When teaching virtual leadership, sometimes “hands-on” means “wheels-up.”
That’s the approach software developer ScrollMotion Inc. took when it sent five employees to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August. The trip was part of a leadership development program that taught virtual management, a skill the company values with offices in New York and San Diego, and clients all over the country.
As a small company with big growth aspirations, ScrollMotion is similar to most startups — its workforce is full of young employees early in their careers. The company’s Chief Operations Officer, Doug Pierce, said such demographics result in managerial roles filled with people who lack leadership experience. Many new managers have trouble working with each other virtually and collaborating across offices.
To mitigate the problem, Pierce deployed leadership development company Virtuali Inc.’s Go! program, a three-part experiential learning program. Seven of ScrollMotion’s employees took a Meyers-Briggs-style survey to determine their leadership style, followed by four to five weeks of webinars and virtual training to develop virtual management skills.
The third phase is the most attractive yet the most daunting. Five of the seven employees traveled to Buenos Aires, where they completed business networking events, met with local business leaders and spent time at the Universidad Austral IAE Business School, working with international MBA students through case studies.
They also continue to work full time for their companies back home, forcing them to practice the virtual management skills they’ve learned. “You’re busy all of the time, but in a good way,” said Kristen Gunnison, an associate program manager at ScrollMotion.
At the most basic level, Virtuali’s program is designed to help companies recruit, retain and engage emerging leaders, said co-founder and COO Kyle Borchardt. International experience continues to be a huge draw for millennials in college and professional life. The Institute for International Education’s 2013 Open Doors report found study abroad rates — 9 percent of all college students — are at a record high.
But study abroad programs in college aren’t enough to satiate Gen Y’s hunger for international experiences. Part of the inspiration for Go! came from Virtuali CEO and co-founder Sean Graber’s experience as a Deloitte consultant. He said many employees came on board after hearing about international opportunities only to find out that few actually existed.
“I saw a lot of people leave and become discouraged because of that,” Graber said. He designed the Go! program to give professionals work experience abroad regardless of their company’s size.
But even with a goal relevant to the Gen Y workers who make up much of ScrollMotion’s staff, Pierce said he wasn’t immediately sold on what the program had to offer. The 80-employee company operated bare-bones, and it was heading into a busy season with its biggest client.
“My first reaction was ‘Hell no, we’re not doing that,’” Pierce said. “The more I thought about … our needs and how they meshed with what they were offering, it became a ‘Hell yes, we’re doing this.’”
The rest of ScrollMotion didn’t have as much trepidation. Pierce said one of the greatest challenges was deciding who of the 25 people nominated or who applied for the program would go. After spending the Fourth of July holiday sifting through applications, the company’s senior leaders selected the participants based on how applicants believed the program would help their careers, their performance, and potential for advancement, as well as its relevance to their role.
The challenges didn’t end there. Pierce said employees struggled to balance the preliminary learning with their day-to-day work. The same problem occurred when the five employees left the country. “While they all learned how to work remotely and keep up with their day job, not all five of them were 100 percent effective while they were gone,” he said.
But some employees were successful while abroad. Mary Torrado, a senior art director at the firm, initiated one of ScrollMotion’s biggest deals yet while abroad. “We work hand-in-hand with creative and developers, and this was the first time I had to be able to communicate virtually to make sure we hit a very tight time frame,” she said.
Even though not all employees performed up to par during the trip, the skills they gained have already translated to day-to-day functions. Pierce said one employee in particular who was against sharing work across offices is now more open to it. He’s also seen improvements in coordination and bonds between the Sand Diego and New York offices.
Working virtually might be the main focus of the program, but ScrollMotion reaped other benefits too. Pierce said despite the fact the group going to Buenos Aires was as mismatched as the high school students in “The Breakfast Club,” the two weeks they spent together created camaraderie that followed them back to work, and they stepped into management roles with newfound confidence.
“Sometimes just the act of putting someone in a program like that is eye-opening to them because some of them have not thought of themselves as leaders before,” he said. “Just saying ‘I’m investing in you and need you to be more of a leader,’ adds impact.”