Master leading a high performing virtual team with just 7 simple ingredients

Let’s face it. There are important differences between face to face and virtual (or hybrid) teams. One of those is the leadership approach we need to adopt if we want to have them perform at its best. In this fragment of our Virtual Workshop “Leading a hybrid team”, which we ran for club members and other small accountancy firm owners, I go through the key 7 ingredients needed to have a high performing virtual team.

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What do you need to ensure you have a high performing virtual team?

You need to have the right team.

To have a high performing virtual team, you need to aim that your team has the right skills to work well whether or not they are co-located. One of the challenges many small accountancy firm owners are currently facing is that when they recruited their current team, they were not expecting their employees to have to go virtual. Neither were they, personally, expecting to lead a virtual team (and with so little lead time to prepare for the change!) This means that your current employee's ability to thrive as a high performer in a virtual environment was never assessed.

We have a saying in the club that you “get the team and business you deserve”. Therefore, you as the owner of your small accountancy firm need to step up and help your team become a high performing virtual team. Even if you feel ill-equipped to do this, as many of our AGC members were at first.

You need to have the right leadership.

For a virtual team to perform at its best, it needs to be paired up with the right communication style. It’s not just about saying the right things at the right time, but also looking to over-communicate what is expected of the team and individuals. When people are not located in the office it becomes much easier to get distracted and unfocused on what the key priorities are for individuals and the team as a whole. Hence, the requirement to over-communicate what is expected of people. It’s also much easier as the leader of a (potential) high performing virtual team to get stuck in the day-to-day detail. Particularly if your firm is facing a backlog of compliance as a result of the lockdown madness.

To ensure that your leadership of your virtual team is up-to-scratch, take some time to ask yourself these questions:

  • How am I communicating?
  • Am I setting the direction of the team and firm as a whole?
  • Am I making people feel good?
  • How am I establishing trust between my team?
  • How am I making sure that the work is getting done?

You need to have the right technology in place.

One of the reasons in the past that virtual teams or hybrid teams have historically been seen as less efficient than colocated teams is the ability to collaborate in real time. Today’s online cloud based tools now allow anyone with internet access to collaborate in real time with their team. When it comes to keeping control of the workflow, the technologies you set in place to help you manage your practice need to help you guarantee access to a single point of truth. You need to make sure they are easy to interact with, and people have the right systems and workflows in place.

You need to establish the right touchpoints.

Earlier on in this article I talked about communication being the virtual ingredient for leading a virtual high performing team. (Actually any type of team!) This means meetings and checkpoints are critical. While leading a virtual or hybrid team, you need to make sure you set up regular meetings to reinforce the feeling that you're in control. But also to keep everyone focused on what they need to do, and by when.


The 7 Ingredients for a High Performing Virtual Team

1) Purpose

Every great team, it doesn't matter where they are located in the world or how they are located, needs to have a purpose. As touched upon earlier in this article, as the leader of the team, it is your responsibility to set that purpose and to communicate clearly.

If your team is to transform into a high-performing virtual team (actually similar to a traditional team), your team needs to have direction, and a clear purpose. This will provide that all important why for your firm. As an example, with the Accountants' Growth Club, we exist to help our members have the confidence and clarity to grow their firm profitably, that's what we're all about. That's our why.

If you don't feel like you have a clear purpose right now, take a step back and take some time to answer these questions:

  • Why is it that you do what you do?
  • What prompted you to start your firm? And why are you still leading it?
  • What's the purpose of your firm?
  • What are you delivering to your clients?
  • What's your firm's vision and mission?

2) Direction and short team goals

Clear direction and short term goals can more easily impact behaviour and team performance than big, abstract goals. Make sure you take the time to set up clear goals and expectations for your team. So that those, along with your firm's purpose, become their source of direction and reference.

3) Psychological Safety

Do you remember when you were at school, how you spent most of your time trying to fit in? And trying desperately not to say the wrong thing? At an early age, many of us learnt we couldn't speak our mind because that's not what was done. And we had to be careful with what we said. Otherwise, we could look like an idiot, be seen as ‘uncool’ or get teased and bullied.

As a result as adults, our brains are wired to tell us that we've got to be careful what we say and do; because it could all backfire against us.

This happens in teams, too, a lot.

We're social animals. We're wired to know that being part of a community is good. And actually, for our brains, getting rejected by someone or something is akin to our tribe basically saying: "disappear, go off on your own." And when we were a caveman or woman that meant certain death. Of course now, we are not necessarily at risk of death when we experience rejection. But our brains are still wired to keep us safe. I.e. to avoid being rejected or looking stupid in front of others.

How does this reflect in team behaviour? Well, essentially we will often moderate what we say and how we say it. And we may not even speak out. This is because we are afraid that if we don’t apply these filters the boss, or our colleagues are going to shout at us, ridicule us or make us feel small or stupid.

This is why, particularly in this rapidly changing world, it is so important that you create within your virtual team psychological safety. I.e. your team feels safe to speak their mind, without fear of being shot down. After all, if you expect your team to take the initiative, you need to make them feel safe enough to tell you when things don't go well, when they are having a problem.

Recent research run by Google found that the most significant factor to the performance of a team was not about purpose, direction or short term goals. It was about psychological safety. It's your role as the leader of the team to create that culture of psychological safety.

Not sure your firms’ culture and leadership style are supporting your team’s psychological checklist? Take a look at our Psychological Safety checklist to assess how you are doing.

4) Trust

Most accountants have been trained in a management style called "management by walking about". In fact I have, personally, over the years written many people management courses which reference “management by walking about”. However, “management by walking about” doesn’t work (obviously) if your team is not in the office with you. After all, we cannot look over their shoulders to confirm things are getting done when they are in a completely different location to us. Therefore, if we can’t use “management by walking about” to create a high performing virtual team, we need alternative options.

So, we have no other option than to trust. However, generating trust with your team members, and trust between team members is much more challenging in a virtual team. Basically, because we have less of those water-cooler moments and everyday social interactions which help build trust.

In this social distancing 'new normal', it is critical, if we want a high performing virtual team, to be able to recreate those day-to-day social interactions, but virtually. It’s not just the social interactions which can help build trust. It is also the systems and technology we select. After all, if you can, say for example use Senta’s dashboard to see that everything is on track, it makes it much easier to trust your team to get on with it. Conversely, it makes it also much easier to see what is not being done. And, therefore, hold your team to account.

5) Responsibility and autonomy

As hinted before, if you want to have a high performing virtual team full of self-starters who take the initiative, you have to help them accept failure. After all, if you are scared of failure, you often don’t try. You just stay in your comfort zone. How many times have you wondered to yourself what it will really take for your team to take the initiative? To not be solely reliant on you for all the answers?

The answer lies back in psychological safety again. If your team knows it is going to be supported when things go wrong, rather than blamed, they are more likely to step out of their comfort zone and take the initiative. This means avoiding creating a “blame culture”. A “blame culture” will stifle team members from experimenting and owning their actions. If a team member makes a mistake, then take the time to understand what happened for things to go wrong. Then work with them to remedy this for future occurrences.

6) Right time, right place touchpoints

As mentioned earlier in the article, touchpoints are critical to create and manage a high performing virtual team. Remember, having the right type of meeting with the right frequency will help you feel and stay in control of what's happening in your firm. In addition it will help you keep a close look at how your team is developing and performing.

7) Management by exception

In a traditional management mindset, during a regular meeting, everybody comes with an update. However, as a participant is that actually interesting? And is it effective? Or a good use of everyone’s time?

If you have the right systems in place, those general updates should be happening online. Nowadays, with virtual and hybrid teams, when we come to a meeting it needs to be a forum to build relationships, create strong bonds of trust, and work together in real time. If you are not using meetings for updates, what are you using them to do. Ideally meetings should be used for management by exception and instilling clarity about what the team needs to do. Freed up of endless updates, your meeting time can use the power of your team to solve problems, bounce ideas around, and brainstorm the root causes of any problems

When you master these seven ingredients, you can lead your team towards incredible results. But it all starts with you!

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