed in who knows where, and managed using email and on-line tools. Sales meetings, to cite another example, take place on conference calls not in conference rooms.

But that’s not the end of it. If the staff of individual organizations can work in different ways, why not make work itself more modularized? If well trained software developers can be found in India who will work for a fraction of the cost of software developers in the West, why not “off-shore” the work? If subcontractors promise to produce a product faster than your existing work force, why not “outsource” the work? Of course this is exactly what is happening.

Three forces are driving the trend toward working virtually – whether it is just a matter of having your sales force work from home or using contractors in China to manufacture your ski parkas:

  1. Technology makes it easier. The barriers to communicating continue to fall. Pocket-sized PDAs enable round-the-clock email transmission. VOIP telephony makes voice communication inexpensive and reliable. Video conferencing capability is improving as the Internet continues to evolve.

  2. The nature of work itself. McKinsey and Company consultants estimate that 40 per cent of the work that gets done in the West is done through interactions. We solve problems, plan budgets, review performance, manage conflicts, and negotiate contracts. We don’t actually make anything. This kind of work does not require assets that show up on the plant, property, and equipment line of the balance sheet. Therefore, the reason to come together physically is less important than it was even 10 years ago when people had to go to an office to log into their desktop computer in order to access their email. We use our knowledge and our ability to communicate in order to get things done, and we do it from wherever we happen to be.
  3. Globalization of talent. One geographic location does not have a monopoly on talent and the most competitive companies are exploiting that fact. Some of the best petroleum engineers are Chinese; the best operations managers are Brazilian; the best accountants are Malaysian; the best software developers are Indian.

It’s hard not to be optimistic about the potential benefits of working virtually, whether you are a profit-driven CFO salivating over hourly rates in China or a wide-eyed social idealist who sees opportunities for the developing world to make quantum leaps in economic and social progress. However, there are still a lot of operational details to work out.

One highly visible SNAFU has recently come to light, exposing the problems that The Boeing Corporation is having with its new 787 Dreamliner. As of December 2007, the Dreamliner’s delivery schedule had been delayed by at least six months, and the company had set aside an additional $2 billion to cover for anticipated expenses. This $2 billion does not take into consideration the financial impact of late-delivery penalties or customer defections. To quote the Wall Street Journal: “A look inside the project reveals that the mess stems from one of its main selling points to investors – global outsourcing.” But it wasn’t global outsourcing, per se, that has contributed to the problems with the Dreamliner. It was Boeing’s management’s inability to work with the outsourcing companies. The contracts were clear, the plans were detailed. The best possible talent had been identified. But by Boeing’s own admission, they didn’t know how to work with this talent on simple day-to-day issues.

“Being successful in the virtual world – being a good distance leader – requires different mindsets and skills.”

Furthermore, the results of these interviews show that not all managers who were successful in the same time/same place physical world of just 10 years ago are successful in the arena of virtual leadership. Being successful in the virtual world – being a good distance leader – requires different mindsets and skills. Responding positively and aggressively to these challenges presents a recipe for success for leaders in virtual environments. We’ve described seven of those challenges below and discussed how effective leaders are addressing them.

Seven challenges facing leaders in virtual environments

Challenge 1: Face it. It’s not going to go away

We have found that a surprising number of managers who find themselves leading in a virtual environment have yet to get to grips with reality. They seem to think that their management has concocted some profit-driven ill-thought-out experiment and made them the victims of a big mistake. Like victims everywhere they treat the situation as hopeless. In creating a hopeless situation, however, they sow the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If they think it can’t work, it won’t. Ironically, they are the ones that flounder, experience stress, and in some cases fail. The more successful managers recognize that all the uncertainties of working virtually have yet to be worked out and it is their challenge to make things work for their immediate work group. This is a core leadership mindset. Never take a job you don’t think you can do; alternatively, find a way to do the job you’ve taken. In either case, don’t let yourself wallow in your own self-pity. You’ll only depress yourself. It may not be perfect, but it is real.

Challenge 2: Infuse your work with a strong sense of purpose

Good leaders have always found ways to engage others in their vision. A strong sense of purpose helps others make meaning of the work they are doing. This is particularly important in virtual environments where employees in remote locations need to keep themselves motivated without face to face contact with the boss. Ironically, communication methods in virtual environments – email and conference call business reviews, to name two – tend to be biased toward a more task focused approach. The good leaders find ways to remind team members that they are part of an important contribution. They don’t just make the schedule; they make a difference. And team members, no matter where their location, respond positively to that message.

Challenge 3: Develop team ownership in team goals

A related benefit of creating a strong sense of purpose is that ownership in team goals tends to be distributed across the entire team. With stronger team ownership comes greater initiative, better problem solving, and faster execution. Delegation and empowerment are key tools that distance leaders use to create ownership. However, a common fear that distance leaders express is the fear that they will lose control if they can’t actually observe what members of their team are doing. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” is a concern. Leaders with high performing teams, on the other hand, express just the opposite sentiment. They assume that people want to do a good job and they ensure that there is adequate communication and opportunities to influence so that goals are owned, and more importantly results are achieved.

As team members take increased responsibility, ownership in team goals tends to go up. As one senior leader we spoke to said, “My team owns the results for this year. I’m responsible for the results two years from now. In two years’ time, they will be responsible for the results for that year and I’ll be living two years in the future.”

Challenge 4: Become a distance coach

Perhaps the greatest differentiator between managers who are successful in virtual environments and ones who struggle is that the successful managers develop the skill to coach at a distance. Coaching at a distance requires both a change in mindset and the use of different skills. The distance coach puts the emphasis on helping the individual develop the skill to do the job successfully. There is no choice. Advice from someone who is rarely around is typically seen as intrusive. Resentment builds up in distance relationships when the person being coached does not feel understood.

“Coaching at a distance requires both a change in mindset and the use of different skills.”

The successful distance coach avoids giving advice and concentrates on feedback and performance. In the process the person being coached takes personal responsibility for his/her performance and development. The mindset change for the distance coach is to realize his or her role is not to correct mistakes; it is to develop people. The skill change is to stop being a technical problem solver and instead use engagement skills to help people take responsibility for their own performance.

Challenge 5: Get better performance using multiple modes of communication

“Don’t underestimate the amount you have to communicate with virtual team members. It’s more than what you think it should be.” This was one of the key learnings given by a finance manager with employees in Europe, the US, and Malaysia.  What we have noticed among the more successful leaders in virtual environments is that they not only increase the amount of communication, but they leverage the types of communication available to them. Rather than going to a meeting and then complaining about its lack of relevance, they ask ahead of time “what is the purpose of this meeting, and could that purpose be met more efficiently?” This type of thinking, coupled by cost caps on travel budgets, is resulting in a decrease of fly-in/fly-out meetings for activity that could have been more efficiently handled by a conference call. Also, there is widespread experimentation with new technologies. Wikis, social networking sites, shared drives, instant messaging, electronic white boards are finding their place alongside meetings, email and the old-fashioned hand-written note of appreciation. New modes of communication do not replace the traditional modes, particularly face to face. Instead, they widen the number of options that the leader has.

We don’t want to paint an overly optimistic picture. Better distance leaders are finding more efficient modes or communication, but there are still hidden time-wasters even in the most efficient forms of communication. One study we saw recently reported that when a person stops a task to read an incoming email, the person does not return to the task for 7 minutes – 9 emails and there goes an hour of productivity. Another report advocates removing the “reply all” button from email programmes.

Challenge 6: Using influence

In their book Influence without Authority Allan Bradford and David Cohen point out that to be good at influence requires both a mindset that assumes that others are potential allies and the skill to understand what makes the other person tick. All this is necessary, they argue, before setting out to persuade someone on a particular point – which itself requires the skill to both listen and advocate. In work with senior leaders, we’ve seen just how complex this combination of mindset and skill set can be – and time consuming. 

Based on work with hundreds of managers – some average, some highly successful – we’ve noted that the more successful are typically strategic in how they invest their influence efforts. Kimball Fisher and Mareen Duncan Fisher, mentioned earlier, refer to this process as working on the system, not in the system. In order to work on the system, leaders need to identify their key stakeholders and have a clear plan for the contribution that each stakeholder needs to make to their agenda. Without this type of thinking, time is wasted on trivial relationships; or conversely, important relationships are ignored or avoided. Underlying this strategic approach, however, is not the calculation of the stereotypical MBA; it is the warmth of a person trying to achieve an objective, recognizing that he or she can’t do it alone. Good influence relationships are at least as much about giving help as they about receiving help.

Challenge 7: Welcome the opportunity to act with courage

The virtual environment can be a lonely place. The informal contacts that arise spontaneously in an office environment don’t happen in the virtual environment. In spite of the isolation of the virtual environment, decisions still need to be made. In interviews, however, managers told us that they don’t have the same degree of confidence in their decisions in the virtual environment. Objectively they may have the same amount of information, but without the give and take of the real time/place environment, uncertainty creeps in.

We often think of courageous action as heroic action. While it is true that heroes typically show courage, courage is also tested in more mundane ways. Without the courage to act, decisions can be delayed and performance negatively affected. Better leaders know that it takes courageous action in some of the day to day details just to survive in the virtual environment. They recognize that when courage is needed, there is an opportunity to step up and lead.

Working virtually

To date the use of virtual working structures are almost uniformly management-initiated. Potential efficiencies, cost control, talent deployment, and the like, coupled with customer demands are exposing more and more senior leaders to the challenges of working virtually.

As leaders continue to develop skill in working in these environments, we expect to see further refinement in the individual leader’s ability to engage in each of the seven challenges discussed, resulting in increasing numbers of leaders who accept the reality of working virtually, become more inspirational to their teams, create a stronger sense of ownership in team goals, develop themselves as distance coaches, expand their repertoire of communication options, become more influential with peers and upper management, and develop the confidence they need to act with courage.

November 2009.

Closing the gap - leadership in the virtual environment: commentary with Richard Harris & Kate Cowie