We’ve all been there.  It’s the dreaded ‘development opportunity’ that involves running a project or a piece of work with a disparate set of specialists from across the business.  Tight deadlines, limited budgets, woolly requirements.  And the best of all?  No one involved actually reports to you.  They all have ‘day jobs’ to be getting on with and responding to your requests (however politely put), is way down the list of their priorities.

So, how can you be an effective leader in these circumstances? Being able influence and motivate peers, colleagues, business leaders and stakeholders over whom you have no immediate authority is a key leadership skill.  How do you leverage resource and input and gain traction and buy-in for your goals when the ultimate motivation of ‘doing something because my boss wants me to‘ is missing from the equation.

Here’s some hints and tips on how successful leaders go about building high performing ‘virtual’ teams.

  1.  Agree the goals with the sponsor:  If you don’t have an agreed vision of where you are going, it can be pretty much impossible to take anyone with you.  Get input and support from the key business sponsor or stakeholder.  Clarify from the get go who owns the piece of work, what the timescales for delivery are and most importantly who makes up your team.  Ensure that they are fully aware of the expectation of their involvement in the project (it’s amazing how often people have no idea that they have been ‘gifted’ responsibility!) and that whoever they report to is signed up to the commitment.
  2. Meet your team:  not over email, Slack, Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business.  Have a real life, person to person, living and breathing get together.  Have a coffee and take the time to find out WHO you are working with.  Chances are you may not even have met them in the flesh previously.  Do you have pre-conceptions about them, their department or their business function that you can challenge?  Try and see each of your team players as an individual with a set of strengths that can be used to move you towards your goals.  Ensure everybody knows where you are all meant to be going and why.  Do this individually if necessary.  Investing in getting to know virtual partners is crucial.
  3. Find out what’s in it for them:  Chances are you have said yes to leading this piece of work because of one of the following reasons:  it gives you experience in an area of the business you are unfamiliar with; it’s a high profile piece of work that raises your professional capital;  you were asked by an individual you respect and want to please them; you were asked (coerced) by someone you fear and can’t say no; you get bored easily and are always looking for a new challenge; you believe deeply in the desired project outcome and want to be part of making it happen.  By the same token, probably everyone in your virtual team has a similar motivation.  Find out what’s in it for them and try to tailor your asks of them accordingly.  For example, if you IT support specialist wants promotion, major on the fact that his involvement in this project is really useful to have on his CV.
  4. Develop a team identity:  However individualist the personality, we all like to be part of something.  It’s much more difficult to achieve this kind of collaborative climate with stakeholders from different business backgrounds, often working remotely from one another.  Using a ‘brand’ for your project or piece of work, (getting a logo designed for corporate comms, setting up team email accounts, or agreeing a strap line or mission statement for the work), can be immensely helpful in bringing people together.
  5. Follow up:  It’s easy to build alliances with people you are in regular contact with.  If you don’t maintain regular contact with your team players, you will probably have a better relationship with the person you buy your sandwich from each day.  You don’t have to be in constant contact, but do make it a habit to check in regularly with everybody involved.  And be interested.  Ask about things that are entirely unconnected to the project.  Listen to the answers.  Listening is one the most fundamental, valuable and overlooked leadership skills.
  6. Ask the difficult questions:  When there is no formal reason for an individual to respond to your request, asking thought provoking questions is a powerful way to assert influence. Instead of imposing a deadline, ask for a consensus on milestones and delivery: ‘what should our priorities be here and what are the timelines we should work to‘?  Asking clarifying questions is also a highly effective technique for building consensus among diverse participants.  This will also encourage team members to be accountable to one another and help them resist the temptation to think and operate as individuals.

Happy leading!