team leader

In the world of emergency management, responders commonly manage teams to complete a variety of missions and tasks.

But, for the most part, the people being managed exist “in real life” and communicate via voice, if not face-to-face.

And while large companies have been dealing with virtual teams for many years, this concept is still relatively new to the public sector.

As public sector agencies, we aren’t comfortable trusting what we don’t see.

And this has implications for both social media generally as well as working with teams of virtual volunteers.  And yet, use of virtual teams is becoming one of the instrumental ways to monitor and disseminate public messaging via social media.

By now, you should becoming familiar with virtual groups like:

This weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to work on the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) for the #CalCERT social media game that was led by Mary Jo Flynn (@maryjofly & @anaheimCERT) during the California Volunteers CERT Conference.

While the VOST experience will be debriefed later this week among participating team members, I wanted to chat about one particular topic today: Virtual Team Leaders.

First, let me clarify, that Virtual Team Leaders should NOT be the “requestor” for the virtual team.

Those that request the services of a virtual team, like a Public Information Officer, EOC Manager or Incident Commander are principally responsible for identifying objectives and metrics for success…..but these folks are often managing so many spinning plates inside of their operation, that makes managing a virtual team particularly challenging as they can’t often have their eyes glued to a computer screen.

To ensure the success of a virtual team, having a team leader working among the virtual participants can have a marked impact on the overall productivity of your team.

But what is uniquely required of Virtual Team Leaders?

  1. Excellent Communiction Skills:  The Virtual Team Leader is the direct conduit from the team to the on-site Incident Command Post, Emergency Operations Center or Incident Management Team.  The team leader needs to be able to understand the outcomes and objectives being sought in the delegated mission.
  2. Ability to quickly assess team member skill sets through some simple questions (“Which platform are you most comfortable in using? Do you know how to [fill in the blank]?”)
  3. Capable of splitting goals & objectives into clear tasks for team members (to ensure adequate coverage of needed tasks and to minimize replication of activity).
  4. Quick decision-making skills to answer questions about filtering information (does this activity meet our overall objectives?),
  5. Management skills to evaluate sufficient progress towards expected outcomes,
  6. Flexibility to work with varying schedules & levels of commitment (virtual team members may be multi-tasking or wandering in and out of operations….touching base on schedules and ability to commit can be an on-going conversation as Team Leaders may need to seek additional assistance if the objectives aren’t being reached),
  7. Ability to mentor new volunteers by training them on how to complete tasks or answer questions as they crop up (never assume team members understand everything), and
  8. Be good morale-builders (This is particularly true of long-duration missions because people grow tired and apathy can set in over time. If a team gels well and is able to have fun, even during missions, they will be more likely to stay productive. If morale is missing on a team or it becomes a drudgery, your virtual team may develop some relationship baggage that can cause distractions in future missions.)

What is important to notice is that Virtual Team Leaders can rarely focus on the actual tasks of the assigned mission.  The reason? If you get stuck in the weeds of the mission, you’ll forego some of the leadership responsibilities that are required of any high-functioning team.

So, whether you’ll be defining the mission for a team, being a team leader or working on a virtual team, it is important to understand the roles, perspectives and aims of each of your teams, working on behalf of your community, in an emergency.

One of my favorite quotes from Lao Tzu reads as follows:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his [or her] aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.



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