Virtual Leaders need to learn to lead virtually

It has been a matter of great debate: Do virtual leaders need to lead differently to leaders who work with proximate (same office) teams? Based on extensive research, and the piloting of new modules aimed at helping virtual teams work more effectively, the debate is over, argues Alistair Gordon.

A dollar for every time you’ve heard this argument: “Those leading virtual teams simply need to deploy advanced leadership skills – the same skills as those running local teams – to be successful. You don’t need a different leadership program for virtual leaders.”

I have three compelling pieces of evidence to prove this notion – that virtual leadership isn’t really “different” – wrong.

Item of Evidence #1: Virtual leaders say it’s harder, and those on local teams agree.

We have asked virtual leaders, both anecdotally and, most recently, in our ongoing survey of virtual leaders. And the respondents tell us that leading virtually is completely different to leading a locally based team, is much harder, and requires different skills. All of those that are leading virtual teams say it’s harder, and a huge proportion of those not leading virtual teams believe it to be harder too.

Detractors will say that virtual leaders are of course going to say their role is harder. So on to item 2.

Item of Evidence #2: Virtual followers say it’s harder.

In both the early data from our Leading Virtually survey, which is also completed by virtual followers (i.e. members of virtual teams), and working with groups of virtual followers, those who are followers on virtual teams agree that leading a virtual team is much harder.

Most interesting of all, more than half of the virtual followers we surveyed are also virtual leaders. They are led from afar and lead geographically disparate teams. The more virtual their worlds, the more certain they are that it is a completely different job.

Item of Evidence #3: Pilot programs prove participants need help, and benefit from it.

HFL has piloted a series of new modules dealing with the challenges – and solutions – of working as a virtual team. These modules, in longer programs, prove to be the modules that participants liked the best. Even those who work on local teams enjoyed understanding the challenges of working on a virtual team.

Specifically, the programs focused on how to minimise the impact of the four tyrannies of virtual teams: distance, time zone, culture and systems.

In particular, we quickly discovered that virtual team members don’t need any assistance at all in identifying the barriers and challenges – they live with them every day. Practical, easy to deploy solutions and protocols were what they most wanted, and these pilots provided.

Who does “virtual leader” training?
Both in the early data feeds from our survey and from talking to many organisations in the normal course of our business, it turns out that only a tiny percentage of virtual leaders have ever been given any specific virtual leadership training.

Yet the data from many sources suggests that more employees than ever work as members of virtual teams, particularly across a country as large as Australia and a continent as diverse and large as Asia.

This is why HFL have developed a one day program that builds on general team leadership skills and helps virtual leaders develop specific systems and techniques to maximise the engagement, togetherness, and effectiveness of their virtual teams.

Are your virtual leaders different?
HFL is offering you an opportunity to find out (but you must act in March 2015). Our survey has already attracted more than 200 participants, so we have a firm norm group. Invite all of the members of two or three of your virtual teams to participate in the survey and, provided 30 or more of your staff participate, we will provide you, free of charge, with a customised report comparing responses from your virtual teams to those of all other participants.

Next steps?
For further information about the one day V-LEADER program please contact


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