For many of us, leading a virtual team is something that is thrust upon us with little preparation. Whether it's a leading a project or an existing team, the onus is suddenly on us to get the work done. It's generally expected that we know what we're doing. Whether that's true or not is between us and our consciences.
I tend to use the terms "leader" and "manager" interchangeably and I know that that's not technically correct. They're different functions and sub-functions of the same job. Just as all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs. All leaders manage to some degree, yet not all managers lead. They should, but that's a discussion for another day.
But if you find yourself leading a team whose members you may never actually get to meet in person, my buddy Kevin Eikenberry, author of "Remarkable Leadership-Unleashing Your Leadership Potential One Skill at a Time" suggests seven key behaviors that leaders of virtual teams need to develop to be successful.
Clarify Expectations. Crystal clear expectations make everyone more productive and reduce the bad assumptions that can multiply when there is less regular conversation.
Focus on Results. If you don't see your team members all of the time, you have fewer things to give them feedback on - except for what is most important anyway, which is results. Don't worry about how they are spending their time or when they do their work. Focus on results.
Invest in Relationships. Relationships are harder at a distance. When your team is virtual, make time to build relationships. Look for ways and encourage team members to do this with each other as well.
Turn up the Trust. As a leader, you must trust your team members more. Grant trust and expect the best. Expectations must be clear, and communication frequent, but trust is critical to the success of your virtual team.
Be Patient. Some things will take more time when you aren't in close proximity. Get used to it. Be patient with the process as you look for ways to streamline and improve.
Create Actionable Meetings. Meetings that are efficient and productive are key to a virtual team's success. Schedule short meetings with clear agendas. Push side discussion off-line and keep everyone engaged when you need to meet via technology.
Take Advantage of Technology. Speaking of technology, use it. If you are inside a corporate firewall, use whatever is available, and push the envelope with external tools as needed to be most effective. By asking some questions and doing a bit of reading online you can likely find a tool to support any challenge your team faces. Use those tools.
Why seven? Well, it seems to be some sort of magic number in consultant land (probably we can blame Stephen Covey and his Habits for that), but Kevin's points are excellent. Leadership is about more than simply managing performance, and it's tough to do even when you're all in the same room, let alone scattered who-knows-where.