International virtual leadership

Leading a cross-cultural team is coupled with all sorts of challenges. It’s especially exciting when the team members are based in different international locations and collaboration takes place to a large extent virtually. As a leader, you should learn what to take into account in the virtual realm!

Thanks to globalization, most internationally active companies have subsidiaries abroad [China and India are particularly popular locations]. Team members and their leaders thus frequently find themselves spread over various international locations. This comes with special tasks and challenges for the team leaders. To facilitate successful collaboration, it’s necessary to break down not only the spatial distance, but also the perceived subjective distance.

In professional circles, this is known as distance leadership. The main task of distance leaders is to establish affinity with and between their employees despite the geographical distance. In “normal teams”, this mostly occurs face to face. However, because of the dispersed teams’ various locations, the team members and their leaders mainly have contact in virtual situations [via e-mail, telephone, web conferences, etc.]. This occasionally proves to be difficult, but it’s not impossible!

The alpha and omega: Generating affinity

A personal kick-off meeting should always be obligatory before every collaboration. This provides the leaders and their employees with an initial opportunity to become personally acquainted with each other and to swap ideas; they essentially lay a foundation. Yet even after the kick-off meeting, distance leaders have to work on this affinity continually through otherwise common virtual communication paths. This can be achieved through regular audio-video conferences, social media tools or meeting- and project-management systems developed specifically for these purposes.

This perceived affinity is important for the establishment of relationships built on trust, both with and between the team members. It’s the basis of identification with the group, which generates commitment in the virtual realm. This fact should not be taken lightly. Invest the time to establish a sense of solidarity within the group. And a private chat [for instance, about the last weekend or about the family] couldn’t hurt.

Wanted: Team culture

distance leadership, virtual leadership, manager, cross-cultural training, intercultural training, relationshipMoreover, distance leaders need to create a binding team culture for all members. To that end, they should be guided very specifically by their team members’ goals and desires, then set certain rules and procedures [e.g., how criticism should be expressed] and monitor their compliance. On the other hand, virtual leaders should grant their employees the freedom to work autonomously and to make decisions. It’s important to find a good middle ground between control and freedom: You should be present but please use Skype only when it’s really necessary.

Furthermore, managing cultural differences is part of the virtual leader’s job. Misunderstandings can easily crop up due to international locations and the employees’ different cultural values, and these misunderstandings can negatively affect collaboration in the long term. Leaders have to be cross-culturally sensitized to recognize these differences [e.g., dealing with deadlines, delegating tasks or the significance of discussing personal topics], much less to take them into account and to communicate them appropriately.

As you can see, leading international virtual work groups is an exciting challenge. If you’re interested in this topic and would like more information on it, we recommend you our cross-cultural training on virtual collaboration. In this training, we address issues such as virtual leadership styles, measures for conflict management and the targeted use of various media. Don’t hesitate to contact us!


About Sophie Humpisch

I studied business communication and cross-cultural competence. During my studies I lived abroad for a long time and therefore experienced cross-cultural differences on my own. I have been with Eidam & Partner since 2014, being responsible for the support and recruiting of cross-cultural experts. Eidam & Partner offers worldwide services related to cross-cultural communication, such as cross-cultural training, cross-cultural coaching, eLearning and preparation for international assignments for more than 80 target countries.
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