This week presented new challenges for nearly all Americans and people across the world. With the outbreak of COVID-19, we are faced with difficult choices, living complex new lives with children at our feet while we attempt to work from home if we are so lucky to do so, and simply trying to find a new, temporary, normal. During this complex time, I have the sincere pleasure of leading a team of twenty nimble, creative, and strong individuals operating in a critical industry — healthcare supply chain. This has not been an easy week. We transitioned an office-based team to a virtual team overnight. We navigated a struggling industry, attempting to guide critical healthcare providers to find supplies to protect themselves. We looked at financial models to determine how long the business is viable if elective procedures are cancelled and healthcare providers, our clients, can’t pay their bills. It was the most trying week of my professional career, but I was overwhelmed with emotions and pride because our team pulled together, sharing leadership, and providing real solutions for our clients.
While I was overwhelmed this week with work, and my new second job as a teacher to three grade school aged children, I was stressed thinking about making time to also complete my assignments for three college courses. However, as I read through the coursework for PSYCH 485, I couldn’t believe how timely this lesson was and what a perfect time to write this blog. The focus on team leadership and the importance of this model for virtual teams is not only timely but was also helpful as I collaborated with those on my team to solve problems and stay strong together.
Team leadership, or shared leadership, “occurs when all members of a team are fully engaged in the leadership of the team and are not hesitant to influence and guide their fellow team members in an effort to maximize the potential of the team as a whole” (Pearce, 2004, p. 48). Pearce (2004) notes this leadership model is optimal when members of the team have interdependence to accomplish the job, need to be creative, and are navigating complexity.
Each of the three elements presented by Pearce (2004) for the shared leadership model were critical to our work this week. As our customers flooded our phone lines and email with requests for assistance in finding personal protective equipment (“PPE”), the need for interdependence was more crucial than ever before. Account managers were overwhelmed with work and needed the operations and contracting teams to conduct product research, perform emergency analyses, urgently process orders, etc… As Utley, Brown, and Benfield (2009; as cited by PSU WC, 2020) describe, teams rely on their interaction to accomplish a single mission. This week, that mission was getting critical products, during a supply shortage, to the customers and the only way it was possible was through all team members taking an active role in leading the team. This was evidenced by the fact that the team was empowered to call upon each other without having to ask for permission from those in formal leadership positions such as myself. The outcome was one which Northouse (2016) points out as an advantage of team-based leadership — “faster response capability because of their flatter organizational structures” (p. 363).
The need for creative problem solving, the second element presented by Pearce (2004), is another good application for shared leadership. Because creativity is best in collective groups, teams with shared leadership benefit from collaborating to find a plethora of solutions (2004). For our team this week, creativity came in the form of sourcing alternatives to PPE. For example, we were asked to source bandanas, not a typical request, as a last resort for a nursing home chain. This required members of the team coming together, again without formal leaders involved, to discuss which suppliers might be able to get this to the nursing homes. They found several sources and were able to then tackle more complex issues together.
Complexity, the final element presented by Pearce (2004), was certainly evident for the team this week. Our clients’ needs for PPE when the rest of the country was struggling with the same thing was not an easy thing to navigate. Some of our clients had their first confirmed cases of COVID-19 which escalated the issues and through shared leadership, several members of the team were able to work with a large, national home improvement retailer, to donate N95 masks to our healthcare providers most in need. Pulling this off was no small feat, and as Pearce (2004) describes, teams dealing with this level of complexity, “are confronted with overwhelming amounts of vague, and often conflicting, information” (p. 49). Throughout the week, the information on the availability of these masks and the ability of the retailers to make donations, changed. We received conflicting information on which clinical substitutes were appropriate, and who would and would not receive their allocated amounts of masks and other protective gear, but two things were most beneficial in working through the complexity — data and networking. The importance of data and social networks cannot be underestimated. Crucial to working in a complex shared leadership team, good data analysis allows leaders, formal and non-formal, to sort through the information to make the most informed decisions and strong relational networks, allow teams to pull resources not just internally, but externally, too (PSU WC, 2020).
With all the complexity from the external world, the team also pulled together to remain connected virtually. While team leadership can be difficult in a virtual environment, it can be navigated with the understanding that leaders and team members need to change and adapt their typical practices, use technology to maximize communication, and rely on operational foundations to monitor and manage workloads (PSU WC, 2020). To accomplish this, I started a daily email to the team with important updates about the organization and memes about working from home to add a little humor. Team members really enjoyed this and commented to me as well as socially that this meant a lot and kept them motivated. A simple communication helped provide relation-based leadership, which focuses on the emotional needs of the team and elevates the cohesiveness of the team (PSU WC, 2020). We also conducted video chats more often than phone calls which provided a greater sense of connectivity, to include celebrating one team member’s birthday through a video conference. To help with the operations, I worked with our data architect first thing Monday morning to build a special data set to monitor the COVID-19 related activities in our customer relationship management system. This allowed me to ensure workloads did not overwhelm the team as mental health is more important than ever during such a stressful time. This, combined with frequent group and individual check ins to ensure everyone was managing stress, was key this week and will continue to be critical to team leadership for the foreseeable future. As Northouse (2016, p. 375) cites, providing leadership in a virtual environment requires increased efforts on all our parts, possibly, “50% more time investment — than the more traditional co-located team” (Dyer, Dyer, & Dyer, 2007).
In a moment such as this, I am grateful to have a team that believes in the power of teamwork and is empowered to make thoughtful, creative, and swift business decisions. Their ability to adapt to this new normal offered our clients a support network even stronger than before and allowed me to focus on them and the business decisions that need to be considered in a bruised economy. I am proud of them and believe this is a great testament to the power of shared leadership.
Dyer, W. G., Dyer, W. G., Jr., & Dyer, J. H. (2007). Team building: Proven strategies for improving team performance (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Northouse, Peter G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Pearce, C. L. (2004). The future of leadership: Combining vertical and shared leadership to transform knowledge work. Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(1), 47-57.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2020). PSYCH 485 Lesson 9: Team Leadership. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2040131/modules/items/28001779
Utley, D. R., Brown, S. E., & Benfield, M. P. J. (2009). Working group or team: Characteristic differences. IIE Annual Conference Proceedings, 415-420.