I recently ran across an article in the WSJ that discussed how companies are starting to think remote work isn’t so great after all; that projects take longer, and collaboration is harder. Of course, working and managing remotely presents new challenges for those who have relied on face to face environments. Leading remotely requires a very intentional and creative approach to driving and sustaining interactivity among team members. Fortunately, we can learn from the successes of global teams who have made virtual work in the more distant past.
Earlier in my career I had the benefit of sitting on one of these teams. After a series of acquisitions, that together created one of the largest insurance companies in the world, I found myself reporting into a new boss located in a different state, with a team spread out across the country. The new product marketing team I led was, almost overnight, in 6 locations and 5 states. Suddenly, we had to build a high performing organization drawing from talent from the combined companies…and do it virtually. And this was in the days before Slack and Zoom.
My new boss and I only physically saw each other several times a year, but he would call me every day in my office between 5 and 6 PM to check in. “How’s it going? What happened today? How can I help?”
Our daily interactions taught me a lot about our business and how his mind worked. I learned how to anticipate his perspective…to read his mind really…and quickly solve problems in a manner that was aligned with his and our organization’s objectives and priorities. Most importantly – and I didn’t realize it at the time – he taught me by example how to lead in a virtual environment.
He put in place regular weekly virtual staff and project meetings. The lynch pin in our virtual team structure was known by all as the Friday “1:00 PM call.” This meeting had NO agenda and was open to his direct team as well as their direct reports. It was an opportunity for him to hear from our teams, to understand what was working and what was challenging. It was a chance to brainstorm new product names or hash out systems and operational campaigns we were all working on.
Most importantly we had fun and we didn’t take our selves too seriously. The Friday 1:00 PM call created an open forum where all were invited and empowered to share, there were no bad ideas and it was ok to not have all the answers. One of our mantras became “who cares what I think?” This was a way of getting out of our own heads and focusing on our audiences and their needs and ensuring their ideas and perspectives had room to breathe.
In short, what made our virtual environment work so well was a very conscious and deliberate approach to ensuring all the right people were included in dialog and then driving necessary quantity and quality of conversation both on an individual and team basis.
Even before COVID increased the need for virtual work we were often asked how to effectively lead virtual teams. In the Bates ExPITM model, the “Three I’s” of Intentionality, Inclusiveness and Interactivity are all about how we use two way dialog to drive collaboration and execution. Leaders must have a deliberate and clear sense for who they need to include in dialog and then consistently and regularly drive the right amount of quality conversation. These “Three I’s” are absolutely essential for leading virtual teams.
So, you might be wondering how effective we were and how we measured success? Our work received patents and was picked up by corporate advertising and turned into national television advertising. Watching those ads on TV during football games with my young boys at the time was a career highlight. Despite being virtual our team had some of the highest engagement scores and lowest turnover in the company. In a 150-year-old mature industry with flat revenues we also drove an incremental 10% of revenue on a $400MM base for 5 years in a row, helping more Americans better protect their loved ones.
We find now that the lessons I learned years ago from my boss are many of the same things we recommend leaders do today to engage, include and inspire their virtual teams. Try these tips to connect more with your own teams.
1. Check in with your team frequently. While we don’t want to add to meeting overload, establishing a cadence of quick regular one-on-one check ins helps you keep your finger on the pulse, and your team members feeling integral to the mission.
2. Create space to learn and talk about how people are doing. While it is important to get real project work done in meetings, it is equally important, especially in the virtual world, to ask and listen to how people are feeling, what’s on their minds. Ask open ended questions that provoke thinking and help the team think beyond “I’m doing fine” so that you can help people when they need it, and you can reveal a little of yourself to them so they experience your human side too.
3. Ask how you can help. It’s one thing to get input on what the team is doing. but my boss’s question, “How can I help,” is one of the most empowering tools for a leader to inspire and support the team to take action.
4. Take time to talk about life outside of work. Setting aside time for social conversation creates the glue of great teams, especially important in the virtual world where you don’t have lunch in the cafeteria to provide the setting.
5. Establish a “safe zone” for sharing all ideas and perspectives. Set the tone and ground rules so your team knows that you, and their fellow team members, seek and respect all perspectives.
It’s good to know that in these tumultuous times, we can not only crack the code on leading virtually, but do it with the experience of those leaders who have come before us.