Interview: Dr Ghislaine Caulat on Virtual Leadership

What are the skills required to lead teams in a distributed virtual environment? A few years ago I came across the brilliant work of Ghislaine Caulat through her doctoral thesis at Ashridge Business School. Her core insight is both simple and profound: to lead remote workers in a virtual paradigm is a fundamentally new skill. It is distinct from leadership in a shared physical space, and different from the optimal use of the collaboration tools themselves.

I was so impressed that I got a copy of her thesis printed and bound, and read it from cover to cover. You can now get her wisdom from in her book Virtual Leadership: Learning to Lead Differently. The future of communications is as much about people as technology, and Dr Caulat has kindly offered her share her insight into their relationship here.

MG: You describe leading virtually as “a new discipline, different from traditional leadership”. What was the path that led you to see “virtual leadership” as a new and distinct discipline?

GC: For my doctorate I saw there was a lot written about virtual teams and collaboration, but it was all about management and tools. That’s not the same as leadership, which involves issues like resolving conflict, or team motivation and recognition. Something was obviously wrong in industry practise, so I started doing research on “why is it so difficult for people to lead virtually?”.

How do you define “virtual leadership” in contrast to just “leadership”? What is their interplay?

If you learn to use the technology well, then in my experience it enables people to connect with each other in a qualitatively different way. Good leaders can generate a fuller awareness of both themselves and their co-workers: if you really learn to listen in to someone, then you can connect to their inner feelings.

In Western society we tend to privilege the visual over the auditory, so the heard is always in tension with the seen for our attention. Stripping away the visual enables us to activate listening, and to connect at a much deeper level.

Everyone being synchronous together in same room and airspace at the same time has one quality. A group of 20 people from around the world working asynchronously has a different quality. The paradox is you can get a better outcome with the latter. It is difficult for leaders to grasp and accept this.

How come? A blog or innovation platform enables very slow dialogue, and the power is in slowing down the idea-making process. This is good for innovation: the end result is better than a face-to-face process could have achieved. Indeed, there is so much hidden power with asynchronous communications.

Only a minority of people have understood that well-led virtual working can deliver superior results to “being there”.

You talk about time having different qualities in different contexts. Can you expand on that?

I currently work with people from different cultures. For example the Japanese see 24 hours a day, all of which are work hours, and think that Africans don’t work enough. In practise they just relate to time differently: when the Japanese see time available, they want to fill it with work.

Compare that to a Swedish person who at 5pm may say he has to finish the conference call as he has to pick up his children from school. They look at time in a different way again in terms of engagement, value and use.

Your profession is organisational consulting, which emphasises the psychodynamics of groups. Can you help readers to understand how this creates a new and valuable perspective on the use of communications and collaboration technology?

I am not an expert in communications technology. What I do know is that we could do so much more with technology to change the way we learn and consult. Yet it is only a small minority of organisations that understand the potential.

For example, I have been working with a global FMCG company with American origins. The IT people there “get it” around communications technology. An Irish manager responsible for IT has a team with people in Swaziland, France, Ireland and elsewhere. He doesn’t have enough budget to do a typical in-person team building process. So he came to me for help.

My proposal is to start with proven ingredients: what we can do is a normal teleconference. Then we work asynchronously on a platform where people can share who they are, what they are about, and what their desires are. Then, rather than going into a task-centric mode, we instead ask everyone to create a piece of music together. I will hire a musician with whom I have worked virtually before.

The dynamics of this kind of virtual event are amazing and fantastic! Yet you can’t do it with “normal” consulting.

But here’s my frustration: he got the budget approved, and then the US headquarters stopped it. The Americans pioneered working virtually, but have become entrenched in a particular way of doing it. The technology changes the possibilities, and understanding this requires reflectional awareness. To succeed, you need to develop relationships and cultivate the right feelings before discussing business plans and engaging the rational mind.

What does the path to being a better “virtual leader” look like?

When working face-to-face a leader will naturally compensate for things they don’t do so well. When we work virtually everything gets amplified, and we need to become aware of the consequences of that. For instance, you will paradoxically experience much more scrutiny on remote than face-to-face. In my doctoral thesis I describe one guy who felt that leading virtually was like being a fish in a bowl.

Virtual leadership demands greater self-awareness. Who are you? What are the assumptions you make about other people’s identity? Do you trust people until they prove you wrong? Or do you need to check first and see if they are deserving of your trust? The reciprocity of trust is important.

Instead of this reflectivity, we too often see a camera that tries to replicate being face-to-face. If you want to be a great virtual leader, and really open yourself up to power of virtuality, then you need to examine you attitudes and assumptions. How open are you to real virtual working?

You also need to establish rules to feel comfortable. This could mean negotiating that people only call you from private spaces, not airport lounges. You may insist on the use of fixed line phones for good audio quality to lower fatigue and frustration.

Are there any epiphanies that have really shaken how you see the world?

When I started I didn’t understand why people found it hard to work virtually, since I found it easy. I come from a traditional family, and we only got a phone when I was 16. But then I started travelling, and the only way to keep in touch was to maintain relationships via phone and email.

So whilst I was passionate, I didn’t realise how scary it was for most people to work virtually. When presenting face-to-face on this topic, some people angrily confronted me, and indeed one wanted to strangle me! That is because you really threaten their sense of identity.

For example, your position in the organisation and its hierarchy may be signalled by being entitled to travel. I underestimated what it meant for people to have not only the corner office, but also business class travel with the airline gold card. If they don’t get the free miles on that card then they can’t afford a long-haul family holiday or to stay in a fancy hotel.

So for some people it is an identity crisis, since they have defined their identity through face-to-face means.

One of the most important elements here is that you have to accept that just because I don’t have Martin face-to-face on this call doesn’t mean I don’t have the “real” Martin. As long as there are sufficient shared values and understanding, the “virtual” Martin is effectively the real one.

Why does “virtual leadership” matter? What difference does being skilled in this domain make in the “real world”?

If you are a really good virtual leader, you become independent of being face-to-face. You can still travel if you have the time and money, but should use it to have fun with team members. Don’t spend the time analysing your P&L.

Successful virtual working offers much more time for yourself, your interests and your family. The quality of your life rises.

The quality of the strategies that your company develops is also higher than face-to-face. It is impossible to get 50 people to come together in person unless you plan 6 months ahead, but that lag can be collapsed by virtual working.

You emphasise two distinct virtual activities: working and learning. What are the unique challenges to the latter?

I have personal experience in delivering training virtually, since I also develop “virtual mentors” for example. Paradoxically, if you invite people to learn something virtually, they find it hard to find boundaries. Even if the training is very good, they struggle to protect the time needed for learning in the virtual environment.

Contrast this with traditional working, where you may have a workshop scheduled for a Monday and Tuesday. The (unconscious) mind-set is that you need to go away from the office and to mentally prepare. You bring your body to different space, and your soul and mind soon catch up.

If you do both work and learning from same chair, then it becomes much harder to create that protected space. You need to develop new approaches to help people to shift from one environment to another virtually.

Drawing upon your practical consulting experience, can you give an example of how awareness of virtual leadership issues can make a difference?

My clients have changed the way they operate globally to have less travel, more connection between affiliates and headquarters, and to speed up decision-making processes.

For example, we are working at moment with a major German auto company. They have taken the decision to have decentralised production around the world, but to retain German leadership. This creates an interesting situation, since those in Germany can’t travel all the time, so they have no other choice but to collaborate and lead virtually.

This opens up a different strategic dimension. Previously when you opened up a factory in China then you also needed a Chinese leader, or had to send an expatriate German leader, or even do both. That is no longer true, and it creates the possibility of new forms of organisation, just as the elevator created the office block and traditional corporation.

Here is an additional example. I work with many leaders who normally in a face-to-face environment do a regular review of company operations. They open by going round the table asking how each person is doing. They then show the P&L, one slide after another. This means they don’t have enough time to have real conversations about the business.

They have now learnt to do that task virtually. They send slides in advance, asking people to read them. In the meeting they just have one slide with the key points, and nothing else. They can then engage in the real conversation virtually.

I have had people change how they do face-to-face meetings as a result of their virtual leadership experience. By learning to be a good virtual leader you become a better leader full stop.

What frustrates you most about today’s virtual working tools?

Take this example of Cisco’s WebEx. There is an implied hierarchy in the attendee list, and you are at the top of the list as presenter or host. The presenter is therefore implied to be more important than participants. This is arrogant and inflexible.

Another example: as host you have “privileges” that you give to the participants, such as to look ahead in the presentation deck. This gives the host a false sense of control, since participants will go and do online shopping when not treated as an adult.

This hierarchical mentality embedded into the tools is absolutely anachronistic.

We are applying ever more technology to communications, turning us into “bionic conversationalists”. How might future collaboration technology better align with unyielding human nature and the insights you have uncovered?

These tools are really neglecting the quality of the audio. Computer-based audio is simply horrible, especially as you add more than three people, or when you have a bad connection. Yet WebEx is going away from offering telephony towards computer audio only. This is bad practise. We have tried using other voice services in conjunction with WebEx, but there is no integration.

This poor audio sabotages many workshops. I simply can’t find a global provider that can offer both good quality audio combined with a good Web platform to share documents. I also can’t find any provider that successfully combines both synchronous and asynchronous communications. From my consulting experience, you need to be able to combine both dynamically. The use of asynchronous voice has been underestimated, and remains untapped.

Going further, I also see potential to use of music in different forms. Technology can help to release the potential in our human nature, and there are many virtual working skills we have never developed. It is like riding a bike: the muscles are already there, but you need the tools in order to develop them.

If there was one thing about virtual leadership that readers could hold in mind during their next conference call or webinar, what might it be and why?

Human relationships matter even more in the virtual space. You don’t waste your time by attending to the relational issues up-front, before going on to the work agenda.

To learn more about virtual leadership see this 13 minute video (German with English subtitles). To learn more about Dr Caulat’s virtual leadership consultancy business, Black Gazelle, you can contact her at ghislaine.caulat@black-gazelle.com.

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