377 | Leading Virtual Teams with Tara Powers

Leading virtual teams used to be a novel or even a crazy idea. Now leading virtual teams is a new standard. If you to be an effective leader of a team that you don’t see face-to-face on a regular basis, you will love this episode. I interview Tara Powers, author of “Virtual Teams for Dummies.” Tara wrote this book to help companies that have embraced virtual teams. We talk about the essential elements of effective leadership so that you can lead your virtual teams.

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Target Audience: Tara Powers has been training virtual teams on best practices for several years and she has witnessed firsthand the explosive growth of virtual teams. Factors such as technological advances, increased globalization, high operational costs and the promise of higher productivity have led to the rapid rise of virtual teams.


Leading Virtual Teams: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: Hi, my name is Gene Hammett. I am the host of leaders in the churches. And my question for you today is do you have virtual teams? Are you leading people that are not located in your office? And do you do it well? Would you like to learn a little bit more about how to lead and develop a culture of virtual teams? Well, I brought someone on that I think you’d really appreciate. This is the author of virtual teams. Her name’s Tara powers and uh, this is a really good book. It’s a, it’s a really big book because it’s designed to really help you in many different aspects all the way from the whole onboarding process all the way through a team agreements and charters and, and all of the communication mechanisms and tools and technologies to do a virtual teams and be really effective at it.

Gene Hammett: And we talked about the, the reason that a lot of these fail is because they don’t have certain things in place and what you really need to do and how effective virtual teams can actually be compared to other teams and, and it really is a mindblowing about some of the numbers she shared with us on this podcast. So Tara is a coach, he’s a speaker out there and she’s the author of this book, virtual teams, but it’s more than that. This was based on deep research, the work that she did over a year with virtual teams, her clients, and in many other companies out there that have large virtual teams that she wanted to understand how to run them more effectively and how to lead them with more performance. All right, so here’s the interview with Tara powers.

Gene Hammett: Hi Tara. How are you?

Tara Powers: Hey Gene, how are you? Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: Fantastic. We’re old friends. We’ve known each other for a few years, but you have been up to something pretty big lately. You’ve got this new book coming out, so get a chance to share with everybody about virtual teams. And, uh, I’ve already told the audience a little bit about you, tell us in your own words about the work that you’re doing and about, you know, why you had to write this book.

Tara Powers: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, thanks. I’ve been working in the leadership and development field, a neat consulting with fortune 500 companies for about the past 20 years. And the reason I ended up writing this book is because a lot of the organizations I was working with, pretty large, well known organizations. We’re moving towards burt tool, remote work options and they all look a little different, right? Some of the companies were going 100 percent virtual, partially virtual. Um, some companies were using hoteling, which is another form of remote or virtual work where employees come in and basically reserve a hotel space which is an a cubicle for the day. Uh, and so there was a lot of challenges that came along with that. Obviously where you are not face to face your team anymore as a leader, you’re not, you can’t look over and see what your team’s doing.

Tara Powers: Chat with them immediately and get an answer, maybe provide them with on hands training like, like leaders have been able to do in the past. So there’s a lot of challenges and opportunities that, that kind of remote work situation creates. And when my clients kept asking me what did you have to help help with this challenge? I really didn’t have anything. I wasn’t knowledgeable at the time. So I decided to do a year long research study. I reached out to a lot of big name organizations to participate in my, in my research. I’m hired a um, survey firm to help with that with some industrial psychologists that knew what they were doing in terms of research and ended up putting together a lot of good data around what makes virtual teams effective and what makes leaders of those teams effective. And from there I kind of was found by Wiley and asked to write the book in their dummy series of virtual teams for dummies. So that’s the short version of how that came to be.

Gene Hammett: Well, I’ve lived with. This book is packed with a lot of different exercises and a lot of different things around trust and around, you know, how you engage them the first 90 days of a virtual employee. And I’m excited to have this conversation with you because I think a lot of companies, uh, even my own is I have a virtual team that we’re running and I’m excited to see how this applies to the work we’re doing.

Tara Powers: Yeah, I mean there’s just a lot of stuff that we learned through our research and I can share a couple of those things if it’s helpful.

Gene Hammett: Absolutely. What, what, what’s something that, um, that surprised you, that you learned about virtual teams?

Tara Powers: Yes. I would say the biggest surprise is that there’s a perception gap between how executives see virtual teams in terms of their productivity and their effectiveness and what is actually happening according to the team. So what I mean by that is there is this perception gap where because team members are out of sight, out of mind, you know, there is kind of that old school mentality. Are they actually getting work done? Are they actually being productive? Are they actually being effective and getting results? And that was uncovered in our survey, which we found super interesting that that perception gap exists. And so what that obviously means, and I wrote a lot about it in the book, is if you are a virtual team leader or even a member of a virtual team, it’s important that you take responsibility to make sure you are communicating out to executives, communicating up in terms of progress, goals, priorities, those type of things. Because there is just this perception that if I can’t see you, maybe you’re not doing anything. Maybe you’re at home eating bonbons.

Gene Hammett: I do facebook all the time.

Tara Powers: So that was one of our, I would say more surprising insights from the, from the research study. You know, some of the more, I would say not surprising insights about why virtual teams are growing is number one, cost savings. Obviously huge cost savings associated with allowing employees to work remotely. Um, secondly, it does promote a lot of balance in terms of, you know, that that integration of work and life. So people that are able to work remotely aren’t stuck in traffic for hours, they’re able to get to their kid’s softball game, they can run to the doctors if they have to, they can take care of a sick parent or a pet. So there was a lot more, I would say work life satisfaction that, that comes of working remotely because you’re able to feel like there’s a little bit more balance. Um, so that wasn’t surprising, I don’t think to any of us.

Tara Powers: But one of the other things I would just like to say that we found it didn’t surprise me. What surprised me is how much it made a difference was virtual teams who put agreements in place in terms of communication. Um, the methods of communication they used, how they collaborated and made decisions. The more they had agreements in place that everyone was behind, the more successful the team was. In fact, if I can share a little bit of the stats that we found is those teams as virtual teams that had agreements in place where 39 more 10 times more likely to come up with innovative solutions, 28 times more likely to be considered highly productive and 18 times more likely to accomplish their goals than teams that didn’t. So that was pretty insightful. Um, in terms of our research as well.

Gene Hammett: And those were big numbers.

Tara Powers: Big numbers. Yes.

Gene Hammett: He’s a big impact. I mean, you’d have to pay attention to those numbers and say, you know, why are they more productive when you say an agreement, is this something that’s written down or give us an idea of what that agreement looks like?

Tara Powers: Yeah. So a team agreement, you could call it a team charter. I mean, a lot of times when I work with intact teams that are working together, this is certainly something we recommend, but what we found is with virtual teams, it really is a must. Like you have to agree as a team and I recommend that it’s written down. How do we agree to communicate? What methods of communication are we using? In my book, I actually talk about a virtual team communication matrix and what I have people think is when you are communicating in a virtual environment, you really have to consider two questions.

Tara Powers: Number one, what’s the chance of misunderstanding, and number two, what’s the risks are to the relationship. So for example, if I’m about to email or in Imu and I’m going to explain something that probably could potentially be confusing that you might take the wrong way or potentially make cause us to disagree or get into conflict. Those two questions that I’m answering, chance of misunderstandings high and the risk to our relationship is also high and so in a virtual environment, that means I need to steer clear of email, instant messaging, and texting and I need to do something like we’re doing right now where we can see each other and at least connect. We can see each other’s body language. I can make sure that my intention by the mind, the intention of my message is landing with you. I can see are you getting it?

Tara Powers: Are you frustrated? Are you angry? Are you rolling your eyes and in a virtual environment we have to do a better job turning on our video cameras. This is like the simplest strategy and a lot of teams are reluctant to do it. Um, so I tell them like, just put on a shirt, I don’t care right from the waist down, but this is such an important part of building trust that as a leader, if you’re leading a virtual team or even your team may be a mix. You have half of the people in the office, half of the people working remotely. I just worked with a very large organization today where the whole team except for two people are located in the office too. People are located in another country. And what we found in our research, and certainly through writing this book, anytime you have even one person that’s remote, you have have to act as if you’re all remote for it to work.

Tara Powers: And let me give you an example of that. When people get together in an office and there’s always kind of the meeting before the meeting, right? Like we sit down and we chit chat and we asked about our families and the kids and there’s all this like networking and connection that happens those first few minutes that someone who is remote completely misses out on and unless we act as if we are all remote, we are almost always excluding our remote employees from those types of conversations. So those are two little tips, you know, turn on your video act as if everyone’s remote. If you have even one employee. That is. Yeah.

Gene Hammett: I was thinking about the video when you actually brought it up because me with my team and we’re, we’re not talking every day, but video is a central part of how we get things done. Um, and many times I’m actually recording video of something I want done and letting them see it firsthand as opposed to me trying to describe it in some email. I love email, but I think it’s a coordination tool. Not necessarily, uh, let’s get work done too.

Tara Powers: I think it’s a coordination followup tool. It’s especially helpful with global teams that you are using a combination of methods. So for example, the global team I was working with this morning, you know, one of the best practices is because of the language barriers that, that obviously are happening when they’re working virtually, not only should they have their cameras on, but they should also be following up via email with any of the agreements and discussion points that they talked about to make sure that there is understanding and one of the other best practices that we shared, especially when you have global teams and language barriers are getting in the way that you’re even working on a white board that everyone can see while you’re doing a video conference and you’re writing down the notes, right? You’re taking meeting minutes so that as you’re going in real time, people can say, no, no, that’s not what I agreed to or that doesn’t make sense to me or the way you worded that is different than how I understood it. So there’s a lot of little nuances we need to consider when the team is global. Um, and a, and, and using a combo of methods is really important.

Gene Hammett: You’re in a lot of the work I’ve been doing lately is around culture and studying the fastest growing companies and many of them have remote teams and I haven’t asked these questions because now we have you here to talk about this, but what rituals do you recommend that keep a team, you know, working together, collaborating, you know, communication, rhythms, or anything else that comes to mind when I say rituals?

Tara Powers: Yeah. Well there’s a lot. I wrote about a ton of this in my book and what’s interesting is every company has kind of formulated their own methods that work for them in terms of their own culture, but let me just share a few that I love. I’m one of them is a company that’s. There’s a very large national landscaping company and everybody’s virtual and so the vice president of learning and development, he immediately instituted virtual huddles every Monday morning. So they hop on a comp. It’s usually a conference line because they’re all over the all over the place. Some of them are traveling in their cars. It’s not they. They can’t usually do a webinar and it’s not an official team meeting, it’s really like started the week huddle and so everybody hops on this 15 minute phone call. They all kind of do a virtual round table.

Tara Powers: What’s, what’s your goal for the week? What are your priorities and how can, how can the team support you? And every single person on the team gets to kind of state that out loud, um, and asked for support if they need it. And then that’s it. They hop off the call and they’re on their way. So, but what it does is it brings the team together, kind of grounds the team around what is everybody doing and how am I able to impact my team member even though I can’t see them. Uh, and so I love that idea. I think that’s a really fantastic idea. I also focus a lot on recommending what I call connection activities. So at the start of every virtual meeting, I encourage teams to take five minutes to connect in some way. It could be as simple as, hey, take a picture of what, what you’re looking at outside your window, right?

Tara Powers: If we’re all virtual or some of us are virtual, just what, what do you got going on today? Um, I also like if you’ve ever played those games table topics you ever heard of table topics were having a dinner party, it’s kind of a nice way to get to know people and find out interesting facts about them or ways that they think about the world. That’s a great opener for when everybody’s getting on your meeting, right? Have a question upon the, the Webinar platform upon your collaboration platform so that you can kind of get to know each other better. I also recommend that at least once a month you are having a meeting where it’s sole purpose is to do some team building. So for example, um, have a virtual lunch with your team, right? Uh, I’ve worked with a couple teams where people were remote and they send out little packages to make Sundaes and they had like a Friday afternoon club with Sundays or you know, if, if everybody drinks, you could do a happy hour, that type of thing.

Tara Powers: Virtual happy hour. Um, I’ve also seen teams that open up their meetings 15 minutes early. So if people want to get on and just connect and have the meeting before the meeting, we actually create an environment where that’s possible. Um, and then the other key thing that I think is super, super important is that we set an expectation that everyone participate. So if I expect full engagement, which I recommend you do a, then I’m going to send out something ahead of time to say, hey, I’d really like your insight on, on our team meeting regarding this question. And sometimes I’ll even put a virtual conference room up on the screen with seats right around the conference table and people’s names at each seat so that they know, like we’re going around this virtual conference table and I’m going to hear from each member of the team. And whether everybody’s virtual or people are still sitting in the room.

Tara Powers: Again, we’re acting as if we’re all virtual world participating, so those are a couple ideas for connection activities, but your focus really needs to be an I say in my book, you have to have a have a mind maniacal focus on building trust and engagement in terms of culture. I also think that it’s really important the virtual team leader talks about the value and the purpose of the team. Why does this team exist? What is the value that it’s delivering to the organization? What is the value that it’s delivering to customers? I mean if, if the company started to downsize and just took your whole team and said you’re out, is that going to hurt the organization? Like what is your true value? What is the purpose? Why do you exist? And then secondly, how do we agree to treat each other, you know, what are the values we want to live by in terms of our relationship kind of behavioral agreements.

Tara Powers: As you know, I might call it a. that’s also an important part of building that virtual culture. And I think one most important thing, and there’s actually two when you’re building that virtual team culture, is that you focus on making sure everyone on the team is responsible for managing conflict. So if you and I were having a virtual team meeting and I noticed I said something and you flinched, but then you didn’t say anything else, I should be following up with you after that meeting and see you got uncomfortable what’s happening, right? That’s not the leader’s job, especially when you’re in a virtual environment. It’s everybody’s job. And then secondly, accountability I think is an important part of virtual culture that we all feel comfortable calling each other out when we didn’t uphold our agreements or do what we say we’re going to do.

Gene Hammett: Those are pretty amazing concepts. And we were joking around like, these books don’t get written because you sat in a coffee shop and thought of these ideas. They only happen from watching these things in practice with your clients and the research you did. Uh, so thanks for sharing that with me. Tara, I want to give you a chance to talk about the leader’s role in the virtual teams because I have some perspectives on what leaders should be doing to really create more of a growth culture. And that’s the work I’m doing. The next book I’m putting together, which is about putting employees first. What, um, what do you suggest that when you’re the leader of a virtual team, some of the things that you do as a leader that makes that possible?

Tara Powers: So I think one of the best ways to kind of share this is just pulling out what I would call the 10 predictors of virtual teams success for, for leaders. So are the kind of 10 areas that you could focus on that would really help your team get a leg up. And one of the things I know you’re working with teams to, I’m sure you know this, but the more we can help teams become cohesive and collaborative, the greater competitive advantage they have. And we know this, we know that the more we leverage diversity of ideas, diversity of solutions, and we’re collaborating and we’re building this cohesion, um, you are going to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And so when you think about what do I need to be focusing on as a leader of a virtual team, let me just kind of summarize 10 key things that I think are super important and the number one thing is clarity, clarity, clarity.

Tara Powers: So when you are virtual or even part of your team’s virtual, there needs to be an incredible amount of clarity about how work flows through the team, who’s in charge of the final deliverable, roles and responsibilities, expectations around communication, those types of things. The second is coming up with some of those agreements, which we already talked about, behavioral agreements, communication agreements, maybe even accountability agreements. The third is it is how are we going to leverage technology to collaborate? And this actually out in our research was one of the biggest challenging areas for a new team. They don’t discuss how are we leveraging the tools that we have, our social collaboration tools to actually be more effective and there are so many tools out there for teams to communicate, manage projects, manage deliverables, you have to agree on which ones you’re using and how you’re using them and make sure people are trained appropriately.

Tara Powers: So training is actually another predictor of virtual team success is that people are trained up, skilled up on how we are collaborating and using those tools. I already mentioned that maniacal focus on engagement best practices as a leader. This should be probably one of your number one priorities is that you are just continuously looking for opportunities to engage to um, for not even forced but encouraged participation, but it should be something that didn’t naturally is occurring all the time. Um, and then the fifth predictor I would say is how much trust are you building on the team? How much are you incorporating trust building activities with your team? It’s also important to recognize that one important way to build trust is to try and bring the team together in person at least once a year. That would be my minimum recommendation and some companies aren’t even doing that.

Tara Powers: Uh, the session I just had this morning, I said, how many of you have seen your team members in person and out of the 10 leaders that were on this call, five of them have never met their team in person, which shocked me. A really important that we try to at least bring that together because of the trust is so, so very important. So build that into your budget for next year. If you’re listening to this podcast, very, very valuable, you’ll get returns on that, right? A lot of longterm return on your investment there. The other thing as a leader is think about how can you be doing these regular pulse check ins, whether it’s a Monday huddle or perhaps once a week,

Tara Powers: you’re just reaching out via phone to each of your team members to do a quick personal check in because it’s really easy to lose connection with them. It’s really easy to only be meeting once a week or once every other week on these business calls and we start to really lose that personal touch that I know who you are, I know what’s important to you and know what’s going on in your life. So as a leader, building that into your week is super important. Another key predictor. Yeah, go ahead and plug up.

Gene Hammett: So I’m gonna. Have to edit this a little bit. So just give me no worries. We alright, you can start to land the plane. Not Awesome. And so another key predictor we found

Tara Powers: on for leaders to be focused on is when you bring on a new team member, have a extremely strong onboarding process. Not only should they be onboarded to everyone on the team, but there should be individual people there. Every person on the team should be meeting with them individually and we even recommend that they are partnered up with a buddy. Uh, especially when you have people who are remote, that works really well, especially if you have global teams. And then I already mentioned these two things, but conflict resolution, that needs to be everyone’s job. So as a leader kind of setting the stage, what does that mean? What does that look like? How can we get comfortable really talking to each other about

Tara Powers: something that bothered me or I didn’t agree with you, I didn’t appreciate maybe how you approach that a, is there a better way, right? Getting, getting more effective at delivering feedback that is helpful and not hurtful. And then lastly, embracing the diversity on the team that you have, whether that is diversity of language, culture, it could just be diversity of style. Um, all of those things really the leader leads the way you are leading the way in terms of how the team connects and works together. So those are a couple key things. Obviously my book is chocked full of tips like that from, from building culture, recruitment, retention, hiring a feedback models. I use a ton of, there’s a ton of tools that I’ve used over the, over the years with teams and how I’ve tweaked them to work in a virtual environment. So just a lot. I mean there’s a lot of great stuff in that book that can help leaders of virtual team.

Gene Hammett: Thank you for sharing these insights on this because I think a lot of companies have virtual teams, even small ones like yours and mine, two big ones that have thousands of thousands of employees. So if our audience is listening in and they would like to know more about you, what do you suggest them do other than go to Amazon and get them,

Tara Powers: they can go to powersresourcecenter.com, um, and they can find out a lot more about my consulting, the training that I do with teams of course. But also I wanted to point out one of the things that I do talk about in this book is a virtual team communication model and if they want to they can download that model for free. They don’t have to give me any info just by going to virtualteamsschool.com So we’ve set up a website specifically for the resources in the book, which is virtualteamsschool.com.

Gene Hammett: Well, thanks for being here and leaders in the trenches.

Tara Powers: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Have a wonderful day.

Gene Hammett: Alright. Thank you so much Tara, for being here. I really learned a lot. I thought about some of the things that I wasn’t doing like our me and my team. We don’t have an agreement of communication and a in a rhythm for that. We, we have certain tools we use, we worked together well, but I think we could take it to the next level with that and it’s always great to, to learn new things every time you’re doing an interview. And the key here is what do you do with it? For me, I’m going to sit down with my team and we’re going to come up with this communication, a agreement and uh, it really is something I would recommend you doing for your team, whether it’s virtual or not. If you’re getting a lot out of these interviews and I appreciate you listening into leaders in the trenches. Make sure you tell a friend about something that you’ve gotten some benefit from just listening into it. Maybe it will be right for them. We’re on a mission to be one of the top leadership podcast for leaders that want to really make an impact and grow fast, and, uh, that’s really about our mission. If there’s anything I can help you with, make sure you reach out. As always, lead with courage and I’ll talk to you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Virtual Teams in their Productivity and Effectiveness
  • Perception Gap of a Having a Virtual Teams
  • Allowing Employees to work remotely
  • Virtual Teams Agreement
  • Methods of communications
  • Communicating in a Virtual Environment
  • Communication Matrix
  • Mind Maniacal Focus on building trust
  • Virtual Teams Sucess for Leaders



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