The secret to successful long-distance leadership

When my job required me to move from Melbourne to Singapore, the biggest shock wasn’t the new role, new city or new culture (although there certainly was all of that) but the realisation I would have to fundamentally change the way I used to lead.  

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Very early on, my new team (spread out over 33 markets) gave me some invaluable 360 degree feedback I wasn’t “available” enough for them. I was “inaccessible”. The comments were a wake-up call, bringing the blunt realisation my way of working when my team was physically co-located with me wasn’t going to work in this new role and environment.

" Managing a virtual team is a necessity in many modern workplaces where employees work offshore, remotely or flexibly."
Daniel King, GM, human resources, ANZ, International

Now if you ask my team today I’m sure they would tell you I have room for improvement (they are still very good at upward feedback!) but after four years I think I am now better placed to talk about being a ‘virtual’ leader.


Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Managing a virtual team is simply a necessity in many modern workplaces. Employees may work offshore or remotely or flexibly. Regional, global workforces, culturally and gender diverse workforces, scattered workforces, all mean more virtual workplaces.

Virtual teams have inherently more diverse characteristics, bringing a much more diverse set of experiences and ideas, which in turn creates a more-engaged and talented workforce and one inherently more productive than pure in-house teams – a beautiful self-fulfilling prophecy.

But like any long distance relationship, managing a virtual team requires a fair amount of persistence and dedication to make it work.


Too many of us have suffered a dysfunctional telephone or video call with a virtual team. The annoying ping of new participants anonymously dialling into a conference line 15 mins late (part of you wanting to shout out “name yourself!”) or trying to get a word in when those in the ‘speaker room’ are happily talking amongst themselves, blissfully unaware of those on the other end of the phone who are desperately waiting to be heard (because its 1am and they want to at least make the sleep deprivation seem a little bit worthwhile!).

A Conference Call in Real Life

VIDEO: Tripp and Tyler

But the real problems associated with a less than fully functional virtual team are far more serious and pervasive, in the form of a disengaged, disconnected and misaligned workforce.


So what needs to happen? Three Cs need to happen.

• Creating a sense of connection amongst your people;

• Setting out clear expectations of performance and role clarity; and

• Ensuring strategy is communicated clearly and your people understand their own role.


Your virtual team needs to feel inherently connected to you and to each other. There’s no simple recipe but your team needs to feel their leader cares about their well-being, their lives and that their workmates (for many but certainly not all Asian cultures this is particularly the case) are actually a very real extension of their families.

For me, as an extrovert, I like to see the “white of my peoples’ eyes” and so I use every means necessary (FaceTime, Skype, VC – whatever can be supported in the countries where my team operates) to make this happen. Studies have shown physically seeing someone increases trust and communication quality and for me a sense of “connectedness” is never greater than during visual interaction.

But really it is not the communication channel which matters; it is the content of the communication. Ensuring you connect with your team at an emotional and human level is critical. I’m not talking necessarily about talking through each other’s “feelings” but at a minimum doing what you can to ensure the individual feels valued and not just a cog in the big corporate machine. If your conversations are transactional, all you can expect from your team are transactions, and very little in the way of discretionary effort.


In the VUCA world we live in, the number #1 killer (or at least top 3!) of employee engagement and productivity is lack of role clarity.

In a highly ambiguous and fluid world, we expect our workforce and our leaders to embrace ambiguity. However, thriving in this environment still requires a clear sense of what the organisation expects and the role each person plays in the success of the strategy.

The secret to role clarity is not a job description (surprising I know) but clear, constant and consistent communication to the individual on the nature and purpose of their role and your expectations of them.

Role clarity is particularly important when you are managing cross cultural and remote teams. In the absence of clarity your team will invent their own versions of what they need to do. The result can be various bespoke and sometimes conflicting approaches to what you are trying to achieve and this is compounded when you have teams which then overlay specific country and local leader agendas.

Some leaders prefer to say nothing rather than something which might not be 100 per cent accurate – which can be damaging.  

As long as the communication is authentic, consistent and frequent it is always beneficial and as a leader we should never be concerned with the notion that we don't have all the answers.  It is far better to be an imperfect communicator than preside over perfect silence.


All leaders should be able to clearly articulate the organisation’s strategy and ensure they are connected to that strategy and the organisation’s core purpose.

Not only is this critical for the proper execution of the strategy but also is a key element in a having a productive and engaged workforce. Numerous studies have shown a statistically significant relationship between higher levels of employee engagement and financial performance.

Importantly, the Corporate Executive Board research has also shown “of over 300 potential drivers of engagement, the connection between work and organisational strategy is the #1 driver of discretionary effort amongst employees. A sense of connection to the organisation can drive employee effort by as much as 32.8 per cent”.

Leaders need to constantly be trying to find opportunities to reinforce the connection between the employee and the organisation’s strategy all the way from initial on boarding, through regular check-ins, performance discussions and constant updates at team meetings on how the team is contributing to the bank’s strategy and purpose.


We live in an increasingly hyper-connected and digital world. Virtual teams are common today but they will become even more prevalent to facilitate faster and more fluid work cultures.

While I will never be in short supply of plenty of upward feedback from my wonderful virtual team I would also be very interested to hear your views and experiences on how you have got the best out of your virtual teams.

Daniel King is general manager of human resources, ANZ, International

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

18 Nov 2016

LONGREAD: military leadership, modern leadership

Greg Dodds | Ex-Senior Trade Commissioner, Japan & Vietnam veteran

Major-General Jim Hughes died in his sleep about two months ago. The funeral was well attended but attracted no interest from the media. After all, the Army has dozens of generals so one would hardly be missed, right?

30 Sep 2014

Who’s driving your leadership?

Suzette Corr | Group General Manager Institutional Human Resources, ANZ

Years ago I had a colleague who had a plaque on her desk that read, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me”. I found it vaguely irritating and dismissed it as pop psychology.

03 Mar 2015

The missing link for women in leadership

Amanda Gome | Former head of digital and social media, ANZ

Visibility may be a missing link in promoting more women into senior leadership roles. In a surprise finding from a survey of Notable Women, a program undertaken by 55 senior female leaders at ANZ in Australia and New Zealand in 2014, increased visibility contributed to greater confidence in pushing for leadership roles.