Thursday, February 12, 2009

10 Tips on How to Lead a Global Virtual Team

A question from a reader:

I have really enjoyed reading you blog and have found it to be extremely useful. I am now in a difficult position as my management team have asked for guidance either through information or strategies on how to successfully manage a virtual team. Many of the management team have asked for it and to be honest I find the content on the internet to be more IT related than dealing with the issue of how to successfully manage a team that is based in many different countries.I would be grateful for any help you could give me.

I’m surprised you haven’t been able to find more content on the topic of global virtual teams. I’d have thought this was getting to be a common way of managing work. So if you’ve already Googled it, I won’t bother; I’ll just shoot from the hip and provide some tips based on my own experience. I’ve led a number of successful global projects, including the implementation of an e-learning strategy, two leadership development programs, and a quality program. All of these projects involved forming and leading teams with members spread out around the world.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. For a long term project or newly formed team, try to have a live kickoff meeting if at all possible. Even in today’s virtual, technology enhanced world, here’s no better way to build a strong foundation than spending a few days together. Although it may appear on the surface to be an unrealistic expense, for high priority projects, it’s an investment that will have a high return in the long run.

2. As the team or project leader, pay extra attention to the basic mechanics of good meeting and project management. The importance of agendas, role clarification, project charters, action items, and documentation all magnify when leading a virtual team. For a one hour conference call, expect to spend 4X the time in “administrative” preparation and follow-up.

3. Be sensitive to time zones. If you are a U.S. based team leader, don’t always expect your European or Asian team members to conference call in the evenings. The unfortunate thing is that with a global team, there is no time that’s good for everyone, so you’ll just have to take turns being inconvenienced. Again, because of the time zone challenges, try to keep your full team calls to one hour.

4. Spend a lot of time “off-line” with individual team members. Schedule 1on1s in-between full team calls with each team member for coaching, feedback, reinforcement, and relationship building. It took me a couple projects to learn this, and I was amazed how well it helped maximize the full team calls and advance our work.

5. Build in time for some formal and informal team building during and after your kickoff. If you can’t have a live kick-off, set up a website to share pictures and personal information. Getting to know someone as a person, and not just a resource goes along way in building trust, cooperation, and commitment.

6. Study up on cultures; learn a few phrases, at least learn how to say and write “hello” and “thank-you”. You don’t have to be fluent - your global team members will appreciate the effort as a show of respect.
A word of caution here on cultural sensitivity: I’ve found that new global team leaders often tend to go overboard trying to show respect, and fail to hold everyone to the same high standards. So yes, be culturally aware and respectful, but you don’t have to treat team members with kid gloves.

7. Use technology, but don’t depend on it. Weconferences, team rooms, idea exchanges, blogs, videoconferences…. Yes, they can all be useful, and leverage them to your advantage. Just don’t get too caught up in the bells and whistles, and don’t be shocked if team members are slow to embrace your new toys. When it comes to virtual teamwork, the best technology available is still the telephone (I’ve never had a successful video conference).

8. Use global English. Although English is the international language of business, keep your language free of local acronyms, analogies, metaphors, and buzzwords. It takes a while – ask for help from teams members to stop you and ask for clarification.
True story: I embarrassed myself pretty good when I referenced the movie "Free Willy" with a few of my U.K. colleagues. I couldn't figure out why they were laughing hysterically. My U.K. readers will get it.

9. Send material ahead of time. Global team members often like to have materials translated, or at least have time to read it ahead of time. It’s extra challenging to read and understand complex information in your second language.

10. I’ve saved the most off-the-wall yet important tip for last: Don’t allow co-located team members to gather in a conference room during team conference calls. This is one of the hardest norms to break, and will surely meet with resistance. Set a ground rule that everyone calls in on their own phone. It will level the playing field. If you have ever been the person on the other end of a conference call with a co-located group, you will know exactly why this is important. You can’t hear the side conversations, can’t get a word in edgewise, and tend to check out.
TRY it. The group dynamics will drastically change. The co-locaters will complain, but stick to it. They’ll get over it and get used to it, and the rest of the team members will emerge as stronger contributors.


Ron Bland said...


You offer great suggestions in this article. I'm definitely going to share this with my partners.

Tip # 4 - spending time "off line" is something that works really well for me too. My teams appreciate when we can get on the call and get things done.

Thanks for the good information.

The Roadmap

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Dan. I especially liked the "free willy" example. I also thought the tip on co-located team members was absolute money!

A resource I've always found helpful is Geert Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions. Here's a link to an explanation.

Dan McCarthy said...

Ron -

Wally -
Thanks for that free resource.

Raven Young said...

Dan - What an awesome list of tips for helping to ease the pain of working with an offshore team! I am definitely going to share these at my site and print the list out for distribution to all team members. I would mention a favorite, but really - each item is important and stands on it's own!

Dan McCarthy said...

Raven -
hey, thanks for the endorsement!

Anonymous said...

Great list. Sensitivity to time zones is often taken for granted by team members from the head/controlling office. The value of live kick off meetings is also often underestimated especially when there's pressure on the budget. It is important for team members to put faces to voices and have some understanding of each other that only a face to face meeting can provide.

jessica lipnack said...

Dan, for an off-the-top of your head list, this is really excellent. Only one where I'd take issue is #1. Two reasons for this.

First, four of us--two business school professors and my partner and I--did research on "far-flung teams," published in Harvard Business Review as "Can absence make a team grow stronger?". None of our teams met face-to-face as a group and only 4% met with a portion of the group -- and they were astonishingly successful.

Second, travel restrictions are only going to make getting together in person much more difficult, so we have to learn new ways.

And, for your reader asking the question, there is a ton of material available, as you say, including many posts on my blog. Not to be too self-serving, but :) ...
I recently did webcasts on this for Business Week (with Karen Sobel Lojeski) and one for American Management Association. Hot topic, lots of need for people to learn about this very rapidly.

Glad to find your blog...Jessica

Dan McCarthy said...

Jessica –

Thanks, I’m glad you found GL too. I do remember your research; in fact, I have a copy of it.

Looking back on my experience, there’s probably wasn’t much difference in productivity. I suppose the justification for that meeting in Paris was pretty weak, but it sure was fun. And you are right….we have to learn new ways.

Thanks also for the links…your blog is a must resource for virtual teamwork.

Anonymous said...

Time zones are so important, even when it comes to e-mailing (thanks to the advent of the Blackberry). My friend lost a client over it. Also, the co-locators can be so obnoxious with their side conversations, so good call on that.

Elaine said...

Hi Dan,
Thank you for the great tips off the top of your head. As Einstein once said, 'make it as simple as possible, but not too simple'.
I will use this material as a foundation to develop an executive training for the management within my company.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The "Use Global English" in your list is a very important you point. In some countries, even English speaking countries, they take what you say very literally. You also have to make sure that when saying something, people on the other side won't interpret it as something else (if there are multiple interpretations of a certain phrase, there's a huge chance that they'll interpret it differently that what you originally intended).

PS: I have published a large series on multi-cultural projects, take a look whenever you have time!

Dan McCarthy said...

Hayli, Elaine, PM Hut -
Thanks for commenting. It seems a lot of us have learned similar lessons, usually by mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I also wrote on this topic (, I think it's going to become more mainstream as time goes on. I'm not sure I agree with you about having co-located team members pretend to not be co-located. I understand the point but I've found better luck in trying to get more sub-group meetings at different locations. Problem with everyone being virtual is that some % no longer are actually paying attention to the discussion but are doing other things instead.