Managing the virtual global workforce, part 2

by 13 Dec 2006

As the war for talent grows increasingly global, companies will need to find and retain managers with key skills in leading remote virtual teams. Allan Schweyer reports

As the first instalment of this column, it was noted that expertise in remote, virtual workforce management is becoming an imperative. Organisations, particularly those in developed economies, must look beyond their borders, immigrants and traditional work arrangements to attract the quality and quantity of talent they’ll need to remain competitive in the years to come.

We left off hearing about research conducted by DNL Global of Dallas, Texas into the differences between traditional project managers and global project managers. We will look more closely at that research to determine what types of skills, attributes and competencies are required of the pioneering managers who lead geographically dispersed, “virtual” teams.

Work-style characteristics

In some cases, managers of virtual teams display the characteristics one might expect of high-flying project managers, but there are several surprises.

“The results of our research mostly validated our work in the industry for the past five years,” according to Lori Blackman, President of DNL Global. “However, a few findings were quite surprising upon initial review but after further analysis and practical case comparison, we realised the data was very helpful in better understanding some of the most complex competency areas of virtual global management. For example, given the complexity and volatility of global projects, it is not surprising that high-performing global managers have a tendency toward characteristics such as energy, stamina, drive, spontaneity, and the need for flexibility. However, we found the low ratings in self-reliance quite counterintuitive.

“But if we think of ‘team reliant’ as being the opposite of ‘self-reliant’ and consider the need for the virtual global manager to lean on team members on the opposite side of the world who he/she has never met, it begins to make more sense.”

Managing remote virtual teams is largely a new phenomenon in global business. It isn’t surprising that the competencies required are still evolving. A new field will naturally attract pioneers and mavericks. In the years to come, as dispersed work teams become a staple of modern business, a slightly different set of characteristics and competencies may well establish itself. On the other hand, the personal characteristics of top global project managers, including personality, are less likely to change.

Personal characteristics

Top-performing local project managers do not always make a successful transition to managing “global”projects staffed by remote team members. This has much less to do with their drive, self-reliance or technical skills than their personalities. Managing across cultures can be difficult enough; adding the complexities of team members who are rarely seen and may work at odd hours of the day can be a trial for even the best leaders.

“These results are fairly intuitive,” said Blackman. “Much higher than average intensity and greater than normal expectations of oneself are clear personality traits of top global project managers, who tend to be ‘A’ players in organisations. What is more interesting are the interpersonal and leadership-style results. “Here, we were surprised to learn that our top leaders surveyed were actually somewhat less assertive and scored lower in sociability characteristics than their counterparts. Again, this can be explained upon closer analysis. The most successful global project leaders tend to be more collaborative than assertive, and given the nature of their teams, those who are less in need of traditional social structures in the workplace are in many ways better equipped to deal with the less tangible form of interactions between members of remote, geographically dispersed teams.”

Other key attributes

Global mindset: Old mindsets will not succeed in the global economy. Successful business leaders must move out of their domestic comfort zones and into a more international or worldly way of thinking. Ultimately, a “global” mindset is necessary.

Cultural agility: While the reverse may not always be true, top-performing global leaders tend to also be strong leaders on a local basis. Basic leadership skills help managers adapt what they already do successfully to other countries and other cultures, and across multiple time zones. Global leaders are successful whether they are working with Russian, Indian, Chinese, or Brazilian counterparts across the boundaries of time, country and culture.

Relationship management: Few jobs are accomplished in isolation. Most require collaborative decision making and problem solving. Knowledge of key individuals, both inside and outside an organisation, is vital. As problems become more complex, “know who” becomes more important than “know how.”Leaders do not have to be experts on every issue, but they must know when and from whom to seek input according to specific needs.

Threat versus opportunity: As the competition for critical talent heats up, organisations must rethink the ways in which they attract, acquire, develop, manage and deploy talent. To begin, one must identify the segments of the workforce that will drive current and future growth. Given today’s economic and demographic realities, more and more talent will be tapped remotely.

The future of virtual management

Great opportunity exists for recruiters and talent managers today. The world continues to shrink with greater advancements in technology, while expanding as new business locations and talent pools become viable. The global skilled labour pool has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years and continues to grow rapidly. This offers organisations with the right capabilities an opportunity to build high-performing virtual teams that are, in many cases, less expensive, and at least as productive as their domestic counterparts.

Of course, for remote workforce management to succeed, leaders must have the ability to navigate and exploit the complexities of a global business environment. As a starting point, understand the capabilities required of global managers. Companies must then select candidates with these competencies while developing existing managers to succeed in a virtual global environment. Managers need to monitor and manage the performance of the remote workforce by instituting simple but effective measurements and processes that are adapted for local and global conditions.

It is not only possible but also essential in today’s challenging business environment for Western firms to create remote teams managed by globally minded leaders. Yet despite the clear need, few organisations have achieved any kind of mastery in this arena. This leaves an opportunity for competitive advantage to those who can do so quickly.

By Allan Schweyer, president of The Human Capital Institute