No Image Available

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Coaching virtual leaders


Ghislaine Caulat explores why virtual leaders need support and development.

During the last five years I have come across so many leaders asked from one day to the other to lead a team across geographies and being confronted with this new task without any preparation. One could argue that virtual working is really nothing new and this is precisely where the problem lies. A few years ago, we did some research with leaders in various organisations across Europe and most of them thought that leading virtually is the same as leading in a predominantly face-to-face environment. However, in spite of years of practice and many books written on the subject, virtual working still remains a challenge for most organisations.
In my role as a consultant and coach I have observed many times that leaders tend to transfer onto the virtual space what they have learnt works best in the face-to-face world: this is when things go wrong. The problem often lies in virtual working being seen as `second class´ compared to face-to-face. Up until two years ago, most organisations could put up with this status quo because if in doubt, for example, in the case of emerging conflicts or complex decisions needing to be made, you could always jump on a plane to sort out the problem. With the financial crisis and the growing pressure to protect the environment, organisations have become much more restrictive about travelling and working virtually is often the only way to get things done.
"The art of virtual leadership requires specific skills and competences, as well as in some aspects a radical questioning of meeting habits that have been developed over years and taken for granted."

Embracing virtuality

Our research into virtual working clearly shows that it is possible to develop strategies, manage performance and perform innovative tasks in teams in a way that is not reliant on face-to-face and that at the same time allows teams to achieve excellent results. However, this requires learning how to develop robust virtual relationships and how to lead people virtually as opposed to simply managing tasks. The art of virtual leadership requires specific skills and competences, as well as in some aspects a radical questioning of meeting habits that have been developed over years and taken for granted. 
One typical example: a leader presents for 20 minutes using slides on a web-based platform (e.g. Netmeeting, Webex, Interwise) and gets frustrated about not getting the response s/he was expecting from her/his team. S/he hears instead people typing on their computers (possibly doing their emails or watching something else). How often have I heard in my coaching sessions: “How can I ensure that they actually listen to me and don´t do something else?” Actually you can´t! You can´t control what people do in the virtual space. But equally, you can´t be sure that they listen to you in the face-to-face space either. They might sit in front of you and look interested but who knows what they are thinking about? They might be in another world even if they physically sit in the same room. The notion of command and control loses all its validity in the virtual space. Leading virtually puts even more emphasis on the need to inquire, engage and think together with others in a truly interactive way.  
The good news is that most technologies enable you to do this in a very effective way. The bad news is that the virtual working etiquette that we have developed over time (for example, the need for people to say their name before they speak or interrupting others being seen as something impolite) often gets in the way of truly engaging with people in a spontaneous way and allowing for virtual relationships to develop. Leaders not only need to learn new ways of interacting with people virtually but also and more importantly they need to be prepared to change their views about control and question the etiquette of traditional virtual working. 

'Real' listening

Leading virtually also requires courage. Challenging the status quo and introducing new ways of listening and tuning into the virtual space (for example, by asking the team members to spend sufficient time to relax, to become aware of their bodily sensations in order to develop the necessary focus and awareness when working synchronously - all at the same time and across geographies) can first appear to be a weird practice. Most of the leaders I coach tell me initially: “I see the point but how am I supposed to ask my team to do that? They will think I am going crazy!” But they soon realise how important a discipline this is and they reflect on the courage it has taken to just go and do it. Invariably they also come back and tell me that having learnt to lead virtually and to truly engage people, they now dislike the way they organise their meetings in the face-to-face: “I can´t stand these never ending slide presentations” or “Now I know what real listening means. I thought I knew before, but I had no clue!”

"Leading virtually puts even more emphasis on the need to inquire, engage and think together with others in a truly interactive way."
 So far most leaders have had to learn all this on their own and only a few have succeeded. Most of them have given up, highly frustrated, and now limit the virtual interaction to information sharing while waiting for the next face-to-face meeting to do “real” work. However, the work with our clients, such as Alfa Laval (where we worked with 35 senior managers to develop a strategy via a virtual process, in less than four months, and which has been paramount to the success of the organisation) demonstrates that it is possible to become independent of the face-to-face and to deliver best performance. But, it does require effective and dedicated coaching and training.
Virtual leadership is a new discipline that needs proper consideration and appropriate training and development and it is here that L&D has a very important role to play. First, it is about recognising the need to learn, to help leaders overcome their frustration and to speak openly about their needs. Then it is about identifying the right support, this can be either coaching and/or a virtual leadership training programme. It is also about identifying the right delivery method. In my view training people to lead virtually has to happen virtually. I often smile about the offers of seminars (delivered face-to-face) promising virtual leadership success. 
It is also about helping leaders to promote a culture of virtual working in their organisation. This starts with the need to make sufficient rooms available where people can be on their own, undisturbed and well equipped with the right headset and laptop, to connect up with their colleagues across the globe. Even better it is about encouraging people to stay at home to have their virtual meetings without feeling afraid that colleagues might think that they are not working if they are not physically present in the office. Finally, L&D needs to help managers recognise that they have a key role to play in developing virtual working. Board meetings can also happen virtually and managers will not promote virtual leadership in their organisation if they keep jet-setting around the world for the next strategic review.

Ghislaine Caulat is head of the virtual working practice at Ashridge Consulting. For more information, go to

No Image Available

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!