How to Lead in the Virtual Age
The virtual age presents new challenges for leaders. Increasingly, people do not come together in the physical sense to act as teams or to meet as groups. They network. They use the Internet, phones, and computers to cooperate with each other on projects they want to achieve in common. Leading in the Age of the Internet requires at the same time more skills and fewer skills, because certain things that conventional leaders struggle with are already givens.
Start with the need to communicate. Although smart leaders should communicate frequently and in writing, virtual leaders do that of necessity, because their communication is bound by a keyboard and by the structures of databases and spreadsheets.
What you share is there for all your team to see, so you have to learn how to write well, how to make your thoughts clear and concise, and how to set internal deadlines, so that people don’t just stack your email messages up in their in-boxes and then later throw them away. The Internet has the benefits of a formal logic structure, and virtual leaders take advantage of that structure.
The Internet also favors planners. Writing a business plan for a Net-based enterprise is easier than for many other types of business enterprise because there are software limitations on presentation. Short of writing your own planning program, you are going to use an off-the-shelf program, so you are going to accept the conventions and limitations implicit in the program you choose.
Timeliness is also not a problem on the Net. Because virtual organizations operate in a 24/7 world, the time that you communicate and share is less important than the fact that you do it. As a virtual leader, your major responsibility is sharing and managing the flow of information and then building validity checks into the information you receive, so that your plan does not go GIGO — garbage in, garbage out.
Diversity is also easier in a virtual enterprise. The person who is somehow unacceptable within the confines of an organization suddenly becomes wholly acceptable when he is working remotely. All you have to face is his structured written communication, and you judge him solely upon timeliness and results. There is no longer an arbitrary standard of whether he is “like the boss” in the sense of appearance or class or education. There is simply the question of whether he can meet a work standard.
On the down side, virtual corporations lack a certain human intimacy and camaraderie. Yes, people share jokes over the Internet all the time, and you can always phone. But a joke is not the same when it appears with a routing list of over a hundred names as when someone puts his arm on your shoulder and pulls you close to him, to deliver the punch line.
Virtual leaders thus have to focus even harder on listening (which in this case means learning to read between the lines) and communicating (which means picking up the phone and talking with people, or getting on a plane and visiting them) to maintain team rapport. Eliciting the cooperation of people who are working remotely is also more difficult, because measuring the effect of the incentives you are offering is more difficult.