· Features

Virtual leadership requires a systemic change of mindset

Working and leading virtually is not only about getting ready to work with the digital natives (the younger generation who grew up with Facebook and SMS), it is also about developing a key strategic asset right now.

Last year we worked with 35 senior managers at Swedish company Alfa Laval who developed virtually a strategy in less than four months that was paramount to the success of the organisation. This demonstrates that it is possible to become independent of the face-to-face and to deliver virtually best performance and tackle the most complex issues. 

An achievement like the programme with Alfa Laval is about:

  • Much faster strategy processes involving the best brains across the globe
  • Being able to draw upon a range of local experts
  • Significantly reduced travel and accommodation budgets
  • Environmental savings and reduced carbon footprint
  • Increased efficiencies such as senior management time spent NOT travelling and waiting in airports

In other words, the companies that master the art of virtual leadership have a considerable competitive advantage.

However, this requires a systemic and systematic change of mindset and new ways of working in the organisation.  HR has a very important role to play in this in three main ways.

Coaching and training

Virtual working requires virtual leadership capabilities to be successful. The reason why virtual working has remained a challenge to date is because it has been too focused on managing tasks while the aspects of leadership and developing robust virtual relationships in the virtual space have been overlooked. Virtual leadership is a new discipline that needs to be considered and developed in its own right. HR needs to help leaders recognise their learning needs in this field and identify the most appropriate learning approaches. Most of the time managers are asked to lead a team across geographical locations and are not given the opportunity to prepare for this. Furthermore, because virtual working has been around for such a long time, most managers believe that they ought to know how to do this.

Creating the right environment

Lots of organisations have worked virtually for several years. The practice of teleconferences - lasting for several hours where nobody knows who is on the line, who has already gone, who is listening and who is doing their emails - has proliferated and causes a significant amount of frustration. HR needs to take the lead and learn to model how virtual meetings should work. They need to be different if they are to really engage with executives across the globe and promote meaningful dialogue. For example, this requires a challenge to the traditional teleconferencing etiquette, making sure that everybody is connected virtually (not mixing up people sitting in the same room with people on their own connected via a phone line). This in turn requires that sufficient rooms are available in an organisation where people can be on their own undisturbed in one room, with the right equipment (for example, a proper headset covering both ears).  Even better, this requires management support to develop a culture where people are encouraged to work from home without feeling afraid that colleagues might think that they are not working if they are not physically in the office. 

Helping senior managers to model

Above all, HR needs to help managers recognise that they have a key role to play in modelling virtual working. When virtual working is perceived as simply a cost-saving measure, managers tend to think and hope that it is a temporary measure and will soon be over. Under these circumstances, they are not generally open to learning about this new way of connecting with and leading others.

If virtual leadership is to become a competitive advantage, it requires some strategic thinking from managers about what needs to change in terms of roles and management processes at all levels within the organisation, including the board.  Board meetings can also happen virtually and managers will not promote virtual leadership in their organisation if they keep jumping on a plane for their next strategic review.

Ghislaine Caulat is head of virtual working practice at Ashridge Consulting