For ASTD’s insightful 2013 research report on virtual leadership, Virtual Leadership: Going the Distance to Manage Your Teams, ASTD Research Analyst Christina Mandzuk interviewed Bart Tkaczyk, president and CEO of Energizers.
ASTD: Over the past few years, have you seen an increased need to help leaders learn to manage virtual teams?
Bart Tkaczyk: Definitely. There are at least three fundamental reasons for this. First, to achieve high performance today, an enterprise needs to be better aligned and more adaptable to turbulent and tough times. Attaining this takes transferable knowledge, expert skills, design thinking, and positive attitude.
Secondly, hopefully, we’re getting better and better at managing virtual initiatives. Having said that, we also need to help leaders learn how to execute projects more effectively, for example, by means of dividing the labor between the shared staff and, say, a virtual dedicated team, and delineating and managing the partnership between them. To guard against the risk of the so-called “organizational memory,” assembling the virtual team may follow a “zero-based organizational design,” which is like building a start-up, making sure that day-to-day operations aren’t damaged.
Finally, there may be industry-specific grounds, too. There’s been a definite shift from local to global, and from production to service/knowledge-based work environments and units. For example, consider consulting. Leaders’ continuous learning to manage virtual teams is critical for successful operations of professional service firms (PSFs) that, in more and more cases, when advising global clients, need to deal with power, trust, and control in trans-organizational and trans-national relations.
ASTD: What kinds of skills do you think are essential for a leader of virtual teams? Global teams?
Tkaczyk: Optimistically, virtual leaders should draw on self-awareness, reflective, and continuing learning to learn and display leadership presence or professional and positive identity. They also should bring into service people skills, positive communications skills, active listening skills, virtual networking, or building and sustaining high-quality links in the virtual workplace.
In addition, virtual leaders need to deploy proactivity, super-flexibility, virtual project leadership, being forward-looking and anti-bureaucratic, and speed (thinking fast, deciding fast, sustaining speed). And finally, they must employ super-creativity, conceptualizing skills (visual awakening, exploration and communication), positive resource utilization, design and lean thinking, evidence-based architecting, tech and innovation transfer and smartness (including know-how creation and transfer), or client experience mapping.
ASTD: ASTD research finds that the greatest challenge in training leaders of virtual teams is “acknowledging the need for training” (26.7 percent reported this). What do you think is the greatest challenging in training leaders of virtual teams?
Tkaczyk: Acknowledging the need for training seems to be challenging all over the globe. You cannot pressure people to learn. And some people, just like dealing with change, are simply not ready for future-oriented development.
Research shows that training often doesn’t imply learning. Therefore, all that you can do is energize and mobilize them to learn, which should be part of the overall organizational learning culture and design.
On the face of it, leaders today are no longer happy or excited about traditional, reactive, transactional, top-down, short-term, menu-driven, teacher-learner training programs. It could be that, in the present climate, even providing proactive, internal consulting is not enough either. Perhaps, we need to go from training to learning & development (L&D) to a more interactive, transformational approach—more like knowledge-led partners rather than supply/demand-led providers.
ASTD: What is the most common skill(s) you feel virtual leaders need to strengthen or attain?
Tkaczyk: I’d opt for getting inside the DNA of every virtual team to unlock its potential for innovation and growth through building and sustaining high-quality links in the virtual workplace to energize and mobilize people.
These don’t necessarily need to be long relationships—we are, after-all, dealing with virtual communities. This can be attained by showing up and choosing to be virtually present, paying attention to what has meaning, trust-building, telling the truth without judgment, energizing co-workers to take on their challenges and succeed, and designing and developing virtual hot spots such as collaborative and fun places to work, buzzing with positive energy.
ASTD: You listed that current challenges for leaders of dispersed teams includes different time zone problems for communication in real time. Can you speak more to this?
Tkaczyk: Virtual teams (versus conventional teams) as collections of co-workers who are geographically dispersed are linked into each other via communication and IT, but they are separated by spatial distance (like San Francisco versus London team). Consequently, communication in real time may not always be workable due to different time zones. For that reason, leaders of virtual teams need to be trained in employee commitment and organizational performance. When affective commitment exists, employees will exhibit discretionary behavior, and go the extra mile, like stay up for a project emergency video call. Yet, hopefully, they won’t grant themselves a “psychological license” to take shortcuts somewhere else.