Learning Lessons from Leaders Who Have Always Been Virtual

Written By: Rich Mesch

May 11, 2021 – 4 min read

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a podcast with consultant and former pharmaceutical industry executive Keith Willis. We talked about the challenges of virtual leadership, and as part of that conversation, we hit on a pretty important point: long before the pandemic, there were plenty of leaders who were already leading virtually. Many sales leaders, due to large geographies, are not in the same city as any of their team members. And while field visits are common, the majority of leadership has been done from a distance for years.

Sales leaders are often the primary drivers of sales team success. Talk to successful salespeople, and they will typically have compelling stories about the leaders that helped them get there. And sales leaders are critical to learning and growth. According to a Forbes Magazine article, coaching increased the use of knowledge gained in training by a whopping 87%. But, of course, sales tend to measure success in numbers — and according to survey data, sales teams with effective coaching recognize 28% higher win rates.

Not all of us signed up to be virtual leaders, though; circumstances forced virtual leadership upon us. But even as the pandemic (hopefully) begins to wind down, it’s becoming apparent that virtual leadership is going to become more and more common. So this is a good time to look at some of what virtual sales leaders have been doing for years.

1. Communicate more frequently.

This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often virtual leaders miss this important step. Co-located teams have a lot of informal communication channels — they meet in the hallways, they stop into each other’s offices, they find each other in the lunchroom. Virtual teams often need to make more of an effort to create those moments because they may not happen as naturally. Don’t worry about “overcommunicating” — it’s rarely a problem.

2. Have a clear agenda when you do communicate. 

While there is nothing wrong with “how are you doing?” check-ins (in fact, they’re a good idea — see point 6), most of your check-ins should have a clear purpose and agenda. What progress is a team member making toward their goals? What resources do they need to be successful? How can you help?

3. Coaching is about asking questions, not telling the answers.

A lot of us are wired to be problem-solvers, but coaching is more about helping team members find their own path. It’s always tempting to tell a team member, “Here’s how I would do it,” but often the best thing you can do is ask questions until that team member figures out how they would do it.

4. Focus on standards and expectations and whether they are being met or exceeded.

 Many sales organizations have field coaching rubrics; when sales leaders accompany team members on calls, they offer feedback on whether they performed well on key metrics that drive success. Having clear standards helps team members understand whether they are meeting (or exceeding) expectations.

5. Leverage your tech. 

From Zoom to Slack to Teams and beyond, we’ve never had more technologies for communicating virtually. It’s possible to overuse them — Zoom fatigue is real, as is being bombarded by thousands of Slack messages a day. But tech gives us a lot of good options to communicate virtually, especially in fast-moving businesses or in businesses where people don’t spend a lot of time at a desk. And sometimes, a quick face-to-face conversation can solve a problem quicker than a dozen emails (even if it’s face-to-face on Zoom).

6. Don’t forget to be social. 

Most of these points focus on business, but we all recognize that leadership is a people-oriented job. So don’t forget to ask about team members’ families and their passions and hobbies outside of work. Virtual social events can be challenging, especially if your team is spread over multiple time zones, but they are possible.

Leading virtually is not a new challenge, but a lot of leaders are new to leading virtually. The good news is that you can be very effective as a virtual leader, and we’ve never before had more tools to help us succeed.

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