I work in a virtual team. In both my jobs, as a project manager and as a writer, I work in virtual teams, sometimes leading them, sometimes not.
That’s why I was keen to read Virtual Leadership by Dr Penny Pullan. I read it in one sitting on a long train journey — it’s easy to get into so it doesn’t feel like hard going to plough through it.
Since reading the first edition back in 2016 there is now an updated second edition that includes a completely new chapter on hybrid working. The new version is also packed with updated, relevant case studies. It’s amazing how quickly virtual work has changed.
I’m also lucky enough to know Penny and I can tell you that the book reads very much as Penny talks: knowledgeable, accessible, practical, and – if this doesn’t sound too sycophantic – wise.
So, in the normal style of my book reviews, let me tell you more about what’s in the book and what else I thought about it.
What Is A Virtual Team?
Penny says that it’s important to define virtual work before you understand what virtual teams are. Virtual work, she writes, is:
Work done by people who are geographically distributed, working together despite the fact that at least one person is not in the same location as others. Virtual work is supported by communications technology that helps people to connect when far apart.
A virtual team, then, is any team that works like that.
What Is Virtual Leadership?
The third concept defined pretty early on is virtual leadership, which you’d expect, what with it being the title of the book and all. Virtual leadership is defined as:
Being able to engage people from afar to produce results together. It builds on a shared vision of the future to help people to get things done together.
Building Strong Virtual Relationships
Building strong team relationships over distance is key to being able to lead effectively virtually and it’s covered extensively in the book. There are plenty of tips.
I read these sections thinking, “But I do all this.” But I don’t really. I might have been aware of the techniques and used some of them in the past but it’s very easy to get lazy. And it’s clear that I’m often lazy.
This book is a good way to call yourself out on behaviors you know you should do. None of them are truly revolutionary if you’ve been around virtual teams for a while, but as a set of best practices they are useful to refer to and it’s super easy to up your game and increase your effectiveness if you actually do them.
Managing What Matters: Culture, Language, Time Zones
Culture, language and time differences are often the most important things for leaders to take into consideration because their team members really care about them. Over half respondents to Penny’s research survey for the book reported that cultural differences were a key challenge for virtual working.
There is a whole section in the book dedicated to this. There are again lots of practical tips like building pauses into the agenda to allow non-native English speakers time to reflect and soak in the point in their own language.
I found reading Virtual Leadership in one sitting meant I was hearing some of the tips, in a slightly different context and to illustrate a slightly different point, but the same tip nevertheless, several times.
One example was to use the first 5 minutes of a call to do social chit chat. This turned up in several places, including (if my memory is correct) the discussion of the culture of time, challenges facing virtual leaders and how to run a virtual meeting .
As the book is designed to be something you return to time and time again, pulling out the strategies for the struggles you are facing today, I understand that it’s got to be like that.
Just be aware that if you do like me and read it in one sitting there are a few best practices that are repeated.
One of my favorite tips from the book is for easy retrospectives. I love post-implementation reviews, and one of my own books, Customer-Centric Project Management was inspired by wanting a better way to do them. That’s why I think I’m so drawn to the idea of a lessons learned meeting that takes 5-10 minutes.
Penny says that you can ask your team two questions:
- What’s going well?
- What do you wish?
By framing the second point as: “I wish that…” you are turning it into a positive and helping people focus on what the better alternative to the status quo could be.
(As an aside, this also seems to be a strategy for parenting: instead of saying ‘you can’t have a biscuit’ you can say ‘I wish I could give you a biscuit’. I am trying this with my toddlers and it makes me feel better. I can’t tell if it is having any discernible effect on them yet but I’ll keep trying.)
Make It Real
I love how Virtual Leadership is written pragmatically, with the author suggesting that if you are short of time you skip to Chapter 8 to pick up the key strategies that are most appropriate for the leadership challenges you are facing today.
Each chapter ends with questions for reflection so that you can take the myriad of tools and ideas and start to think about how they would make a difference for you, in your personal situation.
This is not a book simply for project teams. In fact, it’s not written for a project management audience at all, so if you are expecting lots of context about projects you’ll be disappointed.
It’s for anyone who works virtually, and that will include a lot of project teams. You don’t even have to be in a formal leadership position to get something out of it.
Pragmatic and practical, this book will help you avoid horrible conference calls and quickly boost productivity wherever your team are based.
Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Success with Remote or Hybrid Work and Teams
Learn the skills needed to lead a virtual team, chair online meetings and manage the work remotely.
Watch Penny talking about the book
In this video I interview the author, Penny Pullan about her book, Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams .
We filmed this video in an apartment in Barcelona where we were staying during the PMI Global Congress. It was Penny’s idea to have wine in the film (although I didn’t argue).
I have edited out most of the giggling!
This article first appeared at Rebel’s Guide to Project Management