Leading remotely is a growing reality. Employees at multinational companies report that, on average, half of all communication with their team leader does not take place in person. Many global executives estimate the percentage of remote interaction to be even higher. But even as technology enables leaders to convene a meeting across multiple time zones, mastering virtual communications requires not just modern hardware but old-fashioned human-ware.

How can rising leaders overcome the barriers of distance, language, and culture to project credibility and forge personal connections with clients, customers and team members around the globe? A new book, Growing Global Executives: The New Competencies, paints a complicated picture. Based on research from the Center for Talent Innovation, the findings shows that emerging leaders must project credibility and drive value, more often than not, through virtual channels -- a reality that demands two complementary skill sets. They must acquire technical mastery of a proliferating array of virtual meeting platforms and mobile communication applications. In addition, they must learn to reach out of the plasma screen to telegraph authority, elicit ideas, invite participation, sustain engagement, and achieve consensus.

Bridging the digital divide is a daunting prospect for upcoming leaders. Experienced global executives offer these tips:

  • Maximize engagement. Detachment is one of the greatest dangers of remote interaction: How often have you been tempted to play a quick round of "Candy Crush" during a dull online confab? Nothing is more important to the success of a virtual meeting than sharing an explicit agenda and sticking to it: 46 percent of our select-market survey respondents say this ensures the team's objectives are met. In addition:
    • Get everyone up to speed before the meeting by making pre-reads available
    • Make sure every party's concerns are accounted for and built into the agenda
    • Rotate responsibility for leading the meeting to invite voices and viewpoints you would not hear from otherwise
    • Discuss rather than present information. "Everyone can get the gist of a PowerPoint ahead of time," says a Singapore-based leader. "Better to use the call with everybody to zero in on key takeaways or surprise findings than walk them through the whole thing."
  • Facilitate collaboration. Successful leaders reach out and invite their team members to respond. Here's how:
    • Create a virtual social space for informal interaction before the meeting
    • Ask open-ended questions. "It provides a comfortable stage to encourage people to say what they're thinking, to confidently respond to you no matter what their cultural differences," advises a global leader.
  • Lead inclusively. Diversity is the key ingredient to sustain innovation. But while a diverse workforce is a given in the global marketplace, what unlocks their innovative potential is a leader's ability to leverage inclusiveness. "In today's world, success for any leader is about being inclusive in the way you work," says Sunil Nayak, CEO of Sodexo India On-Site Services. On a day-to-day basis, that means:
    • Rotate the time-zone in which the meeting takes place. One sales leader schedules calls to showcase specific team members or topics. "If we're discussing Asian initiatives and strategies, then I time the call so that it's most convenient for our people in Asia," he says.
    • Call out cultural differences early. "When everyone is new to each other, I open our meeting by asking each team member to talk about his or her cultural background, to make everyone aware of where their colleagues are coming from, both literally and figuratively," says a Belgium-based senior director.
    • If your meeting includes both team members in the room and those calling in, invite the non-present members to contribute first so they won't feel forgotten.

Winning poker players follow the maxim "You've got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em." Similarly, global executives know that sometimes the best way to project credibility, break down cultural barriers, and establish clear communication channels is to go old school and get on a plane: More than half (55 percent) of our select-market sample say that first-time meetings need to be conducted face-to-face; 51 percent say it's necessary to do team-building in person.

As part of Genpact's restructuring to a business-operations firm with leaders in every client market, Chief Operating Officer Pascal Henssen spent three months traveling around Latin America, meeting his new reports at all levels of the organization face-to-face. It was expensive in terms of both time and money, he concedes, but the investment was well worth it. "It was absolutely imperative that I get to know them, and show them that a leader cares. I can now pick up a phone to speak with one of the hundreds of employees that I know personally. We trust one another."

There were tangible payoffs, too, Henssen says. "Because I took that time up front, we accomplished a massive structural change incredibly rapidly."

Published on: Nov 30, 2015