Are you leading a virtual team? Learn how to lead a virtual team and excel in a crisis. During a crisis, everything is magnified, including leadership skills.  Executive coach Heather Stark shares her “5C’s of creating a virtual culture” framework to help leaders navigate and excel in the new normal. (This is part 2 of a two-part series on LEADERSHIP with Heather Stark. See also episode #52: “Communication Skills of Effective Leaders”) 


Heather Stark - executive coach

Heather Stark

Heather Stark & Stark Coaching

Crisis Management

Leading A Virtual Team

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you very much, Heather, for joining us to talk about leading in a crisis and managing a virtual team.

Heather Stark: Thanks for having me, Andrea. I’m happy to be here today.

AW:  So I’m really curious to hear your personal and professional experience that you had in the first few weeks of COVID and physical distancing. Can you share that with the listeners?

HS: Yes. I remember especially what happened before the official directive came out to physically distance and close nonessential businesses – there was a lot of stress as leaders were trying to figure out what was the right thing to do for their organizations. Compounding this, Coronavirus hit the west coast before the east coast. Leaders were really struggling with, what do I do? Am I going to have to tell my employees that they’re staying home? Do I lay off employees? And so, for those first few weeks, my learning curve went way up. Because I was on the phone with clients that I would normally talk with once a week, up to three times a week, trying to help them figure out: How do I communicate this? What do I say to people? What’s the message that I’ve giving? Should I tell people that I’m worried? How much do I share?  This was a really strong example of leading without a playbook. Nobody knew. And we’ve all heard about ways that you’re supposed to manage during a crisis.  You learn as much as you can. You put together a task force and a communication strategy. In this case you get medical advice, you get all different types of advice to understand how to move forward. But everything was unfolding in such a surreal way, in many ways…

AW:  and fast, right?

HS: Fast, you know. Every day something was changing. And that processing speed that was needed, that agility that was needed, and the ability to be kind of vulnerable and be collaborative through this process – and importantly involving people in the organization at all different levels. One of the challenges when people started moving to  remote work was getting everybody up to speed and equipping people to work from home. Logistics around security, equipment –  A lot of people have laptops, a lot of people have devices to work remotely, but administrative staff didn’t. They had a fixed desk with a desktop often, and in some cases those are  people that are really needed to interface with clients – even if it’s remote. So getting them up to speed, getting them able to work remotely, figuring out: does somebody need to stay in the office? If they do, how do you protect them? How do you do that and what if they get sick…? How do you run your business with no one in the office? So all of the different pieces, the emotion that was going into decisions, was a very different way than people were used to leading. It wasn’t all strategic and there weren’t steps to follow. There wasn’t a playbook. And so making it up on the fly, being agile, listening to people, collaborating with people, and being willing to make some mistakes, and then go, Hey, you know what, I didn’t roll this part out quite right. Okay. But this is what we’re doing now.   I think it’s been very humbling for a lot of leaders. And there’s been a lot of growth over the last little while and I’ve been super proud to see how quickly they’ve done it. I know the clients that I work with, they’ve adopted things that would have taken months, years to get through their organization, in a couple of days, a couple of weeks. I’ve been very, very impressed with the agility of leaders.

AW:  It sounds like a lot of the skills that are really important in successfully navigating through this crisis are very similar to the skills that we talked about in the previous episode about leadership and communication, right? It’s just that they’re amplified. It’s so intense.

HS: Yes.  I think that one of the things that I’ve learned, and I think a lot of leaders have learned is that if there are cracks, they are magnified now. So if there are challenges in your organization, this is a way for them to be magnified. And if there were people that were feeling a little disconnected – I talked before about how each individual has their individual culture. They bring that to the organization. If people are working on their own remotely, and the leader doesn’t watch and try to build a little bit of cohesion and adapt how they’re  connecting people together, there is the danger that the employees will become silos of individuals disconnected from the organization. It takes confidence. It takes a lot of courage to be able to lead in a time like this, because everything is really amplified. They’re learning new skills. For example, A lot of leaders started doing videos as a way of getting a message to their whole team. They may not be comfortable doing videos, but they’ve learned that skill. They’re learning things like the nuances of Zoom such as looking up into the camera as opposed to down and learning all these different ways of communicating. So I think it’s been a steep learning curve. And it’s been really challenging. But a lot of leaders, I think, have really risen to the occasion.

AW:  to your point about rising to the occasion, as you’re as you’re going through this list of experiences and the challenges. I’m feeling stress, like empathetic stress for these people. Especially when they’re working in a virtual team. It’s just so intense. And I guess one of the things that I’ve heard over and over again, is how important it is to celebrate the wins, right?

HS: Oh, definitely. And that’s a huge way of connecting with your team to individuals. It is so important to not just be focussed on the doom and gloom, but to really be focused on how you’re moving forward. How you’re having those meaningful human moments with each other. Those informal water cooler moments. Celebrating birthdays. Celebrating something that’s gone well with your clients. I’ve been doing workshops with a lot with teams during this time. During those sessions I’ve introduced what I call the five C’s of developing a virtual team culture. And CELEBRATING is one of those.

AW:  So you mentioned your five C’s framework, and I’d love you to take us through those. So there’s celebrating and what else is there?

HS: CLARITY, it’s very, very important to clarify so that you’re communicating in a way that people understand and there’s a clear purpose. CONNECTION, creating a connection with individuals to the organization. People that are connected to the organization are more likely to be motivated to work. Creating a virtual team connection can be very challenging and requires intention.  COMMITMENT, making people feel that they’re just not a cog in the wheel  that’s helping things move forward, but that you actually are committed to the health of the individual, that you think they’re important to you as well. It’s the people first, who create the mission of the organization… it’s all part of moving the organization forward. It’s people who are going to be able to move the organization forward. And COMMUNICATION. When you’re talking about culture, as soon as you start talking about culture, the place I go to is communication. Because it permeates everything that we do. It is so important. And it’s sometimes easier to talk about developing communication norms than developing the right culture of an organization. Because if you get the communication part, right, you actually are developing the culture of the organization. So I think that that is very important.

AW:  So we’ve got clarity, connection, commitment, celebration, and then communication.

HS: Yeah

AW:  this is this is a really amazing framework that leaders are going to find very helpful, in your experience with your clients and your I guess your observations of what’s going on in business. Is there one that kind of rises up as being a particular challenge these days?

HS: So I think  starting with clarity is really important. At the beginning, you were just giving as much information as you could and keeping people up to date. And now, at this point, being really clear, reminding people: what’s the mission of the organization? What are the values of the organization? How do you want to work together as an organization?   what’s the structure, you’re going to put around things to help with uncertainty? How are you going to make things clear for people so that they understand what their goals are, what their accountability is in this, so that they feel that they are not lost? You’re giving them those touch points so they can understand what’s beyond this horizon? What are we working towards and clarify what they’re working on.

AW:  I can see how that one would be the most challenging, because it’s almost like an oxymoron. We’re dealing with this moment of uncertainty, then even the directives that we’re getting from the agencies and the governments are inconsistent, right? We see the mayor doing one thing and the premier doing something else and people violating protocol and people instituting or recommending different protocols and it’s very confusing and until consistent directives are communicated from these regulators. How’s the CEO or leader in an organization supposed to do that. But I love your point of clarifying then what we are certain about, we are certain about, for example, our corporate mission, we are certain about our structure, right. So identifying, I guess, in highlighting what we are certain about.

HS: I think it’s very important. And this speaks to commitment as well. Engaged employees are more productive employees. A lot of people have been asking me, how do I motivate employees? Because you had that peak where you’re really in that mode of high urgency, and then sort of drifting along, and now we’re going into the re-entry for some organizations. And while some people are going to be working from home still for quite a while to come, others are going in because they’re essential to help your organization move forward. And so how do you get that commitment? How do you make people feel that they’re important? And so listening to the employees, making them feel like you’re committed to their well-being, setting some boundaries for your employees, helping them to have a structure even by just having a schedule, having predictability whenever possible is really important. And that’s an important commitment that you can make.

AW:  So I have a really specific question related to that, that I’m curious about your take on. So structure and like a schedule, rituals that the organization is going to enable and reinforce, are, I guess, really important for us – both in terms of productivity, and even just in terms of our psychology and staying motivated, right?  However, that said, there are parents at home right now, particularly those with young kids who are basically their child’s teacher during the day. And if the organization is saying, you’re now expected to be available, between nine and five, they have to be on. So have you heard stories like this about it being particularly challenging to I guess engage your workforce where there’s diverse family situations and home situations going on?

HS: Yeah, and I think that’s all about listening with empathy. There’s a lot of organizations that are doing these pulses, these anonymous pulses, to see how everybody’s coping. That’s great but When you do that you don’t actually find out what is happening at the individual level with people in your organization. And people might be afraid to speak up.  Say for example you have a Monday morning get-together where it’s a touch base, and people can kind of have a coffee chat with each other, or maybe do that on a Friday. It’s really important to have those touch points, but people probably aren’t going to be sharing in that large group that they’re struggling …  They may not feel comfortable saying right now, I actually have a two year old that’s sitting on my lap and I have to go change a diaper. Or I’ve got a 13 year old that’s having trouble following along with their zoom lesson in school and I have to go police that and make sure that they’re not watching videos instead of doing their schoolwork. It’s these kinds of challenges that can be really, really draining for people. And it’s happening, although both men and women are impacted, on the whole more women than men are taking on more this burden. I’ve had conversations with people, where a child was crawling all over someone, so this is something where empathy comes in. And that commitment to the people in the organization is super important when you’re dealing with a virtual team and mixed teams. It’s been announced that there won’t be summer camps either. So what are employees that are dealing with the children going to be doing while they’re working at home? They’re having a lot of difficulty with the boundaries between home and work. For some parents hours for productivity have changed, there’s a lot of working from 6am to 10am. That means that you’re not working during the ‘mainstream’ hours of the day, the main work hours  quote, unquote, of the day and then maybe  starting up again when your child’s gone to bed. And so that flexibility is really important. I actually have been doing a lot of work with organizations to help them develop a communication playbook so that they can actually learn, do a survey to understand what are people’s needs. For example,  If I need to talk to you about something that’s a little bit more personal, how would you like me to do that? Would you like me to pick up the phone? Or would you like it to be by zoom or by FaceTime?   How are we going to communicate what your hours are to other people, as we move into a hybrid situation, where we’re going to have people that are continuing to work remotely and others that are in the office.  Some people are going to leave the experience of working from home saying I was not effective working from home, I don’t know how anybody can be effective working from home. Others are going to be like, wow, I was so effective working from home, I want to do this forever.

AW:  Right.

HS: And so you’re going to be coming into the situation now where people are going into re-entry. Okay, how do you balance this? How do you do fairness? How do you build trust, when some people are remote, and some people are working in the office? How do these things work? So this is where I’m doing a lot of work with clients around developing a communication playbook, which  will act as a guide for how to best communicate as a team and how you deal with challenges that occur within the team.

AW:  So I heard in your answer there, there’s almost a hierarchy of really understanding the preferences. And the capabilities given their home situation of your employees. So you can get anonymous feedback, right? That’s kind of the first tier. The second tier would be some sort of group meeting and checking in could be the Monday morning zoom call or the Friday afternoon call. And then at the top level, you need one-on-one input and understanding from each of your staff members, I suppose about what’s going to work for them in terms of timing in terms of communication medium, and all of the preferences. And I guess this is an opportunity for a lot of organizations and leaders to really get to know the people that they’re employing – all of the virtual team members. Right? and, and to engage them to be more fully productive than they’ve ever been.

HS: Yeah, because people if they are able to work in the way that is the most productive for them, they will be more productive. I think at the beginning was really difficult to do this. But now that we’re seeing  a lot of organizations are saying we’re not going back till the end of the year. We’re only going to have a skeleton staff. We’re going to be completely virtual forever. So there’s different levels within organizations. I think for most organizations, there’s going to end up being a combination. I think that there’s going to be a fundamental shift.

AW:  Yeah. So I’m actually really thrilled about that, to be honest. I worked directly with a CEO a couple years ago, who was very against people working from home. She was managing an organization where I understand people needed to be there on at least a semi regular basis, but there was really no reason they couldn’t institute virtual team work. And now she’s working at home, and she’s seeing that you can still be productive, and I’m so thrilled for her staff.

HS: Yeah, but this is what it took. Because I think for a lot of people, in the past there was this feeling that ‘working from home’ was  like taking the day off or taking it easy. Now for people that enjoyed working from home, they are saying no, I can actually be productive and work effectively from home and actually, from what I’ve seen, I think a lot of people have worked harder through this time than they normally would have.

AW:  I’ve heard that too.

HS: Things have changed.  People that have been wanting to work from home for a long time and felt that may be more productive without the commute, without having to work during specific set hours, they’re going to be more productive. And so in some ways it’s a gift to organizations also, even from the perspective of office space, organizations may need less space.  But I think in person meetings are still going to be important at some level, for connecting and contact when we’re able to go back to them, but a lot of people will be able to do their day-to-day work very effectively and very productively remotely. And  you know what? For the people that feed on other people, those people that need that in-person interaction with people, having the opportunity for them to be able to go into the office and be in person in the office, that’s fantastic. Everybody learns differently. Everybody communicates differently. Everybody works differently. So this is a real opportunity to maximize productivity, maximize motivation, and really get the best possible workforce that you can have.

AW:  As you’re describing that I’m feeling. I’m forecasting that there’s going to be a bit of a shake up, of course there is but one of the shakeups will be there will be organizing Along this continuum of we’re going to go back to being face to face, we have to because of this, and then the hybrid that you’re talking about, which will probably be quite common. And then the other organizations that we’ve heard about in the news that are going to be almost 100%, virtual. And then you have the individuals that have preferences for based on their personal situation, and based on their communication preferences, and their work preferences. And I think there’s going to be a shake up where people are going to be like, Okay, if I can’t do this with this firm, I’m going to go to another firm, where this is how they operate. I love this virtual team culture. And ultimately, hopefully, the firms and the individuals can all be more productive.

HS: Exactly. And most of my clients developed some sort of questionnaire over the last couple of weeks where they got feedback from their organization. How has this experience worked for you? Would you prefer to continue to work from home if that’s possible? If so, how many days per week? And so even asking questions of your organization, what are things that we started doing during this time that we should continue doing as an organization? You’re getting that feedback. This is such a gift to be able to get feedback from your organization.

AW:  So you’re describing a format of questionnaire that I really like using the start, continue stop, what should we start doing? What should we stop doing? And what should we continue doing? And now it’d be a great time to take a pulse with that. And that leads me I guess, to the last question, which is, how will these skills of crisis management on behalf of leaders and particularly what’s been going on for the last couple months with COVID help managers ongoing in the quote unquote, new normal that we’ve started to describe here?

HS: I think continue with the learning and the openness.   The agility that we’ve seen is a really important piece. We’re seeing organizations innovate at a really fast pace and make changes that they weren’t able to make before. And I really firmly believe that as you’re rebuilding, maintaining or shifting your culture, understanding how you’re going to communicate as a group is going to be a cornerstone of success and a way to do this is by developing a team Communication playbook. So you, as a leader, know what’s important and how to communicate to your organization as an entirety and also with the individuals on your team. That there’s a way of managing conflict, that there are some shared norms around assuming the best in people, especially if there’s a mixture of people that are virtual and non-virtual. If you’re not in a situation where you can tap somebody on the shoulder, just kind of acknowledge that, Hey, I know we kind of had a little bit of a disagreement, but we can move forward. Sometimes, when you’re in person, you can navigate things a little differently than you can when there’s a bit of physical distance between people. So really assuming the best in people. How it’s going to be fair, how you’re going to help people that are in situations that are a little bit more challenging than others. And also tapping into that empathy and that vulnerability as a leader so that you can share that, that you understand or want to understand what is challenging for me to and to celebrate with your team and not forget about that with the connection to celebrating making People feel the commitment to them. These things are all important things and moving forward in a way that allows people to connect, as opposed to just see each other on a screen. It’s about being more intentional than you were before. What you’re saying how you’re saying it. So assuming the best in each other, helping each other, to celebrate the things that are going well, help buoy people up and listen beyond the words.

AW:  Very very well put, Heather.  I feel like we’ve come full circle now. It’s back to some of the leadership qualities and skills that you talked about in the first interview, right? And it’s amplified, based on this incredibly intense experience that we’ve all had. And hopefully we can use that as a catalyst to not only reinforce, but to grow our communication and our leadership skills. Thank you very much Heather!

HS: Thank you very much Andrea.  This was a real pleasure. I really enjoyed it.

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