Ann Handley’s Secrets to Successfully Leading Virtual Teams

Leadership Chat is coming up on its one-year anniversary, and in this time Steve Woodruff and I have yet to tackle the topic of Leading Virtual Teams.  Well, we’re rectifying this tomorrow night as we host a very special guest:  MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer and Co-Author of “Content Rules,” Ann Handley.

That’s Ann on the far left in the picture, with some of the members of her virtual team that she was able to spend time with “in-real-life” last spring.

I had the opportunity to ask Ann a few critical questions about leading virtual teams; I know you’ll learn from and enjoy her responses:

Lisa:  What are the unique opportunities that leaders have when they are leading virtual teams?

Ann:   

1. Hiring the best person you can find for the job without regard for geographical locations. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether your ideal candidate is in Dubuque or Dubai — you aren’t confined by geographical area.

2. Being able to accommodate people in all stages of life — who need to order their work lives around special health considerations, or children, or elder care, or whatever.

3. For me personally, being able to walk my dogs in the middle of the day. (Best stress releaser for me ever – it’s a kind of reset when I need it.) The flexibility is AWESOME.

4. There are a lot of hours to focus in the day when you don’t spend time commuting, getting ready for work, etc. You can shower when you WANT! ; )

5. Not wearing pants without getting into hot water with HR. (ha) 

Lisa:  What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced when leading a virtual team?

 Ann:

1. Not everyone can function in a virtual environment, or has a hard time adjusting. You have to be a good at managing your time and getting the most hours out of your hours. At the same time, you can’t let work take over your home life (if you work out of a home office, as most of us here at ‘Profs do.) Getting the balance right is key.

2. People have different communication styles and needs — for example, some people really like face-to-face… so it’s a challenge to figure out how to make that work in a virtual environment. Others are better on the phone. Others work well in email. It’s tricky to figure out what works for which people.

3. Sometimes, I can get distracted by my OWN day-to-day…. and it’s easy to put off the needs of your team. (I really try not to. But still. It happens.)

4. Getting teams connected, when they don’t share the same physical space. It’s hard for folks to really get to know each other easily.

5. Sometimes — but not always — virtual companies attract introverts (I know this because I am one and can usually recognize it in others!). Which is fine, but it’s better for a company to have more of a balance, I think.

6. I miss group brainstorming. 

7. I miss what I call ambient camaraderie. Not necessarily from a social aspect – but from the ability to get to know each other/care about each other on a different level. It does happen, of course. But it happens more slowly than it would if we shared physical space. As my friend Anne Yastremski (our VP of Marketing) says, “No one brings in veggies from their garden.” She’s not really talking about the veggies (well, not JUST about the veggies!), but about the fact that you don’t always easily have a sense of people on a personal level.

Lisa:    Do you think the leadership risks are the same, lesser, greater when leading a virtual team than when leading a centrally-located team? Why?

Ann:

Hmm. It’s been a while since I was involved in a centrally located team. But I think it’s efficient in a lot of ways, less so in others. So in some ways risks are the same or lesser. In some ways they’re greater. 

There’s more time to focus that you don’t spend commuting. But nonetheless there are some challenges to it, as I talked about above.

Lisa:     This blog focuses on Visionary Leadership.  How do you incorporate vision into your role as leader, and is it more difficult to communicate your vision to your team while leading them virtually?

 Ann:

I don’t think so. We do convene as teams in the same physical space at least several times a year. We convene various teams at different points specifically to get on the same page (the “vision thing”), and we use industry events (both MP-hosted and outside-hosted) as another opportunity to connect as a team or as individuals. For example, a group of us went to Dreamforce recently, and we saved one night intentionally to have dinner together. Over the course of a year, those dinners and lunches and coffees really help.

We also use all kinds of tools (Skype, Skype video, group video Skype, Basecamp, Dropbox) to keep us all rowing in the same direction. The challenges I talked about above aren’t insurmountable, of course. Being aware of the problem is the first step toward fixing it, right? ; )  

Lisa:    My Leadership Chat Co-Host and Co-Founder Steve Woodruff  likes to talk often about “the WWAHD question” – “What Would Ann Handley Do?”  What would you say is the one thing Steve probably THINKS you would do, that you would NEVER do? 

Ann:

Hmmmm…..good question. Well, I guess I’d say that barring legal or moral issues, I’m pretty game for most anything! 

We have an event coming up in Seattle (http://events.marketingprofs.com/SocialTechB2B) next spring which includes a reception at the city aquarium. Folks around here talked dressing me in a MarketingProfs-branded scuba suit to swim around the party. Would I? Heck yeah. 

But now I’m wondering what Steve might possibly be thinking… should I be nervous?

I think she’s safe – but what do you think? Have Ann’s secrets to Virtual Leadership success addressed your concerns? What other questions do you have?

Share in the comments, and be sure to join me, Ann and Steve tomorrow night, September 27th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time for our next edition of Leadership Chat on Twitter!  These chats are getting bigger, better and more insightful every week – don’t miss out!

Need help defining a business vision, purpose and mission and the strategies to support them? Hire me for Visionary Leadership programs, and work with me by emailing me at [email protected].

~

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Leadership in the Age of Work-Family Conflict

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Comments

  1. I’m sorry, I can’t see Ann swimming in an aquarium. Will this be recorded? ;)

  2. Henry Motyka says:

    I have had quite the opposite experience. Though I was not working from home, once I managed a person in Dallas while I worked in New York City office, and once I managed a group on a dotted line matrix basis in New York while I managed another group in my location in Stamford, CT.
    I’m so big on face to face interaction and it just wasn’t there in either instance. I feel it takes away from a leader’s ability to really understand what’s going on and to help someone that works for you. In both cases, the stresses were to much to make for a workable situation.

    • Henry, you raise some very important points. I think that as Ann mentioned, really understanding each person’s needs and preferences becomes critical, and it won’t work for everyone. I hope you’ll join us at LeadershipChat tomorrow night to discuss this in more depth and share your experiences with others!

  3. Lisa,
    Nice preview and intro to the always awesome Ann Handley! I think Ann has a gift for making things LOOK easy when we know they aren’t. I would love to participate – these kids of mine might get in the way but I’ll do my best to at least peek in tomorrow night. I love Ann’s point about her own distractions – that is a struggle I can relate to, but I also relate to the incredible flexibility of virtual teams. Bravo for getting the content queen on your chat!

  4. If Ann does scuba in MarketingProfs wetsuit AND does a live uStream underwater interview of a trained dolphin – THAT will be content above and beyond WWAHD. Wait – if she does that, it will be what Ann would do. Never mind….
    Steve Woodruff´s last blog post ..Leading Virtually Really

  5. I just adore Ann so my kudos Lisa & Steve for choosing her to host tonight. A hot topic indeed. I should forwarn you Ann, that chat crowd can get rowdy at times ;) See you tonight.

  6. Great insight on virtual leadership – and no it’s not always that easy to manage. I worked out of a home office after we downsized in 2001, and while I enjoyed not having employees to answer to the first couple years, after a while I found I was ‘always working and never working.’ For me the answer was taking a spot in a co-working space – a flexible office space + conference room people can access as little as a half day per month. So everything I need to work comes with me each day – my desk is clear and uncluttered. While I’m here I focus + work. And my honey-do list at home is actually getting shorter. Yes, we have to wear pants (shorts + flip flops allowed), but it’s a small price to pay for the stimulation of other creative folks; it’s also a place to meet our virtual teams (and clients) over a cup of Keurig. The more I’m here the better my business is – just that simple (and simple is a big part of the equation). These co-working spaces are popping up in a lot of places – the one I work out of is ZenBungalow.com It’s the best of both worlds.

  7. Ann’s insights are wonderful. Thank you so much, Lisa, for posting this.

    Ann is fortunate in that she can get her team together even a few times per year. Many of us never have that opportunity, and for us I think it’s much harder to share the vision and build cameraderie. The bulk of my interaction with the team takes the form of routine status updates and information dissemination. Would it be useful to schedule conference calls that are dedicated to non-routine things like sharing the vision or even like long-distance team building? Or do you think that would be counterproductive?

    • Larry, You’re welcome and I agree – she is fortunate. I absolutely love that you’re thinking about scheduling conferences for both sharing the vision and team building. You absolutely must convey your vision clearly – I’d be reinforcing it as often as possible, and I bet you’d come up with some creative ways to team build via video! All the best to you.

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