Many people assume the characteristics that make a good leader are the same whether that leader is co-located with his or her team or not. However, managing virtual teams effectively requires a set of skills that is different from managing teams located under the same roof. In addition to excelling at the execution-oriented practices that define any good leader, virtual leaders must also juggle the interpersonal, communication and cultural factors that define virtual teams.

OnPoint’s own research on virtual teams has found nearly half are not meeting expectations, while one in four are failing altogether. As virtual teams are the building blocks for global organizations, it is imperative for organizations to select leaders carefully.

What characteristics are most important to consider when hiring, promoting and evaluating virtual leaders? Our virtual team research consisted of interviews with leaders from 48 virtual teams and identified these top three characteristics.

Strong Interpersonal Skills

While one might assume introverted people would be more likely to thrive in a virtual setting, our research and research from others has found employees who are more extroverted tend to fare better. They are more adept at finding ways to stay connected to others regardless of their location. Maintaining frequent communication and communicating effectively is crucial to managing accountability in virtual teams.

What does effective communication look like? Within the context of a team, it means giving clear direction and being responsive when team members ask for assistance or clarification.

Takes Initiative

In the unstructured environment of a virtual team, both leaders and team members must find ways to independently structure their time effectively. They must be well organized and able to keep track of what needs to be done without a lot of supervision from others. They need to be proactive and balance important long-term goals with urgent priorities.

Finally, they need to implement technology and processes that allow them to effectively monitor the work of team members without micromanaging.

Demonstrates Flexibility

The best virtual leaders are able to juggle multiple responsibilities and priorities at the same time. They are able to pivot when priorities shift and swiftly steer their team in the right direction without taking them off course.

When it’s not clear what needs to be done next, virtual leaders must be comfortable consulting others, examining the facts and using critical thinking skills to determine the right course of action.

The most talented and hard-working employees don’t always make the best virtual leaders. Virtual leadership is a true balancing act. Leaders must be able to work in a self-directed manner while also communicating and collaborating well with others. They need to be highly organized, yet flexible enough to tolerate ambiguity.
Leaders should also ensure that their virtual team members have the skills necessary to effectively collaborate from a distance.

According to Google’s Laszlo Bock, that means composing the team differently based on the problem the team needs to solve or address.
For example, a team of people selected to solve a detailed financial problem wouldn’t likely be the same team chosen to tackle a customer satisfaction issue.
However, there are some situations when strong cross-functional leadership and collaboration among various roles is essential. Virtual leaders should consider the scope of the problem when determining who should be chosen to address it.

They can start by establishing criteria for selecting team members. For example, a global IT virtual team in our study outlined the skill set necessary for success and then selected team members accordingly. While technical expertise in various IT areas was deemed important, the leader wanted to involve people who would work well autonomously yet who could also successfully collaborate with the rest of the team when needed.

While the characteristics of top-performing virtual leaders and team members may vary depending on the team’s goals, those involved in selecting these individuals and managing performance can use the following checklists as a guide.

Characteristics of Exceptional Virtual Leaders

Strong interpersonal skills

  • Demonstrates strong communication and management skills
  • Delegates work and responsibilities effectively
  • Trusts others to achieve goals
  • Implements technology and processes to effectively monitor work
  • Effectively manages conflict
  • Holds others accountable for meeting commitments
  • Inspires people to achieve results
  • Effectively recognizes and rewards others
  • Provides coaching and feedback to others

Takes Initiative

  • Delegates or completes work without being asked
  • Manages time wisely
  • Balances long-term goals and immediate needs

Demonstrates Flexibility

  • Is comfortable working in an unstructured environment
  • Is able to shift priorities and make adjustments as needed
  • Appropriately consults and engages others when making decisions

Characteristics of An Exceptional Virtual Team Member

  • Demonstrates a high level of motivation
  • Effectively communicates with others (reaches out for help and proactively shares information)
  • Effectively collaborates with others
  • Is comfortable working in an unstructured environment
  • Is able to operate autonomously to achieve goals/objectives
  • Is self-disciplined
  • Is proficient with technology
  • Efficiently uses time and resources to carry out objectives
  • Resolves work-related problems quickly
  • Takes full accountability for decisions, actions, and performance

Those responsible for hiring virtual leaders and building virtual teams should look for observable, measurable behaviors that demonstrate these characteristics. They can use assessment tools such as questionnaires, behavioral interviews, situational judgment tests and 360 feedback to collect objective data.

Hiring managers or team leaders can also use these characteristics to guide them through performance reviews. They should offer frequent feedback to virtual leaders and team members and provide them with the resources they need to continue their development.

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