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.