ZF Friedrichshafen AG - Virtual Leadership


ZF is a global leader in driveline and chassis technology with 121 production companies in 26 countries, in four continents. ZF is one of the ten largest automotive suppliers worldwide.

Over the last 10 years, ZF has grown from a predominantly German company, through being European, to the present day when it is truly Global. This change led to the recognition that new skills were needed to lead remote and global teams without the necessity to spend time traveling across the globe.

The design of the Virtual Leadership Program, undertaken by Black-Gazelle Consulting, was simple. Firstly, all the very senior participants were interviewed one-to-one to establish their individual needs. This was followed by a short briefing session on the Program, to ensure agreement and commitment. The workshop then followed – over three consecutive days.

Prior views were held that face-to-face meetings would always be best. Strong skepticism about virtual meetings ever being as good was admitted! Participants describe how applying ‘The rules for successful Virtual Meetings’ work so well that virtual leading is now seen as at least as good as face-to-face. “I make sure I hear from everyone” was said by most of those interviewed – with some adding ‘this makes virtual meetings better than face-to-face ones!”

Excellent planning has become second nature to ensure that work is completed in the allotted time. It is recognized that this planning is very different from that done for face-to-face meetings. As well as deciding on the best use of infrastructure, it is recognized that much more clarity is needed on purpose, expectations, pre-work etc. This in turn pays off through shorter meetings and clearer outcomes.

New listening skills are reported. Listening to the voice – not just the content – is described and valued. Taking time to listen – rather than doing things quickly – really pays off, and helps to avoid misunderstandings and to identify potential conflicts. Many appreciated very much the fact that trust can also be developed with people one has not met face-to-face before and learnt the dos and don’ts to build trust virtually.

One downside of the popularity concerned the availability of equipment and the logistics. For example booking meeting rooms to ensure a quiet environment (some work in large open-plan areas) can at times become challenging.

Several participants expressed the view that many more people needed to be trained in Virtual Leadership (“training is a must”). This would help to overcome some reluctance to accept that ‘mixed meetings’ (where some attendees sit in the same physical room, while others are linked in virtually) really are not the most effective way of leading virtual meetings. It can be difficult to unlearn bad habits and this is best achieved through experiencing how different and how much better meetings can be if run according to best practice.

An example of the high acceptance and value of virtual leadership has been demonstrated through making sophisticated use of the tools and the best practice processes. Several separate teams worked on a specific project virtually for part of a day, then all came together as one much larger group for other parts of the day. The whole process was run virtually with great success. “We even used the white board like flip-charts!”

Note: in the meantime approximately 130 ZF senior managers have been trained in Virtual Leadership with more programs planned for the future.


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