Surprise – You’re a Virtual Leader!

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session Leadership

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Today, leaders have been thrust into a virtual leadership role, virtually overnight. For some this is a short- term situation; for others, leaders now find themselves in unchartered and uncomfortable waters. This presentation will provide scholarly research and best practices for virtual leaders to assist them in making this transition.


Dr. Erin Alward has worked for the University of Phoenix for 17 years. She began her career at the University of Phoenix in Student Services before transitioning to Academic Affairs. Erin was an Instructional Specialist manager in Phoenix, overseeing a classroom investigation team and supporting faculty development. Erin then moved to Jersey City, NJ to assist in the opening of this location as the Director of Operations and Student Services. When Axia College was being developed, Erin was asked to transition to this institution to create and oversee a highly active and sensitive classroom investigation team as well as faculty training. In her tenure at Axia, Erin was promoted to Associate Director and oversaw classroom investigations, local campus outreach and eventually Full-time Academic Faculty. Erin was then tasked to assist in the launching of University Orientation, the University's 3 week Pilot Orientation program (UNIV/100). Erin oversaw the faculty recruitment and training for this program as well as performance management and support for faculty. Erin then transitioned to the College of Humanities and Sciences overseeing several initiatives to include Teaching Mentoring, Community Outreach, and Full-time Faculty teaching first year students. Erin is currently the Director of Academic Affairs (DAA) for the University of Phoenix, Central Florida campus. As the chief academic officer, she oversees all academic aspects of the campus. Erin has been teaching for the University of Phoenix since 2003, teaching both in the School of Business and the College of Humanities and Sciences. She is a faculty trainer and workshop facilitator as well. Erin has a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Arizona State University, a Masters degree in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix, and a Doctor of Education in E-learning from Northcentral University. Erin, her husband, and their two small boys, Samuel and Jackson, live in South Orlando.

Additional Authors

Yvonne is currently the Vice President of Academic Affairs for the West and Central Districts of the University of Phoenix. She has been with the University since 1997 beginning as a faculty member at the Southern California campus. During her tenure she has held various progressively responsible positions within Academic Affairs and Campus Services. She has presented and published in academic journals and conferences on topics including organizational downsizing, foundations of assessment, and corporate ethics. Yvonne lives in Cave Creek Arizona earned her PhD in Organization and Management from Capella University.

Extended Abstract

The 2020 medical crisis, coupled with the related economic and cultural jarring shifts, have forced many leaders out of their comfort zone. As a result, managers and leaders have been thrust into a completely virtual environment. This presents the need for adjusted logistics, emotional and practical considerations, and comes with significant challenges. However, this also provides some powerful opportunities to support a successful transition and provides pathways for growth  both for leaders and their employees. Succeeding as a virtual leader takes on a dramatic new meaning in this current social and economic landscape, both during and post the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific attitudes, tasks, tools and leadership styles help leaders become more efficient in making this transition. In the higher education space, virtual leadership comes with unique challenges. In the online university setting, leaders are often not equipped to efficaciously manage virtual teams since the team’s dispersed nature generates distinctive challenges. If leaders are not conscious of the intricacies of managing virtual teams and how to mitigate challenges and potential failure, institutions of higher education may lose productivity and students may be negatively impacted. To diminish the high failure rate of virtual teams, up to 71%, (Morgan et al., 2014), more information and evidence is needed.

Virtual teams fail as often as they succeed, because they are not always led and sustained appropriately (Ogren, 2016).This is true in the traditional environment; adding to the problem is the dramatically abrupt move to virtual work given the current and unsettling environment. The specific problem is that due to the rapid and unexpected shift into the virtual world, leaders may not have the necessary training or background to make a smooth transition; many may simply be in survival mode. This presentation will assist virtual leaders in making this transition.

 Themes and Takeaways:

There are several components to consider when embarking on this new frontier of impromptu virtual leadership. As a result of our qualitative research, experience and literature review as it pertains to effectively leading virtual teams, 8 major themes surfaced which we will share and discuss with our participants. These include trust, emotional intelligence, communication, team building, technology, employee recognition and motivation, and leadership styles.

Where to start: Many leaders are abruptly thrust into virtual leadership and often question where to begin, particularly since most virtual leaders do not receive any formal training to lead remotely. From a virtual leader’s perspective there should be a strong focus on providing support for their virtual employees when they are also embarking on a new experience that may be highly uncomfortable and stressful for them. It is incumbent on the virtual leader to be cognizant of the comfort level of each of their team members as it will vary. Virtual leaders must acknowledge virtual work can be lonely requiring a high level of empathy, support and encouragement.  

Trust: First and foremost, a virtual leader must trust his or her virtual employees. We suggest providing very clear directions and deadlines and then allow employees to do their jobs; just because one cannot see them does not mean they are not performing. Many new virtual leaders tend to feel the need to engage in micromanagement practices as they cannot see their virtual employees. In our experience we have found that if one hires good employees and trusts them, then the job is getting done just as it would be in a physical environment. Trust is a symbiotic relationship; a virtual leader must trust his or her employees, but virtual employees need to trust their virtual leader as well. This two-way exchange of trust can come in the form of transparency, reliability and accountability. Effective techniques to support this include having a commitment to being available to ones’ virtual employees, being highly communicative and following through on commitments.  

Emotional Intelligence: As a general rule, a successful leader needs to have a high level of emotional intelligence (EI). In our experience and research, a successful virtual leader needs to have an even greater level of EI. It is of great importance for virtual leaders to be more in tune with what is happening in the lives of their virtual employees and the challenges they are facing right now. It is critical that a virtual leader invests the time to understand their employees in our current environment. Right now, and at any time, this can go a long way in honing virtual leadership skills. Virtual leaders can use EI to encourage more introverted team members, to resolve conflict and to build meaningful relationships which can lead to greater team satisfaction and results

Communication: Communication is critical in any leadership role, but even more so as a virtual leader. Being available, consistently, is essential. In this vein, there are several criterion that a virtual leader should be cognizant of. We suggest assuring that virtual employees understand how communication will work in a virtual environment.  A virtual leader should be very open about one’s schedule and commitments. For example, if a virtual leader is under a tight deadline or has multiple unusual commitments, their team may not be aware of this information. If a virtual leader is going to be less available to their team based on a special project or other commitment, taking the time to quickly get out ahead of that and communicating this to their virtual team can ease anxiety and avoid setting inconsistent expectations in terms of a commitment to communication and responsiveness. Taking the extra time to assure that employees are confident in their understanding of deadlines, instructions and expectations are all components of successful virtual leadership traits. Lastly, a successful virtual leader must be highly communicative and understand the communication preferences and effectiveness of his/her remote employees

Team Building: Our research has shown that team building and building rapport is vital in the virtual world; effective team building can lead to enhanced morale, a feeling of inclusion and a feeling of connectedness. Virtual leaders should place a concerted effort on exploring ways to connect with their teams virtually while not being able to do so face-to-face. Virtual technology tools such as Zoom and Skype can be effective, but a virtual leader should focus on creative ways to further build meaningful relationships.

Technology: Technology can be the lifeline that virtual team members cling to; therefore, the technology must be collaborative and reliable. It is understandably necessary to provide reliable tools for one’s virtual employees and assure that they understand how to use them. However, we recommend not making the assumption that all virtual employees are comfortable using technology. Video technology is a good example. The use of video may make one employee feel highly uncomfortable, while it could be a useful tool for another. There are numerous mediums for technology and communication and a virtual leader should understand the preferences and cadence of this and accommodate this whenever possible. Technology, no matter how robust it is, is not a substitute for strong virtual leadership skills. Effective virtual leaders use technology options as tools to engage and connect with virtual employees but understand that human connection is more than technology.

Employee Recognition and Motivation: Recognition and employee motivation is valuable but unfortunately often gets overlooked. It is important to acknowledge how virtual employees may be feeling in a time of uncertainty and display a high level of empathy. Since virtual leaders lack the ability to connect physically with their virtual teams, there should be a focus on digging deeper to understand how employees are doing in this time of crisis and recognizing them for their achievements. Successful virtual leaders strive to understand what generally motivates their virtual employees; however, there should be a focus on how this may need to be adjusted now.

Leadership Styles: Virtual leaders should consider examining their leadership style as a new virtual leader and if anything needs to be adjusted in our current environment, understanding that face-to-face leadership styles will not always transfer. While there are similarities in leading face-to-face and virtually, our research found that transformational, situational and servant leadership practices were utilized by the most successful virtual leaders. Now, more than ever, it is imperative to begin adopting servant and situational leadership practices to lead one’s virtual team

Plan for interactivity:

We will take a three-part approach to workshop engagement and participant interaction.  First, after introductions, we will survey participants (using Kahoot) to gather responses to 8-10 quick questions regarding attendees experience with and understanding of virtual leadership in general, and specifically virtual leadership in online higher education.  After we cover the research content, literature review, and research findings we will facilitate a 10-minute team activity.  The audience will participate in triads and will brainstorm and discuss the sessions content and the connection to the themes that emerged.  We will conclude the session with a quick round robin with the question “What is your favorite best practice for building and supporting virtual teams”.  All activities can be converted to an online forum if required.


Morgan, L., Paucar-Caceres, A., & Wright, G. (2014). Leading effective global virtual teams: theconsequences of methods of communication. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 27(5), 607-624. doi:10.1007/s11213-014-9315-2

Ogren, T. A. (2016). A qualitative multi-case study of leadership and inter-team collaboration among higher education distributed employees (Order No. 10111447). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Northcentral University. (1798489537). Retrieved from