In 2023, employees expect the option to work entirely remotely or in a hybrid work environment. In fact, 80% of workers say they'd prefer to work in a role with flexible work options.
People have become accustomed to working from home and have benefitted from increased productivity and a healthier work-life balance. However, working from home and leading from home are two different things.
Adjusting to leadership in a remote environment requires different skills than in person. Here, according to three remote managers, let's explore what virtual leadership looks like, the skills needed to succeed, and tips on excelling as a virtual sales leader.
Table of Contents
- What is virtual leadership?
- Virtual Leadership Skills
- Virtual Leadership Development Activities
- Virtual & Hybrid Sales Leadership Tips
What is virtual leadership?
Simply put, virtual leadership is a form of leadership in which a manager is tasked with coaching a partially or entirely remote team.
Virtual leadership looks very similar to in-person leadership: A virtual leader, for instance, still needs to motivate and inspire her team to achieve a shared goal.
However, virtual leadership will take a different approach than in-person leadership. A virtual leadership role emphasizes high-quality written communication skills and more flexibility and trust than in-person leadership roles.
Interested in what it takes to become a good leader? Take a look at How to be a Good Leader [Research + Expert Tips].
Let's explore a few skills directly related to virtual leadership next.
Virtual Leadership Skills
In a 2022 HubSpot survey of sales leaders worldwide, 48.5% indicated that their teams would be working hybrid (in-office/at home). Accordingly, virtual leadership skills are more critical than ever. Here are some skills that any effective leader needs to hone, along with some specific to the virtual role.
High Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a fundamental leadership skill that involves one’s ability to regulate their own emotions and understand the emotions of others. Often referred to as EQ, high emotional intelligence is a hallmark trait of great leaders as it facilitates them in fostering a healthy working environment and empathizing with team members to resolve conflict, inspire collaboration, and encourage top performance.
A growth mindset in leadership encourages continuous learning and improvement. Unlike a fixed mindset that believes people’s traits and skills are immutable, a leader with a growth mindset sees opportunity around every corner and believes in her team’s potential to grow in their talents and abilities.
A growth mindset is a crucial leadership skill in any business, especially in a growing business where a leader must embrace change, learn from failure, and establish a culture where growth is an ongoing process.
Strong Communication Skills
Strong communication skills are non-negotiable for leaders in any industry. A leader must conceive of an overarching vision, distill it, and communicate it effectively in a way that resonates with individuals and the team. Emotional intelligence plays a large part in this, as the leader must listen actively and tailor her communication style to match whomever she is speaking with.
Strong communication skills are doubly crucial in virtual leadership. Since many in-person communication cues don’t come across on video, it is even more critical that a leader’s communication is clear and empathetic.
When it comes to leadership, there’s no room for flakiness. Your team members need to feel they can always look to you for advice, support, and honest feedback. If your team understands that you always have their backs and best interest at heart, they will go to bat for you and your organization every time. A great leader is reliable and inspires the same behavior in her team.
Ability to Give and Receive Feedback
Giving and receiving feedback is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Delivering feedback to teammates can be challenging, especially if it's constructive criticism. Different team members respond to feedback differently, so an effective leader must be able to tailor their delivery so that the feedback is optimally received depending on who they are working with.
Additionally, leaders should be able to accept feedback gracefully. Disregarding feedback as a leader can be easy, especially feedback from people working below you. However, great leaders check their ego at the door, actively listen to feedback, and incorporate it into their performance conscientiously.
Often, the difference between a leader and a follower is the ability to make decisions. As a leader, you will often be under pressure, and you must be able to think critically and strategically to make confident decisions that move the needle forward.
Decisive leadership makes the execution of ideas easier. Without decisiveness, it’s easy for teams to fall into the trap of talking in circles about potential ideas and never actually implementing them.
Strong Written Communication Skills
Virtual leaders will spend comparatively more time communicating through channels like email and Slack, so effectiveness in this area is vital. Virtual leaders must be clear and concise in their written communication without appearing brusque or impatient. Great virtual leaders can adapt their written communication style to meet each person they speak with.
Flexibility and Adaptability
Things can change quickly in business, and virtual leaders must be prepared to alter their approach and adapt to changing conditions in their organizations and industries. Of course, things don’t always go as planned, but adaptable leaders inspire confidence with their resilience and ability to transform failures or unexpected changes into learning opportunities.
Ability to Stay Up-To-Date on Workplace Technologies
A great virtual leader always has their finger on the pulse of the remote work ecosystem and associated technologies. Since remote work is such a relatively new development, it’s doubly important that virtual leaders are aware of changing norms and are able to implement the most effective solutions into their stack quickly.
A remote sales manager needs to be willing to alter their approach to suit the needs of each sales rep. For instance, one rep prefers in-the-moment feedback during video coaching sessions, while another needs the feedback delivered beforehand to process it before your meeting.
Communication skills are mandatory for any leadership role, and virtual management is no different.
As Kelly Knutson, Head of eCommerce Sales for Chargebee, told me, “Communication is key to virtual leadership. 'Drinking from the firehouse' has become the norm, but we as sales leaders need to communicate with our teams every day. My practice has always been to create some assignments for my team so that I know how they are developing and what things we need to work on during our weekly 1-1's.”
“For instance,” Knutson adds, “I might have an AE do some research on who he/she might think is the ideal customer for our business. Another assignment might be to create a list of our top competitors and share with me how we differentiate. By creating these little assignments, it ensures me either my AE is on track or needs additional support.”
Next, let's dive into some development activities leaders can use to take their virtual management skills to the next level.
Virtual Leadership Development Activities
To foster critical virtual leadership skills, there are plenty of development activities you can try. Let's explore four virtual leadership development activities that can be done via Zoom.
1. Open Mic Night
Split your leadership group into “audience” and “performers.” The audience will then shout out a situation that the performers must act out together.
Skills to develop: Improv can be a fantastic opportunity for nurturing self-confidence, the ability to think quickly, and strengthening communication skills.
2. Describe Your Favorite Leader
In this activity, you‘ll ask a group of leaders to reflect on the best and worst traits they’ve seen in leaders and then describe the most influential leader they've ever had.
Skills to develop: This can help build empathy and encourage leaders to think about the types of behaviors they want to model.
3. Tallest Tower
Send each leader a basket with everyday items (or ask them to collect items around the house) — including toothpicks, uncooked pasta, etc. Then, divide teams into groups. Ask them to build the tallest free-standing structure.
Skills to develop: This development activity helps encourage problem-solving and collaboration skills.
4. Center Stage
In this activity, you‘ll ask one team member to play the role of an employee who requires constructive feedback (for instance, they may pretend to be an employee who’s recently missed a few meetings). Then, you'll request each remaining participant to demonstrate a different leadership style — perhaps one person shows a democratic leadership style, while another showcases a strategic one.
Afterward, discuss with the group which leadership approach felt most effective. Then, discuss the “ideal” leader's behavior in each imaginary scenario.
Skills to develop: This activity can help build empathy, communication, and collaboration. Plus, it enables leaders to begin thinking about their personal style — and how they might like to improve it.
Finally, let's explore virtual and hybrid sales leadership tips according to three sales managers.
Virtual & Hybrid Sales Leadership Tips
1. Create a culture where open collaboration and communication are the norm.
One of the biggest challenges with virtual teams is communication.
We polled sales leaders worldwide, and when asked about essential traits of effective sales leaders, 40% indicated that good listening skills were crucial. A culture of open collaboration and communication starts at the top, with leadership setting a precedent for active listening and empathetic communication.
It's easy enough to schedule morning meetings in person with your team, keep your office door open to encourage spontaneous conversation, and chat casually in the kitchen with colleagues to learn about their triumphs and setbacks.
However, creating this same level of communication remotely requires more intentionality than it might in person.
As Dialpad's Sales Enablement Program Manager, Chris Gell, told me, "According to a FlexJobs survey, 65% of employees want to continue to work remotely full-time post-pandemic."
“Sales leaders have to adapt in order to maximize the success of their teams in a remote or hybrid world, where driving results and providing support need to be balanced.”
Gell continues, "In an area of business built upon camaraderie, one way sales managers can excel in their leadership roles is by building a remote-first team culture where team members can openly collaborate, share wins and productivity tips, and support each other no matter where they're based. Sales managers should keep their lines of communication open and regularly ask for ideas and feedback around how they can better enable their teams."
Fortunately, there are plenty of remote tools nowadays that you can leverage to create a more efficient work-from-home experience — including tools for scheduling meetings, sending internal announcements, and even tracking team progress.
Gell adds, “With the flexibility that is brought by remote work, it is important for managers to set clear performance expectations with their teams and provide them support in order to meet those goals. Reinforcing open communication and learning from your teams is essential to driving success working remotely in sales.”
2. Use technology to be seen — not to hide.
Sandler's Head of Global Strategy and Growth Damon Jones believes, when leading remotely, it's vital sales managers remain transparent and easily accessible.
As he puts it, "The key to success in leading remotely is to use technology to be seen, not to hide. Effective sales leaders use video to build better rapport with their team, do virtual ride alongs, and leverage technology like call analytics to find coaching moments with their team."
Jones adds, “Ineffective managers use technology as a crutch. They hide behind emails, avoid difficult conversations, and manage results instead of proactively coaching the right behaviors. In today's virtual world, it is easy to keep yourself busy checking dashboards and fighting fires in Slack or email, but effective sales leaders can focus themselves and their salespeople on the things that matter.”
You'll want to ensure your team uses an up-to-date CRM. Additionally, take the time to plan thoughtful meetings with your team, including learning and development opportunities and personal one-on-one coaching sessions.
Jones also suggests sales managers use quick video messages or virtual meetings to avoid miscommunication and make remote sellers feel a part of a team. One tip? Use calendar invites to set an agenda ahead of time, including the purpose of the meeting and desired outcomes.
Jones says, “Proactive coaching to improve the selling skills of your team and prevent lost deals is much more efficient than responding to inbound requests. Listening to call recordings and diving into call analytics can help you spot problems, and more importantly, identify positioning statements to highlight for the rest of the team.”
3. Remain adaptable.
Kelly Knutson, Head of eCommerce Sales for Chargebee, told me adaptability is critical for effective virtual sales leadership.
Knutson says, "Being able to adapt is key, and many sales leaders know this — but what separates good sales leaders from the pack is continuously adapting. Pre-pandemic, for example, a company might rely on trade shows and conferences to generate a portion of their pipeline."
Knutson continues, “Given there are fewer conferences right now and less foot traffic at those who hold them, sales leaders need to adapt and come up with new ways to fill the pipeline. Perhaps it's a greater emphasis on social media or hosting your own virtual events, but then you'll need to measure those results and likely adapt again.”
Ultimately, becoming a powerful and effective virtual leader will take time and some trial and error. So be prepared to collect feedback from your remote direct reports often and iterate on your processes and strategies as you learn what works best for your team.
Hone Your Virtual Leadership Skills
Remote and hybrid work environments aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As a result, the concept of virtual leadership will continue to grow in significance. Leading a remote team requires a potent skill set with an emphasis on traditional leadership skills, written communication skills, and flexibility to adapt to high-paced virtual environments.
Virtual leaders have some extra weight on their shoulders when cutting through the fog of communication without in-person cues and uniting a distributed workforce. However, you can be an effective virtual leader with the proper knowledge and focus on the right skills.