CfL & Grundfos Break New Ground in Virtual Business Management

By Josh Aden

Distance leadership is nothing new - the great empires and armies of history have been built and led from afar for thousands of years. Global businesses are not strangers to the concept either, yet today’s virtual technology brings new and dynamic platforms for managers to lead geographically-separated yet net-connected teams.

Conducting business in the virtual world provides companies with many opportunities but also holds many new challenges. It’s a new frontier of business that the CfL is charting with team leaders from Grundfos, the world’s largest pump manufacturer.

CfL aims to be on the cutting edge of virtual business leadership by developing new best practice methods in a research cooperation with Grundfos in a world where a team of employees and managers may seldom be together in the same room.  “The face-to-face meeting room is turned into a virtual meeting,” says Rikke Lindekilde, a business consultant with the CfL who has helped organize a virtual leadership workshop for Grundfos managers. “It’s exciting, but it’s difficult too because it means breaking out of the old business culture.”  

The CfL virtual leadership workshops encourage managers throw out many pieces of conventional wisdom about leadership in the evolving technological world in order to build a new set of best business practices suited to the challenges of leading a team virtually. The CfL invites managers to create Contracts of collaboration, which are sets of ground rules about communication and business practices to be used within the virtual team.

Mark Welsh, out of Grundfos’ Uoperation, was among the managers that attended a Virtual Leadership workshop facilitated by CfL in Denmark. He says the seminar allows Grundfos managers to find solutions to real-world challenges. “These smaller breakouts really hone in on particular issues and then we get to explore them.” Welsh says. “I really like that, and we are addressing specific concerns.”   

The CfL is seeking ways for modern business leaders to reinvent how they connect and communicate. As a CfL consultant, Lindekilde encourages managers to think about their virtual personalities as extensions of their offline selves-- a concept which Welsh and others are embracing. “We have to be smart about our personal virtual selves,” he says.

There’s a level of trust that builds up when a team works together in a face-to-face setting. To achieve those kinds of relationships in a virtual setting, managers must be proactive in creating the sort of “coffee break talk” that happens organically in an office, Lindekilde says. Part of that process is breaking out of the email trap and working more with instant messaging and video conferencing platforms such as Scopia, Yammer and Adobe Connect.

Instant messaging and video conferencing can be far less formal than emails and allow for more small-talk. Richard Jia, a Grundfos manager based in China says he’s beginning to do this by asking his widely diffuse team members the same personal questions he might if he saw them daily in an office: about family, their favorite sports teams, weather, etc. “It’s not just a work relationship,” Jia says, “it’s a social relationship.”

Lindekilde says the CfL encourages managers to try to create the feeling of a virtual meeting room where team members can connect with their leaders and each other on a deeper level than through businesslike instructional emails. “We have to build the relationship up if we don’t want to be disconnected with each other,” Lindekilde says. Virtual communication also requires a whole different level of clarity since body language and vocal tone is missing from written communications.

During the CfL workshop Grundfos leaders discussed ways to foster the kind of trust needed for a well-functioning team, and chief among them were more purposeful methods of getting and giving feedback. “When the team is away from you, you have to learn to understand what kind of support they need,” says Jia. He says the team leaders have to not only communicate broader visions and goals to their teams but have to seek it as well. “In the beginning I was suffering because I didn’t know what was going on with the team in Denmark. I had to learn to be more proactive.”

It’s not just the virtual team that needs to trust their leaders, the leaders must also trust their team. When a team leader is in the same physical space as their team, it’s easy to observe that they are present at work and being productive, while working in the virtual world means there must be a level of trust that the employee will in fact complete their assigned tasks. This brings the need to create a sense of the virtual meeting room into sharp focus.

Katrina Einhorn manages a Grundfos team in Denmark that also has members in Hungary, the US and China. She says that in order for her team to function with a level of trust and efficiency, she has to work extra hard to make sure her team members are both getting the kind of support they need from her. “I’m a very global-minded person,” Einhorn says, “But suddenly when you have to manage people from so many places and in so many locations, it’s hard to be present for them and be able to support them in the ways they need.” When dealing with people from different cultures, ages and genders, and levels of experience,  Einhorn says it’s important for business leaders in a virtual world to do everything they can to learn about their team members and build up personal relationships so that she can then give them the kind of managerial support they require.  

Mark Welsh says much the same of the virtual team he manages from the US. “Empowerment is a really important piece of support for your team members. We have to make them feel we trust them and that they have the authority to accomplish their tasks. Then there is the practical matter of working across multiple time zones. Here, building a new best practice model can become a bit more difficult," says Einhorn. Her team is made up of 14 people, and ten of them are based in either Denmark or Hungary, with two people on the team in both the US and China. Many consultancies suggest changing the meeting time with each meeting to allow for one location to have the most convenient meeting time on a rotational basis. Einhorn says that this ends up being less practical for her team because the majority of the team is in Europe. Unfortunately, that means the American and Chinese members regularly end up with inconvenient meetings. “There’s just no optimal time of day to have a meeting. It tends to be a pain for the same people over and over again,” Einhorn says.

Another complex issue globally dispersed virtual teams face is that of culture. Cultures around the world view business, working, teamwork and life in general in vastly different ways, which can make managing a diverse team difficult in an physical office space, much less in the virtual space. Virtual team members from different places in the world will have different expectations in communication, in work ethic, in office hours, etc. This is one reason the CfL promotes forming a Contract of collaboration, which sets a standard for interaction across the team. “For most of our virtual leaders, we have to have more cultural awareness,” says Jia, who often finds himself dealing with European and American work practices that vary greatly from those he’s used to working with in China.

Einhorn says much the same. She says she has had to adjust the ways she communicates as a leader from how she would handle her Danish team than when she deals with her US-based team members. Danes tend to be more willing to challenge directives given by leadership when they feel there is a better course of action, whereas Americans who might disagree with their bosses are more likely to keep their discontents to themselves. So, Einhorn communicates differently with her American team members. She is used to giving her Danish team members quite direct instructions with the expectation that any other ideas or disagreements will be addressed to her by her team. With her American team however, Einhorn says she was perceived as rigid, as if she didn’t care about collaboration or their opinions on the subject. “I’ve had to learn to ask the Americans for their input so they feel engaged and like I’m not just giving orders,” she says. “When I give them instructions now I try to end with something like ‘does that sound good?’ or ‘does that seem like a good a plan?’”

As Grundfos managers begin to put the principles and ideas set forth in their Contracts of collaboration into practice, they and the CfL will be building a new set principles that will be valuable for future generations of business leaders. “I’m excited to be a part of the virtual leadership project,” says Mark Welsh “There’s a clear end-game with real goals. I’m going to have to start living these principles because I don’t think this is going away- virtual leadership is here to stay.”