Efficacious Characteristics and Leadership Practices of Virtual Team Leaders in Higher Education

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Working as a remote employee is becoming more commonplace in the workforce. Employees who work remotely, and those who do not, may also have a leader who works remotely (not in a traditional office setting). This presentation will provide research and best practices on virtual leadership within the complex higher education industry.


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.
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

Extended Abstract: 


Oftentimes virtual leaders lack many of the existing clues that are present when leading in a traditional face-to-face setting. In light of this, the authors conducted a study to provide insight regarding how virtual team leaders explain and describe their experiences in developing their leadership and management competencies in the tumultuous and challenging higher education setting.

Problem Statement:

Online enrollment within universities has grown significantly in recent years. As a result of this, online virtual employee teams working in online universities have grown in popularity and demand. Some institutions of higher education, as well as other organizations, launch virtual teams without providing the necessary training to adequately support team members, leading to reduced productivity, revenues, morale, and even loss of employees (DeRosa & Lepsinger, 2010; Thaly & Sinha, 2013; Zayani, 2008). Therefore, virtual teams can fail as often as they succeed because they are often not managed or led properly (Anantatmula & Thomas, 2010; Mancini, 2010; Panteli & Tucker, 2010; Ogren, 2016).

The specific problem addressed in this study was the scarcity of information on virtual leadership including what competencies are needed to lead and operationally manage virtual teams, how to develop those competencies in the complex online higher education environment, and what, if any, leadership and management components and practices are unique to the virtual online environment; particularly the online higher education space.

Many leadership applications, to include Transformational leadership practices, offer a foundational path for virtual leadership, but these approaches must be adjusted to address the unique needs of remote educators who teach without the benefit of face-to-face contact; the traditional setting of academia. While organizations pursue globally dispersed teams, higher education can borrow from what is known about virtual teamwork, maximizing communication, and cohesiveness with available technologies while acknowledging the vast differences in employee population, particularly academicians.

In the authors’ study, virtual academic leaders shared their day-to-day experiences and how they developed the competencies to manage virtual teams in the online higher education environment. Additionally, a focus on unique employee recognition and team building activities and differentiated skills for virtual leaders in higher education is examined, particularly the importance of emotional intelligence. Using a qualitative phenomenological study design, the authors uncover a more finite understanding of the human behaviors observed in effective virtual leaders and the leadership behaviors associated with successful virtual teams.

The population for this study consisted of leaders in U.S. based universities that offer online degree programs. A purposeful sampling method was used to identify 10 tenured academic leaders who lead and manage virtual teams. Data collection included virtual interviews conducted by the authors. Seven major themes emerged: (a) training and development (b) trust (c) emotional intelligence (d) communication/team building/technology (e) employee recognition/motivation (f) leadership styles (g) virtual leadership competencies unique to higher education.

The authors’ study reveals and examines the following needs to assist higher education leadership who are considering virtual teams or have virtual teams and virtual leaders:

  • Proper training for virtual leaders

  • The importance of trust amongst virtual leader and employee

  • The connection between the emotional intelligence competence of the virtual leader and organizational success

  • The need for robust technology platforms and an awareness of appropriate communication

Information and comprehension gained about the leadership of virtual academic teams can assist in enabling higher education institutions to implement virtual teams and/or virtual leadership administrator and faculty training. This could potentially increase employee and faculty engagement and commitment whereby positively impacting faculty and student retention and persistence.



Anantatmula, V. & Thomas, M. (2010). Managing global projects: A structured approach for better performance. Project Management Journal, 41(2), 60-72.doi:10.1002/pmj.20168  

Derosa, D. M., Lepsinger, R. (2010). Virtual team success A practical guide for working and leading from a distance (1st;1; ed.). US: Pfeiffer.

Mancini, M. (2010). The relevance of clinical balance assessment tools to differentiate balance deficits. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 46(2), 239.

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 http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/docview/1798489537?accountid=2...

Panteli, N., & Tucker, R. (2009). Power and trust in global virtual teams ACM. doi:10.1145/1610252.1610282

Thaly, P. & Sinha, V. (2013). To Prevent Attrition in Business Process Outsourcing, Focus on People. Global Business & Organizational Excellence, 32(3), 35-43. doi:10.1002/joe.21483 

Zayani, F. A. (2008). The impact of transformational leadership on the success of global virtual teams: an investigation on the multifactor leadership questionnaire. Ph.D. Dissertation, Capella University, United States – Minnesota. Retrieved from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text database. Dissertation Abstracts International, 69 (06), 151A. (UMI 3315224)