Leadership in the Time of COVID-19
Guidance for Effective Virtual Meetings

The current global health crisis demands effective leadership at all levels. We are working to support our clients and all leaders during this time. For a start, we offer this guidance for effective virtual meetings.

Our work is grounded in a developmental perspective, that is, the reality that adults may advance in distinct stages toward greater capacity to lead in complex environments, meeting the challenges for becoming more adaptable to sustain leadership success. Our current global predicament is nothing if not complex. The guidance offered here for virtual meetings accounts for complexity, ambiguity and the need for innovation, as well as continuity, and the paradoxes inherent in all complex processes that strategic leaders must manage.

By Sandra M. Martínez, Ph.D., President

Preparation Beforehand:

  • Spend some time identifying the minimal constructive outcomes you seek to have achieved when you leave the meeting. A key element of this process is first identifying the purpose of the meeting.
  • Reserve the time you have together in the meeting to do what you cannot do individually, e.g., collective learning, surfacing new ideas, developing solutions together, influencing and persuading the whole group. Leverage the synergy of the team for creativity.
  • Support the creation of synergy during the meeting by distributing materials and sharing points of view in advance to create a foundation of common knowledge and understanding among the participants
  • Establish as a norm respect for the time of the other members of the team by holding all accountable for preparing adequately and arriving on time for the meeting.

The Meeting:

  • Take time at the beginning of the meeting to set the stage: Welcome participants. Express appreciation for their commitment and time. Create a comfortable, positive and inviting atmosphere to encourage trust and sharing. Be intentional about this.
  • Help participants to be present, fully and actively engaged. Be present yourself. What do we mean by ‘being present:’ Bring your full attention to the moment at hand. Listen well to what others are sharing and be attentive to the mood, points of view and emotion expressed overtly or in subtle ways. How are others responding? Be aware of your own responses in order to manage yourself well as you experience the meeting.
  • One way to accomplish this is to give all participants an opportunity to check-in personally and/or professionally at the beginning of the meeting. Inquire or invite comment about a pertinent topic that all share, either personal or professional. You can structure the responses and time limits as you wish, e.g., one word, one sentence, one-minute responses, or whatever is suitable for the situation. The objective here is to engage everyone at the onset of the meeting.
  • Be explicit about the purpose of the meeting and what you are seeking to accomplish. State this clearly at the beginning of the meeting. Be explicit about your desire for the meeting to be a conversation, a dialogue, if that is the case.
  • After you have stated the purpose of the meeting, illustrate the importance of the meeting through facts and stories to engage the emotion, intellect, energy, and empathy of the group so they best understand how it relates to and impacts them.
  • Throughout the meeting design opportunities for engagement. You have many resources at your disposal: Break-out rooms in which assigned partners can respond to a question and then present responses in chat, use of ‘hand-raising’ to elicit questions and individual perspectives. Follow the 5-minute rule by presenting an opportunity for engagement at least every 5 minutes.
  • Maintain Systems Awareness: Gauge the thoughts, perspectives, emotions, and mood in the room by asking questions related to the theme of the meeting. Give everyone an opportunity to respond. Listen carefully and fully to all responses. Comment on patterns you have discerned, outliers and note what wasn’t said or presented.
  • Silence is OK. It can allow for moments of reflections and note-taking. Check your pace throughout the meeting to ensure you are not moving too quickly or too slowly or out of sync with the group.

Leverage the Polarities (Paradoxes) of a Virtual Meetings:

The paradoxes of leadership are many. These are the interrelated values, behaviors, and strategies that seem contradictory, but are equally important to sustained success at every level of a system, individual, team, organization, industry, and society. Each of us usually has a preference for one pole or the other of each paradox and we are unaware of the downside of an over-focus on our preferred pole. As we mature in our leadership, we recognize the value of the opposite pole and learn to move back and forth between an emphasis on each pole to effectively lead in complex environments. Some polarities at play in virtual meetings:
  • Structure AND Flexibility: Having arrived at a meeting with a proposed structure for the proceeding, be prepared to flex depending on the perceived needs, temperature and learning occurring in the virtual ‘room.’
  • Converging AND Exploratory: Remember that we talked about being explicit about the purpose and expectations for the meeting. This fits in with the Converging (or concentrated) pole of this polarity. In the course of a meeting, however, there is a need for both convergence and expansive and exploratory thoughts. Any creative endeavor requires time and a space for less judgmental and more open-ended dialogue when new and unconventional ideas are expressed. Especially at the beginning of a project, this expansiveness can be critical to success. When it is time to explore, state this and allow the space. It is equally important to bring convergence after an expansive phase. Again, be directive about this. Most meetings will require a dance, moving between these two poles. Support and provide the structure for both converging and exploratory as appropriate during the course of one meeting.
  • Task AND Relationship: This is one of the key polarities influencing leadership and management; it is equally at play in a virtual meeting. Be prepared to focus on both meeting expectations and deadlines, accomplishing what you have set out to do (a focus on Task). Meanwhile, the virtual meeting must establish and maintain the psychological safety of the participants that builds and sustains trust in you, as the leader, and among all the participants or members of the team. This is the environment that encourages open communication, commitment, and engagement.

Key Polarities at Play in a Virtual Meeting

Concluding the Meeting:

  • At the end of the meeting, be certain to establish collaboratively the follow-up action plan. Be concrete and specific about follow-up actions. Include the Who? What? When? And How?
  • Take a moment to review with other participants the learning that has taken place during the meeting. New insights? A shift in perspective? Record those learnings and share them in a follow up email or other venue.
  • Don’t’ forget to express appreciation for the time and energy of the participation.
FINAL NOTE – TECHNOLOGY: Speaking of dynamic, interactive meetings, become familiar with and make use of the technology available to you. For example, using Zoom, the raised hand, break-out meetings, polling function, and, of course, the chat box are available to you.

Comments on “Leadership in the Time of COVID-19
Guidance for Effective Virtual Meetings”

  1. What a rich article full of tips and strategies that leaders can apply immediately. I love how you incorporated the polarities of meetings as well to demonstrate the on-going tensions of this virtual working world. Thank you for offering these tips and insights!

  2. As a college professor, I found that this entire article brings into focus how I can maximize the effectiveness of working with my students in our new virtual learning environment. Since portions of my curriculum deal with leadership roles, I plan to share it with them as a guideline for their own academic excellence. Thank you, Sandra!

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