Training Virtual Leaders: Lessons Learned From Wolverine

Recognizing that virtual management isn’t the same as face-to-face management is one thing. Prioritizing virtual leadership training to help managers better lead their remote teams is another challenge entirely; one that many businesses will eventually need to address.

Wolverine Worldwide is a US-based apparel and footwear wholesaler and retailer with such diverse brands as Merrell, Saucony, Keds, Cat Footwear and Hush Puppies. Despite their geographic dispersion, they lacked a structured program to help their virtual leaders develop the soft skills necessary to manage in today’s virtual environment. That’s when they connected with us. Together, Wolverine Worldwide and OnPoint Consulting created a customized leadership program to get Wolverine’s leaders up to speed.

Recently, we sat down with Toni Freeland, director of learning and organizational development at Wolverine Worldwide, to discuss how the company set up customized training for virtual leaders and what the results have been. Their journey to stronger virtual leadership is full of lessons that will benefit any management team.

What made you realize your organization wasn’t doing enough to prepare leaders for effective virtual management?

We went through a large-scale acquisition in October 2012 and for the first time, most of our employees had team members reporting in from different locations. Through personal experience, observation and word-of-mouth, we recognized we weren’t doing enough to provide our management with proactive skills to help them better manage their virtual teams. As a global organization, this didn’t sit well with us. We wanted to build more global training and we needed to address the larger number of managers who were now leading teams in virtual settings.

Why did you choose to work with OnPoint over other consulting organizations?

Rick Lepsinger (president, OnPoint Consulting) worked with one of our Boston-based brands before we acquired it, and we heard positive things about OnPoint’s leadership training. We also liked the research behind OnPoint and the fact that we could customize a virtual leadership training program and deliver it completely virtually. We were able to model the virtual leadership skills we were teaching in the program. That meant that OnPoint would have to prove in practice what they taught in theory. It also enabled us to include our leaders from around the world, which was important to us.

What were your expectations for the virtual leadership training program?

Our goal was two-fold. First, we wanted to raise awareness that managing virtually is different than managing face-to-face. Most of our managers already understood that fact, but we wanted to articulate this point and acknowledge it. Second, we wanted to provide our managers with tips and guidelines; different techniques that could be used to build trust and accountability, and teach managers how to motivate their teams remotely.

We chose five training modules we thought were most relevant to our situation: Conducting Effective Virtual Meetings, Building and Sustaining Trust in a Virtual Environment, How Great Virtual Leaders Inspire and Motivate Others , Influencing Remotely, Managing Conflict in a Virtual Setting, and Coaching and Managing Accountability From a Distance.

Because these are soft skills, they are difficult to measure, so we didn’t set that expectation for ourselves. Instead, our goal was to identify where and how we thought people would improve using surveys and post-program interviews. We wanted to know what behavior changes our employees experienced and have them articulate how they applied training on the job and how those changes impacted business.

Can you walk us through the training process and how you structured it to ensure high levels of participation and retention?

We had approximately 20 global leaders participate in the program. Each participant was required to be the manager of at least one person in a true virtual management situation. We also asked that they commit to at least four or five modules because we wanted this to be a concentrated learning experience. Finally, we mandated attendance for those who signed up and put a policy in place that would charge a penalty if they signed up but didn’t attend. This way, each participant had a stake in the game.

The virtual leadership program lasted about three and a half months. Each participant received pre-work before they attended a 90-minute webinar. After each webinar, participants were asked to do action planning, which included mapping out one to three actions they would do differently as a result of their training. Each participant would return in two weeks to complete the same cycle again for the next training module.

How did your employees apply what they had learned?

Our leaders discussed making a number of changes, including structuring their virtual meetings differently and taking more time to build relationships.

In a face-to-face scenario, managers get the opportunity to partake in “drive-by” conversations like How’s it going? or How was your weekend? But in a virtual setting, these opportunities don’t always come up. Our virtual leaders learned they need to take more time for informal and casual conversation with their remote teams.

Our employees also felt that varying the way they host virtual meetings was valuable advice. Instead of resorting to phone conversations each time, they were advised to try WebEx, Go To Meeting, or Zoom Meetings. That way, they could see their remote workforce face-to-face.

Finally, our employees remarked on the importance of organization and structure for virtual meetings. Participants attend from multiple locations and time zones, and coordinating everyone’s presence can get messy. Furthermore, several distractions can deter from the content of the meeting, like background noise and side conversations. Our employees appreciated learning about techniques they can implement to make meetings more virtually-friendly, like scheduling shorter more frequent meetings, using the collaborative software tools to manage who will say and do what during the meeting, using polls and chat to keep participation and engagement high, and following up with participants after the meeting.

Building trust and learning how to convey trust in a virtual setting was another popular takeaway. They were challenged to answer questions about what trust looks like, how it relates to credibility and how you can win back trust when it’s been diminished.

What has your company experienced since initiating this training?

Overall, we’ve seen improved interpersonal relationships, less awkwardness at virtual meetings, more compliance and easier performance discussions. We haven’t developed a long-term strategy for following up with our program attendees yet, but it is one of our future goals. We did mandate post-program action planning, conducted surveys throughout the program, and reported their findings back to each attendee and their managers. Suffice it to say — their virtual leaders now operate more effectively because of the soft skills, tips and techniques they learned through OnPoint’s virtual leadership training. Initial feedback and results were so positive. We launched another cohort in early 2016 and plan to offer a third cohort in later 2016, as well as additional cohorts in 2017.

Interested in learning more? OnPoint and Wolverine will be hosting a webinar discussing best practices for training virtual leaders at noon EST September 15. Space is limited, so register now to secure your spot!


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Rick is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

Rick Lepsinger

Rick is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

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