Book review: ‘Virtual Leadership’ by Penny Pullan

Up with the lark to lead a conference call with India? Or being forced to be a night owl, to contribute to the weekly round-up video call with HQ in the USA? Or, as some clients tell me – both? Then this book will really help you. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dr Pullan at various group events and not only does Penny seriously know her stuff (track record includes being a trained engineer, working at Mars Inc., project management and business analysis), she has a refreshingly no-nonsense approach to a field that can baffle many of us.

Why are so many of us working in a virtual world? Factors include globalisation, the explosion of technology, outsourcing and cost constraints. Yet virtual work has its pitfalls, as we all know.

I was hooked from page 5, in which Penny says, “Too many people assume they can overcome the challenges of virtual working and virtual teams just by getting to grips with the different technologies used for communications. That is just one part of the jigsaw and probably less than 10 per cent of what is needed. True virtual leadership takes into account the human side of virtual work, encouraging people to work really effectively together remotely while making the most of technology.”

‘Virtual Leadership’ is clearly set out (as one might expect from a project management guru) and, given the subject matter, a surprisingly engaging and entertaining read. Penny brings her thoughts and ideas to life with visuals, diagrams, personal anecdotes, and others’ examples from the real word of virtual working.

Starting with the similarities and differences between virtual and face to face working and the ups and downs of the former, Penny refers to her own research, which identified the top 5 challenges for working virtually. ‘Engaging remote participants’ topped the poll, followed by issues such as missing out on the dynamics and nuances of conversations, time zones, cultural differences, and building trust. The book goes on to address these, but not before dealing with the mind-set, skills and capabilities required of the virtual leader themselves – a vital step.

There’s a great section on different team types and patterns, the visuals for which help the reader understand the complex connections that can multiply by the addition of just one person. I really like the clarity in the chapter on technology about which tools to use and when, depending on whether the virtual work is being done asynchronously or synchronously. But we’re reminded that technology is merely ‘an enabler’ and the chapter on leading virtual meetings has simple-once-you-know-them steps to set up a meeting and tips on engaging people throughout, including using visuals, stories and questions.

Penny also turns her attention to the actual work that has to happen between these virtual meetings and provides tips on dealing with the productivity challenges that virtual working can present. The chapter on complexities such as culture, language (two minefields right there), different generations and time zones is priceless for anyone who has to deal with them.

‘Virtual Leadership’ draws extensively on both the author’s own experience as well as leading publications and academic literature; impressive references are given throughout. But it’s not an ‘academic’ read: there’s real-world, practical advice aplenty that can be applied right away as well as anecdotes readers will relate to. I particularly like the ‘Questions for reflection’ at the end of every chapter; work through these and I’m sure readers will not only gain valuable insights, but also heaps of ideas to make a success of working and leading virtually.


You may find this blog post useful: ‘7 steps to better collaboration’.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

Comments are closed.