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Until recently, it was enough for successful leaders to bring a combination of interpersonal skills, academics, and business savvy to their roles. Especially if they also brought the personality, energy, and innate interpersonal skills that their direct reports needed. But in 2021, these capabilities, at least in their traditional forms, may not be sufficient. Virtual leadership is the new norm according to Gartner. And, interestingly, most virtual leadership is being channelled through one platform: videoconferencing; a tool with which few leaders have deep experience.

In fact, McKinsey noted that for the last few months managers have been, “trying to figure out how to lead their teams virtually as they build social capital and how to maintain cohesion without the benefit of informal coffee, lunch, or corridor chats”. They have also suggested that “to maintain strong professional ties, drive change, and support employees remotely, leaders will need advanced communication and interpersonal skills, including empathy”.

Let’s start by identifying and defining three of these advanced, virtual communication skills:

  1. On-camera Presence (employing body language, voice, words, and camera skills to project the kind of warmth, confidence, and connectedness that will put direct reports at ease)
  2. Virtual Empathy (employing empathy, responsiveness, and awareness to connect with direct reports and help them through their own discomfort with the virtual medium)
  3. Remote Coaching (employing virtual questioning and listening skills to promote openness and dialogue that uncovers needs and ultimately encourages action and accountability)

The skills look simple enough, and many leaders are familiar with them but putting them into practice remotely, can be challenging. Which brings us to an important question: if leaders haven’t previously mastered these virtual skills, are they building them the hard way? Through repeated trial and error with their direct reports? Regardless of the answer, now is the time for leaders to develop these new skills and they are looking for a virtual learning and development solution that can address these gaps in a time-efficient and cost-effective way.

Fortunately, there is a way for leaders to learn and develop these virtual communication skills that fit these constraints: Deliberate Practice. Doug Robertson, Director of Business Development at Practica Learning describes it this way, “Building virtual leadership skills with Deliberate Practice means creating a safe environment and adding a self-reflective feedback loop into the learning process rather than simply repeating the task over and over. Time for self-reflection, feedback, coaching and trying again is vital to accelerating the learning process and performance”. Mastery is achieved through repeated cycles of practice and feedback, with each cycle emphasizing “multiple aspects of the skill”, he says. Doug also suggests reading the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson for more information.

Watching a practice scenario in action reveals that Deliberate Practice is part roleplay, part practice and part coaching. It is delivered virtually, 1-to-1, in a safe environment by actors who are professional coaches. In Deliberate Practice for leaders, the actor plays the coachee and roleplays a challenging conversation with the leader, who plays themself. At the conclusion of the roleplay, the actor provides feedback and coaching: not only on what the leader said but also on how it made them feel as the coachee or direct report. After three to four, increasingly difficult, 30-minute roleplay scenarios, most leaders find that they have significantly improved their level of skill and comfort. And, because the scenarios are realistic and challenging, they also report retaining the new skills at a deep level and using them regularly over the ensuing months.

For time-pressed leaders, whose business has already been squeezed by the challenges of 2020, virtual interpersonal skills will continue to be critical for success in the distance economy of tomorrow. Deliberate practice is a learning and development technique that can help leaders to build the skills – on-camera presence, virtual empathy and remote coaching – so they can successfully lead, build social capital and maintain the cohesion of their teams in 2021.