Solving Leadership Challenges in a Global Virtual Team


This week’s guest blogger is a recent graduate of our Leadership Excellence Course in Indianapolis.  It is my pleasure to welcome Sewa Bhatt to these pages.  Sewa is an IT manager for a global pharmaceutical company.  She is a certified project management professional and leads a large diverse global team dedicated to furthering patient safety.  More projects are now using a geographically dispersed workforce and in many companies working with a global team is now the new reality. This workforce model enables companies to bring functional expertise, diverse perspectives and work experiences together; but it also introduces a different set of challenges. Here’s Sewa to share some lessons-learned she’s collected in working with just such a team:

I recently took on a new program that is as geographically diverse as it gets. My team members are located in Japan, India, and Europe and all four corners of North America. Along with richness of talent and diversity a globally dispersed team also comes with unique challenge for communication and connectedness.

Thankfully, I had an opportunity a few years ago to work on a global program and collected my share of lessons-learned.  Here are my top three lessons to create positive team dynamics and harness high performance.

Align the team on key objectives and operating principles.

It is so easy to fall for the assumption that everyone understands the programs objectives, especially when you join a team mid-way though execution. Therefore, for my new program I did not assume anything, I just went ahead and reviewed the objectives with the team. In addition to aligning the team around the objectives, this activity was very helpful for me to establish mutual trust and a sense of kinship.

Aligning on operating principles help establish a specific set of expectations for team ground rules and process. A high performing team stands on a foundation of clearly defined and adhered to operating principles. Publishing my personal leadership philosophy was a great help in this regard.

I like to define operating principles with the help of the team to have a much more collaborative set. Once the operating principles are defined we have a clear understanding regarding items such as the team’s tolerance for being late, best days and times to hold meetings, how often to have meetings, escalation process, and communication methods.

Establish the human connection

The water cooler chats and face-to-face interactions that we take for granted in collocated teams become very difficult in a team that is dispersed. As humans we have an innate need to connect with each other and this connection is needed to bond and develop trusting relationships.

I like to create an environment that fosters human connection by adding an agenda topic to our virtual meetings to address people first. We start our meetings by celebrating accomplishments of all sorts.  We then take a few minutes for that seemingly non-important chatter. This really helps the team loosen up and has helped to create a trusting environment.

I have also found that, if at all possible, a virtual leader should travel to meet their team members face-to-face. I highly recommend this. I was afforded the opportunity to travel to meet my team and it helped me build a much higher level of trust and connection. I was able to understand them better and reduce some of the “virtual distance” in the team caused by language and cultural difference.  The voices on the phone that sounded remote and distant before – suddenly seemed a lot more familiar and I had a much better understanding of their questions, concerns and challenges.

Leverage technology to bridge the gaps

Technology is a great connector; we are able to easily communicate with each other via phone, email, and conference calls. Given all the technological options it is a huge enabler in helping build a global team. However, don’t forget that “leadership by walking around” is still just as important in the virtual environment.  Make time to check in with your team outside of the scheduled calls. Be careful to make it clear that if they are busy they should tell you and cut the call short.  Just knowing that you cared enough to call and say “Hello, how are you doing?” goes a long way to build that human connection.

For final thoughts, I will say that flexibility and appreciation for diversity are at the heart of managing a global team. To manage social distance effectively, and maximize the talents and engagement of team members, leaders must stay attentive to the virtual distance dimension. Decisions about structure create opportunities for good processes that can mitigate difficulties caused by language differences and identity issues. If leaders act on these fronts, while marshaling technology to improve communication among geographically dispersed colleagues, social distance is sure to shrink. When that happens, virtual teams can truly become high-performing global teams.

Best regards,

Sewa Bhatt, Indianapolis


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