Examples of Excellence: Three Great Leaders from Three Great Companies Show How to Lead in the Virtual Business World

Author Karen Sobel Lojeski points to examples from Merck, IBM and HP in her new book, Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century

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New York — December 4, 2009 — In her new book, Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century, author Karen Sobel Lojeski discusses the leadership and management implications of the marked increase in the "virtual workforce." (Read more here.) In the following article, she offers examples of three core competencies for leading today's virtual workforce: Creating Context, Cultivating Community and Co-activating New Leaders.

Creating Context: Merck & Co., Inc.

Robert McMahon, president of U.S. Commercial Operations at Merck, has been with the company for over 20 years. Bob's breadth of experience is impressive. He has worked on many different kinds of initiatives, one building upon the next, bringing increasing responsibilities with each "zig" and "zag." Via a combination of longevity as well as latitudinal experience, Bob brings a stable and informed perspective to his followership. How has he set such a high standard among such a dispersed set of resources?

"I think people need to have a sense of who you are," he says. "I think you have to be credible, a thoughtful, and a substantial leader to make different choices about how to get in front of your people... I've invested a lot of time over the years getting people to believe in me — doing the kinds of things that convince people that I'm a trusted, valuable leader they will want to follow."

Developing virtual workforce leader qualities involves honing perceived constancy by becoming aware of the dynamic forces that propel people forward. Bob explains that his success doing so has come with knowing how best to communicate with his employees. "Now that I have 4,000 representatives out there who are at the age of my children and, in many cases, younger than my children, I've really had to work very hard to understand what it is they need to hear and how they need to hear it," he says.

Bob demonstrates "outside-in" thinking. He can see beyond himself, become aware of others and their needs, internalize many sets of unique circumstances, identities and personalities, and incorporate those into the transference of global goals to a broad base of technologically tethered workforces. Bob serves as the perfect anchor for those he leads, but he knows he wouldn't be able to do it alone.

"You have to have people well-positioned in the organization to tell you the truth," he says. "Blatant, hard, sometimes difficult truth about how good you are with respect to actually getting through to people." Bob uses his well-established and trusted presence as a force that brings confidence to the thousands of people who depend on him.

Cultivating Community: IBM.

Gina Poole, vice president of software group marketing 2.0 at IBM, knows a thing or two about corporate community building. She created the BlueIQ Ambassadors, a massive delegation of social software ambassadors and collaboration gurus, made up of 650 people from 35 countries.

The BlueIQ Ambassadors contribute in a number of ways. Some hold how-to one-on-one clinics on social software technology. Some hold "lunch and learn" sessions. Some do "jump-start" consulting for specific teams within the company. The most surprising thing about the BlueIQ Ambassadors? None of them are required to help out in this way. IBM does not mandate any time commitment from them. So why do they do it? "They're motivated by the opportunity to share their expertise in a certain area of social software, and by the chance to build their own skills," says Gina.

For the program to see continued success, Gina knows that in addition to these bottom-up initiatives, top-down buy-in is also key. "We do a lot of internal communications to share success stories, advocate the Ambassador program, and make individuals, teams, managers, and executives aware that we can help them," she says. "The executives and managers have to view social software adoption as valuable, encourage it, and in most cases, do it themselves."

To keep them motivated, she constantly recognizes and rewards her ambassadors. "People will follow someone who they see as having a good vision, who is excited about the job, and who will take care of them," she says. "If you've created the environment and the vision and the support structure, they'll work like crazy and you can't stop them."

Co-Activating New Leaders: Hewlett-Packard.

Phil McKinney, vice president and chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard's Personal Systems Group and head of HP's Innovation Program Office as well as Industry Standards and Ergonomics, knows how to harness new leaders. He leads 310,000 employees, located around the world. Because that's a job impossible for one man to do alone, he uses several leadership practices to co-activate others. Social networking and actual face time between employees play a huge role in his efforts.

"In HP, as in any large organization, you've got the formal way of getting things done and you've got the informal way of getting things done," he says. "And the way to get the informal things done is through the process of having that social network, having worked with enough people across different organizations such that if you need to get something done, you've built up social capital with somebody else in the organization."

At HP, people develop strong social networks that they can leverage no matter where they are, or when they are, in their career. And it's achieved through a strategy Phil calls "reverse-mentoring," an intern program he uses to stay in sync with upcoming youth in the company.

A prime example of how the program works is Michael. He began as a design team intern in Calgary. When he graduated, HP hired him and promptly sent him to work in Taiwan. Phil explains why they moved him from place to place so early in his career: "So he can build up his relationships and his social network with the Taiwan team, which is critical. Because if you don't have relationships with the Taiwan team, your ability to design a product and have that product actually go through the manufacturing process is pretty limited."

Phil adds to his co-activating leader style by sharing his vision with others and then sending them on their way to experience a wide array of cultures and environments so that they will end up building great products for the company. Phil is actively engaged in developing new hires, the new hire is actively engaged in his new experiences, and together they become co-activating leaders co-existing on a leadership continuum at HP.

Techno-Dexterity: Merck, IBM, and HP.

The most successful of today's leaders understand how to use technology in a more socially adapted way to impart vision and inspire others. That skill is called techno-dexterity. Several great leaders have figured it out:

When it comes to e-mail, Bob McMahon knows it's best to refrain on the weekends. On long car drives from his Pennsylvania home to his summer home on Long Island, McMahon works offline organizing e-mails he can send out Sunday night. "What I'll do is package up all those messages because I can work offline and wait until I know everybody's gone to bed on Sunday night and then get online and release them all," says Bob. "Rather than having messages straggling in over the weekend, I've bundled all of what I needed to do in a way that doesn't interfere with people's space on the weekend."

Part of Gina Poole's mission at IBM is to promote and facilitate the use of social software tools to help teams be more productive and effective. As she was building her team, she came across an IBM employee who had mastered social networking for a good reason: He lived on a remote island. "Before he worked for me, everywhere I turned, I'd bump into him online, or people would say, 'Oh, social networking — have you talked with Luis?'" says Gina. "So here's a guy sitting in the middle of an ocean, but he is incredibly well-known in the social networks inside and outside IBM. I had him come to Orlando for a conference, and as he and I were walking around, people were recognizing him and hugging him. He is a great example of someone who builds relationships online and offline."

Phil McKinney used his blog to spread the word about his reverse-mentoring program. He wrote, "Hanging out with staff and interns who are younger than your own children is a real eye-opener. You quickly realize that you are so far out of the loop, you can't even see the loop. The challenge is, how do you get yourself back in the loop without looking like an old guy trying to relive your childhood? My goal with interns is to not only give them experience, skills and mentoring that they will find beneficial as they get ready to launch their careers, but to also learn from them." And more recently, Phil used his blog to discuss a museum exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and used the example to highlight the importance of capturing ideas in notebooks for innovation.