Three years since the pandemic forced so many healthcare and business functions to go remote, virtual leadership has emerged as a crucial competency for high-performing organizations. Just as important, the speed, ease, and efficiencies we’ve gained from working virtually is now a basic expectation for many workers — an expectation we need to meet well if we’re going to attract and retain top talent.
In the 20+ years since our inception, MEDI Leadership has never had a central office. Rather, our team of nearly 40 is spread out throughout the country, interacting virtually for most of our time together. During that time, I’ve worked closely with Gina Schneider, our business development and operations lead, who began as an administrative partner. And yet, we’ve stood in the same room together fewer than 10 times in two decades.
Have you ever had a professional relationship where your coworker could read your mind? That’s Gina and me. She knows how I think, what trips me up, and how to get me unstuck. She’s able to anticipate my needs and reactions. How do you get to that level of synchronicity when you live 1,800 miles apart?
In this post — the last installment in our Key Leadership Competencies series — I want to share a few practices that make virtual leadership highly effective for us. As you apply them to your own work and teams, I believe you’ll see tremendous improvements in performance, engagement, and results.
Traits of an effective virtual leader
- You align your geographically dispersed organization around a shared vision and values.
- You skillfully move the organization through transitions caused by disruptive change.
- You leverage teams across the organization to be present, accelerate progress, and offer guidance in ways no longer limited to your physical presence.
- You know how to build, maintain and repair distant relationships.
Gallup: 12 things your teams need from you
Before we go farther, it’s helpful to review what your employees need from you. A Gallup survey on employee engagement identified 12 needs you need to meet. These 12 items give you a framework to have conversations that can feed motivation and engagement:
- I know what is expected of me at work.
- I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
- At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
- In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
- My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
- There is someone at work who encourages my development.
- At work, my opinions seem to count.
- The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
- My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
- I have a best friend at work.
- In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
- This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.
How do you do that consistently and effectively when you’re geographically dispersed? We’ve found the following tools to be highly effective, both with our own teams at MEDI, and in helping clients like you lead virtual teams.
3 practices for effective virtual leadership
▷ Structuring effective team interactions
Our team huddles come in a few different “flavors” or formats, each designed to achieve something different. I encourage you to experiment with them and invite feedback from your teams to fine-tune what works for your organization.
Every Monday morning, my team gathers via video for 30-60 minutes. We spend this time sharing about our weekend and what’s ahead in the following days, intentionally nurturing our relationships and connecting as friends. We coordinate with each other to some degree, but the primary goal of the huddle is connecting personally with one another.
Once a month, we extend that huddle call to 2 hours. During that time, we have deeper discussions about strategic initiatives. Though this is a more business-focused call, we still start with that personal check-in — the same one we do in our weekly huddle.
Once a quarter, we spend a full day together. More and more, we do this virtually since it can be challenging for team members to add another day of travel between coaching client commitments.
We gather in person at least once a year. This is when we do our careful, deep strategic planning and budgeting for the year ahead.
▷ The Personal Management Interview
Even the best teams regress into normal, challenging dynamics as time goes on and conditions change. The Personal Management Interview (PMI) is a 1:1 practice that can keep teams and individuals moving forward, protecting against losses in performance, relationship dynamics, engagement, and more. The PMI is based on 40 years of research by Dr. Wayne Boss (Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado), who’s worked with more than 1,400 teams.
One key principle of effective leadership is that you can’t fully influence someone to grow or change their behavior until you have their trust. Trust building is accelerated 1:1, when you can be vulnerable with one another and hold each other accountable for commitments. If you’re looking to influence people on your team, you need to invest time in 1:1 meetings, not just rely on full team meetings.
That 1:1 time is a golden opportunity to review individual commitments and address “pebbles in your shoes” before they become blisters.
At MEDI Leadership, I spend one hour with each person on my team, 1:1, once a month. A few questions I like to ask:
- Catch me up on you: What’s going on in your personal life? Is there anything that would be helpful for me to know so I can be sensitive and supportive of?
- Am I doing anything that’s bothering you or inhibiting your effectiveness?
- What are your growth goals and how can I support them?
- How do you like working at MEDI? What can I do to make it better and more effective for you?
- Any commitments we need to follow up on? Am I living in the commitments I made to you?
With 12 people on my team, I don’t want to forget what we’ve talked about, so I take notes. I especially note any commitments so I can follow up as needed and refresh my memory before the next PMI.
Please note that the PMI needs to be a regular, consistent, protected time. You might choose to do it weekly or monthly, typically for 30-60 minutes. This is a sacred commitment you rarely cancel. (Canceling 1:1s too many times degrades trust, because it conveys that something else is more important.)
▷ Getting teams unstuck
At some point team members will get tense or annoyed with one another. It’s unavoidable — teams aren’t static, after all.
Teams cycle through specific stages in a specific order. The challenges you’re facing today may indicate your teams are entering a new phase. The good news is that experiencing challenging dynamics is normal, predictable and, thankfully, manageable. These are stages of evolution that all teams go through. The key is to recognize the stage your team is in and lead accordingly.
I’ve detailed stages of team dynamics in a past post, but here’s the CliffsNotes, so to speak:
|Traits: Learning, open to direction, patient, “honeymoon” disposition
|Traits: Settled in, willing to push back, impatient, fed up, storming
|Traits: Siloed, fair-to-good communications, harmonious, good boundaries
|Traits: Strong commitment, accountability, and results. Responsibilities, decisions, and wins are shared by all.
Every time change is introduced into your team — new leader, roles, participants, structures — your team will return to Dependence in some degree and start this cycle again. You can’t skip stages, just like you can’t get to adulthood without experiencing adolescence. This is because the lessons learned and culture formed in one stage set up the learning and growth in the next stage.
If your team is struggling, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader. Again, these dynamics are normal! Once you identify what stage your team is in, you can lead accordingly to move them up toward Interdependence.
Sometimes you need outside help to get the team unstuck, and it’s why many healthcare leaders seek us out. Teams I’ve coached were able to get very close to Interdependence in as little as two days! Knowing there’s a way through can accelerate this process. (More on team stages.)
Our team of executive coaches — many of them being seasoned healthcare executives before they were coaches — often tell us ours is the best team dynamic they’ve ever experienced. That’s saying a lot, considering the depth of their experience and the fact that we’re spread out across the country. Clients, too, often report dramatic transformations after implementing the practices I’ve shared today.
May I recommend something? Pick one or more of these practices to test-drive for 90 days. Invite your team to weigh in on what’s working, what could be better, what should be different. At a minimum, you’ll learn a lot about one another and emerge stronger because you made the effort to connect, listen, and honor them as a virtual leader.
ABOUT THE LEADERSHIP COMPETENCIES SERIES
These are turbulent times in healthcare. Today’s leaders need an expanded set of competencies to manage growing ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk. MEDI’s new blog series is a masterclass in Leadership Competencies we’ve found most critical for driving meaningful transformation in 2023 and beyond.