Wendy Yates of Abigail-Elise Brands: “Engagement”

Engagement. In an office setting it is easier to boost morale with a company lunch, hour long team building exercise, or office party. When working remotely engagement can quickly diminish due to feelings of isolation, trust, and/or miscommunication. As a solution we meet regularly via Zoom or Google Chat, plan biannual team building retreats, and […]

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Engagement. In an office setting it is easier to boost morale with a company lunch, hour long team building exercise, or office party. When working remotely engagement can quickly diminish due to feelings of isolation, trust, and/or miscommunication. As a solution we meet regularly via Zoom or Google Chat, plan biannual team building retreats, and as mentioned earlier we use Marco Polo for more face to face time.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Yates.

Wendy Yates is an entrepreneur and philanthropist dedicated to leading by example as she inspires her team and like-minded leaders to create a culture rooted in value. After dropping out of college to prematurely launch into the world of business, she experienced failure on many levels. From those failures she learned how to use grit and purpose-driven motives to ultimately succeed.

Yates is the CEO and founder of Abigail-Elise Brands, a collection of companies on a mission to reinvent what others believe to be possible in the world of design, leadership, and global. She is host of The Design Driven Life Podcast, an upbeat interview style podcast with a goal of sharing stories of people doing good in the world with a mission to inspire others to shift their mindset to create the world they want to live in. Her companies currently include: Abigail-Elise Design Studio, an award-winning design firm specializing in interior design and merchandising for commercial, hospitality, and residential projects; Well Fit Human Retreats, a wellness based impact humanitarian travel company; and AE Cares, a non-profit foundation dedicated to positively influencing the wellbeing of others connecting need with resource. Together Wendy and her team elevate the overall quality of people’s livelihood by being a force for good.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I was born in Oahu, Hawaii. My mom did secretarial and administrative work, while my dad was a varied-ranking member of the U.S. Air Force. Due to my dad’s career, we bounced around a lot when I was a kid, from Hawaii to Turkey and back, then on to Arkansas and a small town in southeastern Colorado.

I remember being in a hurry to grow up, in part because my dad was an alcoholic and my parents’ fighting made my home scene less than ideal. Moving regularly made it difficult to create and maintain friendships. I often felt lonely, but was able to use my experience to become more self-reliant and independent. I never really had a sense of home, nor a community so in a roundabout way I believe it was the lack of having those aspects that truly motivated me to create several different companies.

I was going through a divorce in my young adulthood, didn’t have a place to live, and had a two-year old when I decided to start Abigail-Elise Interiors (now Abigail-Elise Design Studio). My timing wasn’t ideal as it was during a recession, but that motivated me even more. My shift into entrepreneurship was very natural and it enabled me to build more long term working relationships in an area I now call home, Summit County Colorado.

A couple years ago I was craving more human connection and felt compelled to make adaptations to my own life that inspired more joy and self-fulfillment. It was from this idea that I created Well Fit Human Retreats, a wellness-travel-impact company that promotes giving back on a global level. Through local and international events we are activating purpose in people, while also creating experiences that improve an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical sense of well-being.

All in all, I’ve always had a drive to constantly grow in ways that made me incrementally better so that each day I can live with more purpose and joy. It took me failing several times to learn how to successfully utilize my natural creativity and leadership skills so that I can collaborate with high-reaching teams on an international level. I believe everyone has the ability to do something similar once they’ve determined their life purpose. It’s for this reason I want to help change what others believe is possible for themselves, their families, and our global community.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Hmmm… Can you define interesting? If by interesting you mean valuable then I have a story.

Beginning my career may be one of the most interesting/valuable stories I have because it forced me to grow up and live with intention. I was divorced with a baby, my car was broken down, I didn’t have a job or friends, and …I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Add in the fact it was during a recession and there wasn’t a single person to help me at that time. I did what was necessary, I started a company.

As a side note, I fully believe that if you are paying attention life forces you to be intentional with your time and resources. My experience showed me that once I was able to recognize this reality, I was able to accomplish what I put my mind to. In the long run, I want to help guide others to know and embody this life lesson so that they too can create their lives in a positive and productive way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Looking back this may be seen as funny, but probably not. It’s more painful. Once upon a time I blindly invested in a real estate project that was brought to be by a builder and an architect. They showed up, flashed a few drawings, and I ignorantly was in. I didn’t do my due diligence in researching and lost a substantially large amount, besides 10%, which almost left us bankrupt.

My greatest takeaway that I’ll share, do your homework! Know what it is you’re getting into and minimize the risk by educating yourself on as many details as possible.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

To avoid burnout, I challenge myself everyday to evolve into a better leader, thinker, and overall person. My craving to learn from others’ success is so overpowering that there is no room for excuses. By surrounding myself with people I admire and by consistently moving into action, I am able to face challenges and keep my mental health on track. I would suggest to my colleagues, “Take inventory of who is most present in your life and surround yourself with people you admire. Set goals that challenge you and push you to evolve into the person you’ve always wanted to be. After you find your purpose there is space to thrive.”

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I have been managing a remote team for eight years now.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

Some of the challenges that come with managing a team remotely are:

  1. Constructive Criticism. In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is providing candid feedback in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Many of the nuances of facial expressions, body language. and tone of voice are lost in digital communication. As a solution we utilize Marco Polo to communicate more effectively.
  2. Overall Communication. Although miscommunication happens in person, it can be amplified when communicating via email, text, video conferencing, etc. A small issue can easily turn into a larger issue, which we all know has the potential of being detrimental to any business. To assure our team is all on the same page we have several processes in place that act as checks and balances. We meet regularly during the week for check ins and we do our best to maximize our efforts so that we don’t miss any of the details that matter the most.
  3. Travel Budgets. Since we require project managers to be near or on the job site we have to factor in travel expenses. Estimating enough to cover flights, potential change fees associated with air travel or car rentals, hotel rooms, and food stipends can be tricky. Sometimes we come out ahead and others we end up losing. It’s important to factor a travel budget into your estimated quotes.
  4. Everyone on the team is the face of the company. Not every team member has a natural gift of talking about our company to strangers. In fact several of them would prefer not to if given the option, but that’s where we realize we have a fantastic opportunity to grow both individually and as a team. We talk about what our company does and what we stand for on a semi-regular basis. Then we practice engaging in mock situations to that if/when we’re in a position to talk to a potential client or investor the skills are all there.
  5. Engagement. In an office setting it is easier to boost morale with a company lunch, hour long team building exercise, or office party. When working remotely engagement can quickly diminish due to feelings of isolation, trust, and/or miscommunication. As a solution we meet regularly via Zoom or Google Chat, plan biannual team building retreats, and as mentioned earlier we use Marco Polo for more face to face time.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

The ways that we overcome and manage these challenges are as follows:

  1. We make sure to give constructive criticism over video apps or direct phone calls. This helps us minimize misunderstandings, be able to pick up on frustrations, and meet each other where we are at so that we can communicate more effectively.
  2. We strengthen overall communication by incorporating weekly huddles, using Marco Polo, and utilizing a project management software called Asana. The huddles allow each team member to go through wins, struggles, current projects, and questions. Marco Polo helps us be more transparent and enables us to communicate while on the go. And Asana helps us get an overview of everything we need to do so that we stay on task to meet important deadlines. We believe it’s important to offer multiple ways for our team members to communicate so that together we can build stronger and more productive relationships.
  3. We analyze budgets carefully and are somewhat flexible. Experience wins in this department and it’s taken us some time to truly gain the experience necessary to create more thorough travel budgets. We factor in a little wiggle room so that we’re flexible. We plan ahead, accomplish as much as we can virtually, and hire local professionals to help out when needed.
  4. We look at training as an ongoing process, instead of an onboarding checklist. As a remote company we acknowledge that we can expand our reach to any or all of the locations our team members travel to. With this possibility in mind we understand that continuing education, personal development, and goal setting are vitally important for us to form a stronger, more capable team.
  5. We keep remote employees engaged by implementing a milestone program and having bi-monthly goals meetings. Our milestone program offers employees rewards for results beyond their base pay so that they stay motivated and feel acknowledged for their achievements. Bi-monthly goal meetings allow our team members to share inspiring books or stories, discuss their progress or failures, and set personal or professional goals so that together they start to feel more comfortable, connected, and supported by one another.

Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

We suggest video conferencing, such as Zoom or Google Chat, to allow for face to face interaction.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I try to be as clear as possible in a direct, yet constructive way. I’ll admit I haven’t mastered the ability to avoid frustration and/or emotion, but I am working on it. I think the key is having compassion and being able to write an email from a space that acknowledges the reader. A question I’ll ask myself is, “How would I feel if I were to read this? Does it help or harm? Is it constructive or destructive?” Those notes of inquiry always seem to help.

As a company we welcome critique because we view our mistakes as opportunities for growth. We are open to ways in which we can approve and are always moving forward with the information we are provided, good or bad.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Your company will run into some form or another of an obstacle. My advice is not to avoid them, but instead to view those obstacles as stepping stones that will help you gain a better understanding of how to go about operations in a more constructive way. Listen to what your team is saying. Form solutions together so that your 1) engaging in a valuable team exercise and 2) gaining insights into what works best for them. Managing a team remotely may not come easily at first, but you’ll figure out a way that optimizes everyone’s efforts if you dedicate the time and effort.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

Maintain transparency while giving people clear direction, freedom, and flexibility to create a healthy and empowered work culture. Inspire your team to seek out new and innovative digital tools that will benefit both their position and the company. Support and acknowledge their efforts so that they feel valued. We may not be able to give a high five in the office but we can send an interactive email that presents the viewer with a banner congratulating them on their success!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am dedicated to pioneering change by showing others that companies can have a culture rooted in community and helping them overcome limited belief patterns. Founders should view their team as partners by embracing them as entrepreneurs and allowing them to be both authentic and candid. Work and life shouldn’t be two different things, but part of a harmonious lifestyle. If more leaders could adapt this type of mindset it would be a major game changer for our future generations. A leader is only as strong as their team.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

– Richard Branson

My brand architecture and company culture have both been inspired by Richard Branson’s philosophies. His teachings inspire that there is no lack of people, wealth, knowledge, clients, etc. This has become relevant in my life because I only want to be part of positive growth for my team and my goal is that they feel the same. To be a successful manager of any team create a team that you want to work with for a long time and treat them like family.

Thank you for these great insights!

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