IMD: Leading across distances
Part 5: Professor Martha Maznevski of IMD looks at how virtual teams can help connect people in multinational organisations
Hi, and welcome to the fifth day of our series on leading people globally. Today, we're in the beautiful Lausanne Ouchy harbour with the Alps, the French Alps, right across the lake from us. So it's a perfect setting to talk about leading across distances.
If you're leading people globally, then almost certainly you're leading some people across distances, working in virtual teams. We find that almost every manager works today in some kind of virtual team, meaning a group of people who have to accomplish something together and whose members are either located in different places or who travel a lot so that they have to do a lot of their communication over technology. And in fact, most managers today work in two or more virtual teams. So we have a lot of these relationships.
Now, even though most of us work in virtual teams, this is still a new phenomenon for us. In fact, as a human species, we've been working in face-to-face teams around 150,000 years. We're not always good at it, but we have developed a lot of techniques for working together face-to-face, and we're quite comfortable with it.
Virtual teams have only been around for somewhere between 10 and 30 years, depending on where you are and how you define the technology that's used. So even though most of us today work in at least two or more virtual teams, working together over technology is new, and we're not quite comfortable with it. So we get a lot of questions about how to work most effectively across these distances that we don't really like.
The starting point is to realise that there are really only two things that leaders need to do that cannot be done virtually. These two things are building relationships of trust and commitment and sharing deep level tacit knowledge. Building relationships of trust and commitment is best done face-to-face, because it requires dialogue, shared experiences, questions, answers, sharing of personal information. It also requires that people let themselves be vulnerable to each other so that the trust can be demonstrated. And this is much better done face-to-face.
Deep level tacit knowledge is knowledge that can't be written down. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that you can put in a spreadsheet, or a patent, or on a website, or in a procedures manual. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that goes around that that helps you know how to put that spreadsheet information or patent information into practise and turn it into something valuable.
Now, the second question is, how often should we get together face-to-face? And the answer to that question is a little different from what most virtual teams expect. When I conducted some research on this many years ago, we expected when we watched virtual teams that the effective teams would get together whenever they needed to. So if there was a big crisis, a big conflict, a big contract to negotiate, some big misunderstanding, they would get on a plane and go and meet each other. And in fact, a lot of the managers I work with today are proud of the fact that they're willing to jump on a plane whenever the team needs them.
In fact, we found that the most effective virtual teams got together on a regular schedule. They planned these meetings a year or more in advance, and they planned them frankly to save costs, because if you plan these meetings in advance, they're much cheaper. You can use cheap plane flights. You can go to places that are off season. You can incorporate customer and supplier visits, and other things, and so on.
But what they found is that if you get together on a regular schedule, it's like pumping a heartbeat into the team. And it means that every six weeks or four months or six months, whatever it is, there's a pump of oxygen and lifeblood into the team in the form of trust, commitment, and knowledge. Now, what they did with these meetings, they spend the time building trust, building commitments, and sharing knowledge. For example, they go visit customers together, or they go visit suppliers together, or they engage in new product development projects together. So they actually do things that build those things that can only be done face-to-face.
Then during the virtual time, they can manage everything else. And in fact, one of the teams I worked with, which is one of the most effective virtual teams I've ever seen, handled all of their conflicts over the telephone. They never once managed a conflict face-to-face. They found that the telephone or the email actually took away the negative emotions that are associated with escalating conflict, and so they could remain much more objective and solve the conflict in a more constructive fashion if they weren't together. Now, when they got back together again later, they revisited the conflict and debriefed it. But the point is that as long as you've built these relationships and shared this knowledge, then you don't need to get together in between these meetings.
Creating high performing virtual teams is critical for global organisations today for itself, because we really need teams that do these jobs well. And in fact, virtual teams are usually put together to do things that face-to-face teams can't do. It's a lot more work, so we don't usually create them unless we have to.
However, I'd like you to also think of them as an opportunity. Virtual teams present opportunities to lead through complexity, to lead in globalisation in two important ways. One is that if you've got high performing virtual teams, then the people who are in the team become committed to their organisation and motivated to perform in the organisation in a way that is beyond their own local capacity. So they start to see a global picture. They start to see this larger organisation that they're part of, and they become excited about that. And then suddenly, this multi-dimensional matrix, complex structure has a human face that people can relate to. And then they're, of course, much more able to lead through the complexity of them.
The second reason the virtual teams offer opportunities to global firms is because-- remember, we said earlier that most managers are on two or more virtual teams. Well, if you're on two or more virtual teams, then those two teams connect, and they help you to connect to different groups of people in the organisation, in other words, to create the kinds of networks that we talked about in session 2.
So leading complexity, leading globalisation, allows you to create some opportunities. Part of that is through managing across distances, as we've talked about today. When you're leading across those distances, you need to take into account the cultural differences and cultural intelligence, as we discussed yesterday; leading across differences, as we talked about the day before; and using those networks, as we talked about in session 2. When you do all of those things, you'll find that people can manage the complexity of globalisation yourself, and you will be leading people globally for higher opportunities. Thank you very much.