Archives for June 2010

Finding your Career Path

by Angee Linsey

As a recruiter, I ask every candidate what would be their ideal job. Whether you are the person who has always had a clear career path, or one who is not sure of the answer to this question, there are a couple of ways to help get you (or keep you) on the path that’s right for you.

When considering a job move—by choice or by chance—assess who you are, your skills and competencies, and what kind of environment would bring forth your best work. You need to conduct what’s called a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis for yourself, as follows:

Strengths: What makes you good at what you do? Think beyond your writing skills or ability to work on a team. Dig deeper. Ask: What type of writing is your best? Why do people want you on their team?

Weaknesses: Assess yourself honestly. Consider whatever gaps you may have in your experience. Think about areas where you need to improve. If you have discovered that writing speeches for executives is not your strongest skill, then perhaps you should steer clear of executive communications roles, or else take steps to improve.

Opportunities: What opportunities play to your strengths? Are you best when leading a team through challenging crisis communications? Do you prefer to be behind the scenes as a writer and editor? Perhaps you are the quintessential “chief of staff,” able to guide that executive through every speaking event and media interview. Regardless of the answer, do some research on job descriptions, companies and their organizational structure to see what fits your strong suit.

Threats: What are your limitations? You may be restricted to a specific geographical area. You may not have the preferred educational background for specific roles. Or during this tough economy, a threat may be that there are a large number of quality people competing for a small number of jobs.

After this very analytical SWOT analysis, it’s time to create a vision of your ideal next job. For many, this is a powerful exercise and is most effective when written.

Vision Exercise
Write positive present-tense descriptions of your ideal job as if you were already there. (Do not think about a specific job you want. Instead, imagine every element that makes your job ideal). For example:
• What does your work space look like?
• What kind of people are you working with?
• What kind of work are you doing (from general to specific)?
• How much do you travel for work?
• What is your income?
• How much vacation do you get?
• What kind of organization(s) are you working for or with?
• How does your work affect others?
• Are you working alone or as part of a team?
• What type of team?

Examples of such vision statements include:
• I am working with small teams comprised of smart, motivated people.
• I am writing daily and continuously improving my writing skills through quality editorial advice.
• I am working with an organization that is recognized as socially responsible.

Once you’ve completed the SWOT analysis and vision exercise, you are more likely able to articulate that ideal next job—and more important: you are more likely to get there.

Angee Linsey is the managing director of Linsey Careers, a search firm specializing in finding the very best corporate communication, public relations and marketing talent for companies nationwide.

Leading from a Distance

6 Virtual Team Leadership Practices

by Michael Leimbach, Ph.D.

My day started early, with a client call that included the account executive in London, the client in Switzerland and me in Minnesota. From there, I joined a four-hour design session, meeting via the Web with people in Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Orlando. I ended my day with a call with engineering groups in Japan and India for a review of a software development effort.

While this may not be a typical day, it is no longer rare, as more and more of us are working with people who are geographically and culturally dispersed. As a result, we find ourselves challenged to develop new skills for adapting to, leading and relating to the people we work with virtually. In some cases, they are individuals we have never met face-to-face.

In today’s global environment, companies are using virtual teams more and more as they confront the need to eliminate redundancy and make better use of scarce resources. Gaining competitive advantage in this environment will depend in part on the ability of employees and leaders to work productively and cost-effectively across a whole new set of boundaries. Leading and working in virtual teams is rapidly becoming the norm.

When virtual teams function at optimal levels, they can produce amazing results. A study reported in the MIT Sloan Management Review shows that virtual teams, when compared to non-virtual teams, can address complex tasks better, work faster, reduce costs more effectively, make better decisions and drive innovation further. However, when virtual teams fail, they fail big time. Wilson Learning’s research has shown that the most productive teams have a high level of diversity and effective leadership. However, when leadership skills are lacking, those highly diverse teams perform poorly compared to low-diversity teams. Clearly, effective team leadership is even more important for virtual teams than for other types of teams.

Six virtual team leadership practices
While many traditional leadership practices apply to virtual teams, there are some important adaptations that need to be made to address the unique challenges faced by virtual teams. Following are six critical leadership practices that can be adapted to enhance virtual team performance.

1. Communicate continuously.
A team’s performance depends on a foundation of trust, and trust is developed through communication. Regular and frequent communication fosters inclusion, provides opportunities for sharing ideas, and builds an esprit de corps within the team.

While virtual team leaders need to use all of the communication tools available (teleconferences, e-mail, web meetings, video conferences and social networks), they also need to create an environment where virtual communication feels as natural as walking into a co-worker’s office.

For example, one team leader set up a team Twitter account. He tweeted several times a day so team members could get to know his thoughts and leadership style. Another leader added a “How was your holiday?” discussion thread to the team’s SharePoint site. Team members were able to share their experiences, photos, and the fun they had over their weekend or vacation, and as a result developed closer bonds with each other. Other groups have engaged in online gaming and attended conferences in 3-D virtual worlds such as Second Life.

2. Create a collaborative culture.
Without strong leadership, virtual team members may adopt a win-lose culture, in which they compete for recognition or resources. Or they may take up a “let’s get along to move along” culture, consenting to things they don’t necessarily agree on just to keep the process moving and failing to challenge each other to high performance. An effective virtual team leader builds a collaborative culture that draws out the best aspects of both competition and cooperation—alignment with a common goal, but with the willingness and freedom to challenge each other to achieve better outcomes.

Creating a collaborative culture can involve leveraging three technologies:

Online meeting sites (e.g., GoToMeeting, WebEx) that create a shared interaction space.
Online project management sites (e.g., SharePoint, LiveLink) that create shared work space.
Social networking sites (Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) that create relationship space.
3. Combine shared responsibility with clear performance expectations.
Like other teams, virtual teams must share responsibility for achieving the team’s goals. This comes from a team objective that gives the team an identity and clear individual performance expectations. This is a particular challenge for virtual teams because distance makes it difficult to share perspectives on what constitutes quality or excellence.

Virtual teams can avoid misunderstandings by documenting key individual and team responsibilities and time frames. Of equal importance are periodic opportunities to celebrate and recognize team and individual accomplishments. Traditional teams will often do this informally, but virtual team leaders need to build this into the team’s schedule.

4. Coach virtually.
Coaching is critical to superior team performance and may be the most important task of a virtual team leader.

Most virtual team leaders know the importance of scheduled team meetings, but regular one-to-one meetings with team members are equally important. Why? Because if the only time a leader talks one-to-one with a team member is when they need to provide corrective coaching, then members begin to dread one-to-one calls, to come prepared to argue, and to be less open to constructive feedback.

However, if coaching is part of a regular one-to-one meeting, members are more open to it, and both the leader and team member feel less stress. In addition, virtual team leaders need to make sure that their observations of performance are well documented (e-mails, reports, project schedules, sales records, etc.), so there is little room for interpretation.

5. Establish clear work processes.
Researchers from the WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany found that virtual teams that use well-developed work processes outperform those that do not. Processes for setting goals, making plans, solving problems, making decisions, assigning work roles and measuring results help virtual teams function effectively. Well-defined work processes help everyone understand how decisions will be made and how success will be measured.

Different cultures have different expectations concerning processes and procedures that should be taken into account. In some cultures, people are free to express their opinions, but once leaders express theirs, the decision is made and discussion stops. In other cultures, the leader is expected to express his or her opinion along with everyone else, and the decision is reached collaboratively. Clear procedures prevent misunderstanding.

6. Create global style awareness.
For global virtual teams, a lack of cultural sensitivity can undermine almost every aspect of the team’s work, making it difficult to establish trust, arrive at decisions that stick or carry out tasks in a coordinated way.

To work productively and cohesively across cultural boundaries, team members must have insight into the cultural dimensions that affect interpersonal behaviors and preferences. This might include awareness of how various cultures perceive business relationships, view power and authority, and understand the role of the individual versus the community or group.

Team leaders need to pay special attention to how the team is interacting and provide opportunities for team members to discuss and resolve issues related to different cultural assumptions or values.

Recent economic conditions have accelerated the growth of virtual teams, making it more likely that virtual teamwork will be the norm for more and more people. This means that virtual leadership skills will become increasingly important. By adopting these six virtual leadership practices, team leaders will be better prepared to meet the virtual team leadership challenges of today and tomorrow.

 

Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is vice president of Global Research and Design for Wilson Learning Worldwide. With more than 25 years of experience in the field, he provides leadership for researching and designing Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning and performance improvement capabilities. He has co-authored four books, published numerous professional articles and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences.