Virtual Teams, Leadership & Emotional Intelligence

Heck, Tom2Today we have Tom Heck is the founder and president of The International Association of Teamwork Facilitators ( a community of 3,500+ facilitators, coaches, trainers, and educators from around the world. Their shared passion is to help individuals and organizations build and sustain high performing teams. The IATF supports the community through one-on-one and group coaching, teleseminars, and webinars. Tom is a veteran of the team and leadership development field and has trained leaders from 35 countries including North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, Central & South America, and Australia. The tools he’s developed (books, multimedia training CDs, teambuilding activities, audio programs, etc.) are used by global facilitators, trainers and coaches. Tom started a website business called that has over a 40,000 person mailing list from 103 countries.

Dr. Relly Nadler: For virtual teams we could pick a variety of things that we could talk about, but I think in my sense of working in organizations, more and more so, so many people are working virtually. Meaning that you are not co-located. People may be in a different part of the state, or a different part of the country or they can be in different countries. Well talk about some of the tips that Tom can help us with in regards of working virtually.

Tom has an excellent website that has a ton of information on it. It has a lot of his interviews–he’s done a lot of hang outs with key folks–you can see some of the videos there. If you are looking for some tools and team building tools; he has a variety of them there that you can choose from. He is the author of Duct Tape Team Building Games: Fifty fun activities to help teams stick together.

Tom Heck: Thank you Relly, it’s great to be here as always. It’s fun to reconnect, even through the distance. Here you are on the West coast, I’m on the East coast, and we are talking about virtual teams.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You’ve been doing this for quite a while. Can you give us a little bit about your background and how long you’ve been doing this?

Tom Heck: Like many people who are working in this medium—the virtual medium, if you will—I started off with face-to-face training and working with people in that way. My path to here, as I think about it, is a bit circuitous. I started off, for example, working with kids in a program modeled after Outward Bound. I know that you have a background in Outward Bound and many of our listeners have probably heard of this organization.

It involved a lot of experiential learning, learning by doing rather than just talking about leadership, but doing leadership. Then seeing what we just did, analyzing it, then continuing to improve. That’s where I started. Then in 1997 I started a training and development company, and again, my model was really about showing up in person. I really hadn’t heard of the coaching industry, something that you and I wholeheartedly embrace. Then 9/11 happened and that really is where a lot of things shifted for me. What I decided was that I wanted to reach more people. I felt a real sense of urgency to get a message out. That’s when I started working, more and more, in the virtual realm.

It’s also around the same time that I was studying executive and leadership coaching at the Coach University.

Most of that was delivered via telephone. One thing has sort of lead to another in building a web based community; I still get out and deliver my workshops but by building a web based community with members from 35 countries I have had the great opportunity to coach people at a distance, to build teams at a distance, and work with team leaders, not necessarily trainers, but team leaders most of whom in the past have been working with co-located teams.

Naturally, I have been contacted over time by people who have found themselves, typically managers who were leading co-located teams, who are now are leading virtual teams. Learning how to apply what many of our listeners already know about the face-to-face realm; what works and what doesn’t work, virtually.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s great. I want to tap your expertise on that because things have evolved. So that we have some kind of historical roots about this experiential learning, let me just say a couple of things about Outward Bound for people who aren’t familiar with it.

This Outward Bound program that I worked at for many summers, really came from this guy named Kurt Hahn. Kurt Hahn came up with what I think is a cool term; that we need a moral equivalent of war. Why do people have to go out to war to come back—this is dated from World War II and then other wars—and say I really became a man when I was on the battlefield. So really, from an educational standpoint, how do we string together these experiences that can let a man and now women, really develop into their personhood versus having to get this fire line experience; how do we do it safely and how do we design these programs?

Tom, you and I have similar backgrounds that way. Then it is really about adults learning. People learn from experience. That goes back to supposedly Socrates: show me a man on a ball field for an hour and I’ll tell you more about him or her than being in a discussion with them for 8 hours.

Tom Heck: Yes. The big part about what Outward Bound was, it wasn’t about the individual it was a shift from “me” to “we.” It is what we can do together; it’s how we interact. Really, it makes sense to me that you have followed the path of emotional intelligence, having these roots back at Outward Bound. An important asset on an Outward Bound crew is someone or a group of people at least, to have high emotional intelligence.

The same is true in the virtual realm. I think more so it is that people with a low emotional intelligence or underdeveloped emotional intelligence suffer 10-fold in the virtual realm because whatever it is that is set in the face-to-face realm seems to be magnified in the virtual realm. I have seen this with virtual team leaders who have been placed who have been leading a face-to-face team and now suddenly they go to work one day and they are assigned to a virtual team: and this is a true story. Someone from an unnamed branch of the military called me one day and he said that he showed up on a Monday and he was told that he was supposed to be leading a virtual team. He had no experience leading virtual teams, but his boss said that he did such a great job here, it couldn’t be that hard.

He was in a panic because he had one week to get up and running with all of the skills he needed to begin leading this virtual team, which is why he called me. The good part is, from coaching him, he had higher emotional intelligence and was more prepared for it. Interestingly, his supervisor seemed to have lower emotional intelligence and sort of didn’t understand the ramifications of what he was putting this person into.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  Tom you brought up a great example; that is a leadership error. Because you are such a good individual performer, now we are going to put you in front of this team. We’re not only going to put you in front of this team, no-one is there – they’re all on the phone. Because you are a good individual performer, you’ll figure it out. This is what I think is the gap in the skills that you and I can help folks with. Many of you, I’m sure, are on virtual teams. Tom why don’t you give us your website, just so they have it.

Tom Heck: The International Association of Teamwork Facilitators website is I would love to have folks visit us.

Dr. Relly Nadler: What are some of the challenges? We highlighted a little bit. Not only do they not necessarily have the leadership skills or the emotional intelligence, but now how do they do this when no one is face-to-face?

Tom Heck: Actually, the segue into what I’m going to answer is actually going back to just what we were talking about, these free items that I give away. The reason for that is to build trust, to begin the relationship from a place of trust; when people visit a website, especially one that they have never been to before and don’t have a relationship with the person. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you went to a face-to-face workshop, one of Relly’s workshops, and Relly says, please visit my website, sign up for my newsletter, etc. If you are there in person you’ve got a little bit of a connection there. You can get a sense of trust.

In the virtual world, it’s not that easy. So building trust, in the virtual team and in a virtual business, is going to be #1. In the virtual team, from what I see Relly, the hardest part about building and leading a virtual team is going to be trust. It’s not the transactional trust, if you will, where I say that it’s Monday at 1:00 pm Eastern and we are all going to show up at this time on this telephone conference bridgeline or on this web based service and that I’m going to lead it, that’s more of a transactional type of trust. It’s the trust where you hand something to somebody. Let’s say that you handed me a packet of information that needs to get mailed out and I mail it out and I report back to you; hey Relly, I mailed that thing out for you. That’s a transactional trust.

The trust I’m talking about and the trust that you do a lot of work in, is this vulnerability kind of trust. Face-to-face it’s hard. Virtually, it’s harder. What I like to share with leaders of the virtual teams is that every interaction is an opportunity to make a deposit in the trust bank. Stephen Covey talked a lot about making withdrawals and making deposits in the trust arena. So, how do we do that virtually?

Well, one is just sending an email. An email—how we communicate through email and let’s say that you sent me an email on Monday at 9:00 am and I take two days to get back with you. Is that okay? Or is that not okay? Part of the answer to that depends what our agreement is as a team. Some teams have done a really good job of establishing ground rules. Here’s a ground rule: Am I allowed to call you Relly at 9:00 pm? Or how about 10:00 or 11:00pm? Or how about 10:00 or 11:00 pm on a Saturday or Sunday night? If you don’t answer, how should I take that? Or should I not call you at all?

Whether you answer the phone or whether I call you, can begin to establish or make deposits in the trust bank.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Let’s kind of use this new leader—it’s a great case that you said earlier; someone with a military background and Monday he said you are going to be in charge of this virtual team. He called you and he got your website, then hopefully he got to you. I know you are available for folks at times. What should he do first? Again, to kind of build trust, he knows how to do it face-to-face, and now he gets these people on the line. Is there something in the first session that should be talked about?

Tom Heck: Actually, yes. The first thing I encouraged him to do was to begin to share a framework. Either design one or make sure that the framework for the team is clear. In other words; what defines a high performing team? If you get a group of people in a virtual team who all have different ideas of what it means to be successful, that’s an opportunity to begin to define what success looks like for the team.

I think one of the easiest ways to help a virtual team find that, is that I recommend people read the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  It is such a quick read, and a great model. From a virtual standpoint; let’s say that you have people in five time zones—I have worked with people in more time zones with teams that span the globe—how quickly can we all get up to speed using the same language. If you get a group of orthopedic surgeons together, they quickly can start having conversations no matter what part of the world they have been trained in, they likely share a common language. It makes it easy to get up to speed. We need to do the same with a team. If we are not sharing the same language it gets harder. That’s 1, begin to collectively define what a team is and what our team will look like, and 2, what success looks like for our team.

The very first thing that I would do is send an email and as quickly as possible have a one-on-one conversation either by phone, Google Hangout, or Skype; one-on-one with each of the team members before you ever start to hold team meetings. Because you want to develop rapport and you know this, Relly, you are a pro at this, developing rapport.

We need to make a connection with our team members, and help them understand their role in this team, and answer any questions that they have. Here’s the thing, the story that I just told you about this person in the military, imagine if he is now leading a team with people who have suddenly been thrown into a similar situation. He didn’t know, he had been told that here is your team. He had sort of a vague relationship with some of them, but some of them he didn’t know. He needs to get up to speed as quickly as possible with, “who is my team?” I recommend not doing that in a conference call or a video chat when everyone is there.

This is the part where it’s an investment in time and energy of reaching out and answering questions and sharing where we are headed and if they have any questions and begin to establish the ground rules. For example: Relly, call me any time. If you call me on a week night after 9:00 pm, or after 6:00 pm, I won’t answer but I’ll be back in touch with you within 24 hours – that type of thing.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Those are the kind of guidelines that are great. I remember reading during my career that 60% of business problems are unclear expectations. I remember seeing that and thinking, “huh, that’s kind of my realm. Now that I’m no longer a psychologist in private practice and working in organizations, I know that stuff but it’s unclear expectations. Think about it now being, “virtually” with different accents and English may not be the prime language. So first, introducing themselves, and then having a one-on-one call versus a virtual team, where then they can really ask questions. You also want to ask questions from them. You want to give information, but it has to be a give and take, so the person knows that you are interested in their opinion.

Tom Heck:  This is the part about the model of leader. You and I have embraced the leader as a coach verses the traditional leadership model of my way or the highway. If that ever worked—I’m not sure that it ever did—it absolutely will not work in a virtual environment. Especially, more than likely if you are listening to this interview here that’s recording, you are probably working with a lot of Millenials who have been coached their whole lives about inclusivity and making the shift from “me” to “we,” what we can do together.

A lot of the team’s success in any realm, face-to-face or virtual, is going to hinge on how the leader shows up. I have a little teleclass on the Seven Qualities of the Highly Successful Virtual Team Leader, which is really the qualities of the leader as coach.

Find out more about the “virtual team” and how you can create one and be successful. What are the Seven Qualities Tom talks about? Listen to the complete recording of our discussion without commercials, above.


Leave a Reply