Leading Teams Across Continents

Last Updated Oct 5, 2007 12:09 PM EDT

Until relatively recently, teams had regular face-to-face contact. Now, with globalization and advances in communication technology, it is both possible and efficient to form dispersed international teams whose members can take advantage of their respective localities, time zones, and economic circumstances.

Being a member of a dispersed team is a very different experience than working with local colleagues, and managers of dispersed teams need to find ways to compensate for the lack of spontaneity and support that a traditional team provides.

Although the principles of team leadership remain the same whether the team is local or global, there are some additional skills required to lead teams across continents.

What You Need to KnowWhat is a virtual team?

A virtual team comprises members who are geographically dispersed and who are working in different time zones and environments. They are linked through a web of telecommunications and they have a common purpose. Leading a virtual team is challenging due to the difficulties of bringing it together, not only physically but through electronic channels of communication. This is due to the different time zones that members may be in.

What are the special requirements of a widely dispersed team?

Teams that span continents have the same basic requirements as those that are concentrated in one place. The purpose of the team must be known along with its goals and objectives. The various roles that are required to get the job done need to be covered, and communication between the team leader and the team, and within the team, must be excellent. It is important that there be a "forming" stage to the team's development. This means that team members get to know each other and begin to recognize the value that each can bring to the collective task. Ideally, this is a face-to-face meeting in which the chemistry and non-verbal communication between team members can be felt. If this is not possible, a dedicated virtual meeting is a substitute. It is important that trusting relationships are built in the early stages of team formation.

What is the most effective leadership technique to adopt?

As there is limited serendipitous communication between the team leader and members of the team, it is vital that the channels of communication remain open and free flowing. The team leader needs to find as many opportunities as possible to connect with the team members through the different forms of communication technology. It may only be for a minute or two but regular contact that demonstrates the team leader is interested in what is happening from the team member's perspective is important. These are also times to provide validation and encouragement.

I have a team that is global in its reach, and it is very difficult to bring everyone together virtually. How can I maintain good communication with each member of the team?

There may be times when one member of the team has to stay up late and another has to rise early in order to join their colleagues on a video, web, or teleconference. Although this may not be possible all the time, it is helpful if this can happen at regular intervals so that everyone has a chance to reconnect to the team and remind themselves of its purpose. At other times, you might like to consider appointing "messengers" in geographical hubs who take responsibility for communicating messages from the center to their nearest colleague. This role can revolve around the team so that everyone has the responsibility to do this at some point. Use as many techniques as possible for getting team members face-to-face with one another, even if they are unable to meet as a whole team.

What to DoUnderstand the Importance of Communication

Most of the success in leading teams across continents is down to excellent communication and good relationships.

It is through regular and precise communication that goals and objectives are shared, progress is measured, and results are seen. In addition, the "softer" side of working in a team setting have to be conveyed through communication. Individual's motivation levels need to be maintained; trusting relationships need to be established; and professional development needs to take place through the active transformation of experience into learning.

Here are some ideas for creating excellent communication pathways and building good relationships.

Bring the Team Together

If at all possible, bring the dispersed team together for a couple of days at the outset of the project. As well as setting the context and agenda for the team, devise ways in which the team members can get to know each other and share their passions, motivations, and preferences. The better the connection made at the outset, the longer it will last in the virtual environment. Plan these communal events at specific intervals throughout the team's lifespan—and celebrate success together at the end.

Develop an Identity or Brand

By developing an identity or brand, everyone will know what entity they belong to and can build trusted and committed relationships within it. Again, this will probably be initiated at the outset of the team's life together. It can be done explicitly in a team bonding exercise or it can emerge from the communications struck up between members at such a time.

Agree on the Terms of Engagement

All teams need to know the "rules"; what is OK and what is not OK. This is something that can be agreed on at the formation stage of the team when you get together at the inception of the project. The Terms of Engagement will include such things as decision-making and conflict-management processes, expectations around timelines and deadlines, and team etiquette— punctuality, frequency of (virtual) meeting attendance, managing interruptions, listening attentively, giving or receiving feedback, and cell phone management. In addition, the Terms of Engagement may include a rotating host for meetings so that differences in time zones do not always favor the same people.

Create a Virtual Communal Space on the Internet

In order to make sure you know where everyone is and what their plans are, create a space on the Internet for online communication. This is important so that when you call your team together, there are no unexplained absences. Significant client meetings, conferences, seminars, and vacations should all be noted here. You can also use this virtual environment to store documents, information, and news—both personal and professional. Part of the Terms of Engagement may include the frequency with which team members should access such a place.

Keep Everyone Updated on Progress

Make sure that every team member is included in the updates for the project. Report on progress and inform people of any changes in the timelines or objectives so that others can adjust their schedules to match. You can systemize these communications using your project planning software or your communal Web space to ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

Manage Asynchronous Communications

One of the defining features of a virtual team is that communication is often offline and asynchronous. In addition, because there are no visual cues between people in these situations, it is important that all communication is unambiguous and positive. Pejorative or sarcastic comments or ironic humor must be used carefully. These types of communications can easily be misunderstood if they are not read in the spirit in which they were written; and, without the visuals to accompany them, they probably will not be. Emoticons can be used to convey the emotions behind statements if you want to lighten the tone. :-)

Create a Sense of Community

If you were present with your team members, you would probably catch up around the coffee machine or in the cafeteria quite naturally. With a virtual team, you will need to do this in a planned and conscious way, yet make it feel natural. You might want to keep reminders of your team's existence around your office or on your computer so that you are prompted to nudge or call them from time to time. Making the effort to say "I was just wondering how things were going…" Sends powerful signals that someone is a valuable member of the team.

Be Clear about Your Expectations

Just because a team is dispersed, it does not mean that members can dishonor their obligations or get away with poor standards of workmanship. Each team member will need to be clear about the expectations you have of them, an agreed set of goals and targets, and time set aside for feedback and review. You may find it helpful to consider yourself as a coach to each of your team members. This way, you will be encouraged to strike up interested, purposeful, and personal conversations.

Get to Know Your Team Members

Your role as a leader is just as important, if not more so, when you are leading teams across continents. Without seeming to be contrived, your communications will need to compensate for the lack of physical closeness and lack of accessibility you have with your team. Get to know your team members well so that you can dovetail your communications and allocate tasks according to their personal interests and motivations. Although you are invisible most of the time, you will nevertheless have great impact on your team's health and ability to perform well. Be sure they know who you are and how to manage you too. There is a two-way responsibility here for establishing and maintaining good, productive, relationships.

What to AvoidYou Fail to Thank Each Team Member Personally

Leaders of widespread teams commonly forget to give recognition to each team member for his or her contribution to the team's success once the project has been completed. And, if the team leader is forthcoming in giving praise, it is often done by e-mail—and mass distributed! Although this public appreciation is better than nothing, recognition should have been given personally beforehand. As team members generally give their personal best to achieve the collective goal, this needs an equally personal thank you.

You Fail to Stay in Regular Communication

Good communication is the life-blood of most far flung teams, yet this is an area that consistently challenges team leaders. "Out of sight" seems to mean "out of mind," and communication often becomes minimalist and fragmented. Although it is difficult to be sure to make contact with people who are in different time zones, it is important to persist. It is much better to over-communicate than under-communicate. Under communication can lead to a lack of control and a break down of the team. However, beware of the seductive power of technology. You cannot rely on automatic, systemized, or mass electronic mailings to communicate to your team. There is no substitute for building good personal relationships.

You Fail to Let the Organization Know of the Team's Successes

One of the mistakes that leaders tend to make is to forget that the project team needs visibility as a coherent entity. It is up to the team leader to represent the virtual team and to convey its successes to the wider organization. This will build the brand definition of the team and give it some status and authority.

You Fail to Address the Development Needs of Your Team

In spite of the fact that team members are distributed around different continents, they still need development attention. By setting time aside and acting as a remote coach, team leaders can focus on each team member's experience of working on the project and turn it into conscious learning. This will ensure that the wisdom and skills developed on the project will be available next time—and it will create a pool of leaders who can lead teams across continents.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Kossler, Michael E., and Sonya Prestridge, Leading Dispersed Teams. Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Duarte, Deborah L, and Nancy Tennant Snyder, Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed. Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Fisher, Kimball, and Mareen Fisher, The Distance Manager: A Hands on Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Williams, Val, Virtual Leadership. Shadowbrook Publishing, 2002.

Hoefling, Trina, Working Virtually: Managing People for Successful Virtual Teams and Organizations. Stylus Publishing, 2003.

Froggatt, Cynthia C., Work Naked: Eight Essential Principles for Peak Performance in the Virtual Workplace. Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Lipnack, Jessica, and Jeffrey Stamps, Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology. Wiley, 2001.

Malone, Ollie, 101 Leadership Actions for Creating and Managing Virtual Teams. HRD Press, 2004.

Web Sites:

3M Meeting Network: www.3m.com/meetingnetwork/readingroom/meetingguide_distribteam.html

Fifth Generation Work: www.seanet.com/~daveg/ltv.htm

Quality Digest: www.qualitydigest.com/sept00/html/teams.html

Global Knowledge: http://images.globalknowledge.com/wwwimages/whitepaperpdf/WP_RemoteTeams.pdf