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The keys to network and virtual leadership

The keys to network and virtual leadership

As leaders adapt their style to fit the new world of work, it is helpful to consider different leadership approaches for different scenarios, to not only arrive at solutions, but to bring out the best in teams.


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To be a successful leader in a dynamic and evolving organisation, many new skills are required, including a great deal of self-awareness. With situations constantly changing, deep thinking is needed to solve problems.

“There is a real opportunity right now to think about leadership and how we all are leading,” says Dr Jane Gunn, Partner, People & Change, KPMG. “Is our approach fit for purpose for today’s fast paced, interconnected, ambiguous world? Or are we still leading in a way that no longer fits the reality that we are operating in?”

Gunn says embracing ‘network leadership’, which draws on the insights of many to make decisions, and building ‘virtual leadership’ skills to nurture teams that are connected digitally, are essential.

“If you think your technical capabilities are going to win the day – then you’ve got a fundamental misalignment with the environment in which you are operating. Business is highly complex and quickly changing, as is the leadership needed to operate in this environment,” Gunn says.

Collaboration is central

Thanks to technology, the need to innovate and counter potential disruption, it is impossible for one leader to have all the answers. While leaders were once looked to as the ‘oracle’ of a company, they must accept that to deal with today’s complexities, they need to seek multiple perspectives and ideas.

“If the leader thinks they have to solve all the problems, and has made up their mind, what opportunities are they losing?” Gunn says.

While it might appear that the pace of change and the urgency to make decisions means leaders have to be in a hurry, taking time to pause, understand and diagnose the nature of the opportunity or problem that they are addressing is critical.

“Leaders need to be able to articulate the purpose, and identify the stakeholders who can help with the solution. The leader needs to be able to facilitate the dialogue, rather than just tell people what to do,” she says.

‘Network leadership’ to harness ideas

Once leaders enlist the help of others, they must know how to arrive at outcomes. Sally Calder, Partner, People & Change, KPMG, says a ‘network leadership’ framework (also described as ‘servant leadership’) can be useful. This approach looks at problems in context – starting with the higher organisational goals, then working back to the issue at hand.

“The thing that sets apart extraordinary leaders, and that can lead to huge shifts within organisations and teams, is that notion of connecting to a higher purpose in their work,” Calder says.

This approach can help link people from different departments, teams and disciplines to focus on a challenge.

“The leader’s role is about effectively curating all of these ideas and knowing when it’s time to say, ‘we have a solution that takes us to our purpose’,” Gunn says.

A virtual net

With mobility revolutionising how people work, both permanent staff and contractors are often connected digitally, with little face-to-face time. Therefore leaders need to improve their ‘virtual leadership’ skills. To do so, Calder says they must ask – what is the job that we need to do, what does good look like and how is success measured?

“How do you manage virtual teams so that they support one another to deliver an outcome? It requires leaders to be more precise and organised around how they keep on track at every layer of an organisation,” Calder says.

Virtual teams work more independently, so setting clear performance expectations can be useful, along with accountability for customer or client outcomes.

“Previously this was just required for front-line managers,” she says.

When teams are physically far apart, building connectivity is more important than ever, to avoid a sense of isolation.

“While it might be tempting to think that virtual teams don’t require personal contact, we believe that you have to find a way to bring people together. You need a much greater awareness of how all the individuals work and how they are inspired and motivated,” Calder says.

Big picture benefit

While choosing a more deliberate approach to leadership is great for the leaders’ own success and their immediate team, it ultimately puts organisations in a position to be agile, adaptive and resilient in the face of immense change, Gunn explains.

“Without diversity of opinions to innovate and create something new, organisations will be stuck in the past and their competitors will take over,” she says.

Calder concludes that businesses that make the “big shifts” are the ones that “throw their arms open to different expertise”.

“The leaders that are really happy to say, ‘I’m not an expert at this, but we can connect to the people who are, and work collaboratively and seamlessly to get the change that you need’,” she says.


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