Celia Ma of Paint the Town: “Communication ”

Communication — All communications must be thoughtful, clear, and genuine. Team meetings may be the only interaction that one person gets with others in 1–2 weeks, so make them count by carefully planning the agenda. Designate different people to own certain communications, such as work announcements, team discussions, and fun personal updates. I had the pleasure of interviewing […]

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Communication — All communications must be thoughtful, clear, and genuine. Team meetings may be the only interaction that one person gets with others in 1–2 weeks, so make them count by carefully planning the agenda. Designate different people to own certain communications, such as work announcements, team discussions, and fun personal updates.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Celia Ma.

Celia is the CEO & Founder of Paint the Town. As a lifelong artist, Celia always felt a pull towards creativity as a means for connection and dreamed about her life as an artist while working for corporations in the San Francisco area. However, a life-altering moment proved a catalyst for Celia to re-evaluate and prioritize the practices and interests that truly brought her joy, with art playing a major role. Paint the Town was founded in 2016 as a way to reconnect to her passion for art and for bringing people together through shared experiences. Five years later, she leads a team of 50+ artists and event planners hosting thousands of events for clients every year. When she isn’t Painting the Town, she enjoys international travel, going on food adventures, and spending time with nature and animals.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting experience I’ve had, and the one I am also most proud of, is how Paint the Town handled the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, I was preparing to launch our services in Los Angeles (becoming our fourth county presence in California) when COVID hit and decimated not just our expansion plans, but all of our booked events for the next 6 months.

At this point, I had to grapple with the reality that this could be the end of Paint the Town. In an effort to use our remaining resources to spread joy during those challenging times we began offering free virtual paint parties to friends, family, and community members. While I had hoped that going virtual would keep us afloat, I couldn’t have foreseen that the pivot would become the catalyst for what allowed this phoenix to rise from the ashes and soar higher than ever!

Pivoting to virtual events was a completely new experience to me, rife with complications in logistics, marketing, and product development. However, by tackling it with a great team and ingenuity, we were able to not only save the company but even grow it exponentially in the midst of a global pandemic. As a result of the past year, our team has been able to serve thousands of guests worldwide in addition to California.

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?

In the first couple of years of running this business, my philosophy was basically “Give customers whatever they want. No questions asked.” Because of this, I said yes to a lot of events and odd requests that I probably should have politely tried to steer away from. This led to me to some painful experiences of hosting painting parties in the weirdest of places, such as a nightclub when music was blasting so loudly that I couldn’t even hear myself talk, or near a beach when the wind blew at 35 mph and knocked everything over every 5 minutes. By not fine-tuning our event requirements enough and being too afraid of losing business to say “No” to a customer’s request, I ended up not setting myself or my customers up for success, which ultimately meant hurting both parties in the process.

What I learned from those experiences were to trust what my gut was telling me, to ask more questions to get to know my customers’ needs, and to not be afraid to gently push back on customers if their requests are not realistic.

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

As a founder, burnout is something I am very familiar with and therefore strive to avoid my team having to experience the same. Tactics that I use and suggest for other business leaders are:

  • Be explicit about the company’s views on work-life balance. Set clear boundaries of when people should not be working, and respect those rules in what you ask of the team re: deadlines.
  • Conduct regular pulse checks of your team to see how they are feeling, either through 1:1s, anonymous surveys, emails, or all the above. Ask for their feedback on where they are getting stuck and whether they have thoughts on how to improve the situation. Great team members contribute meaningful ideas and appreciate being heard, so as a leader, it is our responsibility to give them a platform to speak up and try to unblock them.
  • Give people growth opportunities based on their interests. These offer a welcome reprieve from the day-to-day “grind,” so even if your team is working harder than usual, they can feel more invigorated if some of their duties involve interesting work that positively challenges them.
  • Know when to grow the team. Based on the feedback from your team, determine whether an additional hire is needed. If you are budget-strapped, then consider a junior candidate or an overseas virtual assistant that can take on the more rote, straightforward tasks.

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?

Paint the Town has been a fully remote team since our inception in 2016. Our management team, our event operations team, and our instructor team on-site for events, are all distributed completely remotely.

However, after our growth during the pandemic, we ended up managing a fully remote team whose magnitude was much greater than what we had managed in our previous 4 years.

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?

  1. Mentoring and Teaching — It is difficult to mentor your team when you cannot sit face to face. Sharing knowledge of best practices and habits is incredibly important for remote teams, especially for new hires or those who are not meeting their performance goals.
  2. Communication — Emails, instant messages, and the occasional video call are our only opportunities to speak with one another, so we need to make them count. Tone can often get lost in translation, which makes giving feedback, especially minor pieces of feedback that don’t warrant a meeting, even more challenging.
  3. Collaboration — Even with video conferencing platforms, remote teams are not able to have side-by-side discussions with others or whiteboard their ideas. There is no ability to tap someone on the shoulder to run a thought by them, so our options for effective and efficient real-time communication are limited.
  4. Empathy — It is very difficult to understand workload, happiness, and day-to-day experiences for remote teams. Both the daily little triumphs and challenges can go by completely unnoticed by managers and other team members, which can make it challenging for a manager to fully empathize with each individual.
  5. Maintaining Company Culture — Though maintaining company culture is last in this list, it is certainly not the least important. Remote teams must work even harder than in-person teams to foster a great company culture that is welcoming, collaborative, and transparent. This strong internal community can increase retention and job satisfaction.

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

  1. Mentoring and Teaching — Since remote teams cannot sit side by side to learn from each other, we must be more regular with our communications and meetings. Some ideas are:

Schedule weekly “lunch & learns” led by different team members to share best practices or encourage discussions.

Dedicate a few Slack channels to various topics, where people can ask and answer questions.

Keep up your regular 1:1 meetings, even if there is not much to discuss, as having that facetime is still valuable for personal connection.

Pair up high-performing team members with new hires or developing team members to be in close communications and share knowledge.

2. Communication — All communications must be thoughtful, clear, and genuine. Team meetings may be the only interaction that one person gets with others in 1–2 weeks, so make them count by carefully planning the agenda. Designate different people to own certain communications, such as work announcements, team discussions, and fun personal updates.

3. Collaboration — To encourage collaboration, try to create intimate project teams so that people can work more efficiently together, versus having too many cooks in the kitchen. Make ample use of instant messages and short, effective meetings for real-time communication. Use emails for introducing topics, not for a thorough discussion of them, and succinctly document next steps, deadlines, and owners so that everyone is on the same page.

4. Empathy — Ask the team regularly for feedback, and encourage people to be honest about their experiences by setting up anonymous surveys. Check on areas such as workload, job satisfaction, notable highlights and lowlights, and suggestions. Take notes from your 1:1s with each person, reference back to them in the following months to see how things are going, and give public shout-outs to your team members when they accomplish something or make an impact.

5. Maintaining Company Culture — Take time to set up company gatherings over Zoom, such as happy hours, paint parties, trivia nights, or other fun activities! At Paint the Town, we not only host paint nights for companies looking to improve team bonding, but we also love to take our own medicine and try different activities with the team. One of our favorites is icebreaker bingo, which helps us all learn more about each other in a non-awkward way. We also host “Fun Fact Fridays” on Slack, where we guess which team member the fun facts apply to and send funny photos. Culture also starts at the top, so it’s important for leaders to be approachable, kind, appreciative, genuine, and even vulnerable if they want their team members to be as well!

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

  • Almost never deliver feedback over email. Opt for video or phone calls as much as possible so that your tone and nuances cannot be misconstrued negatively. For minor pieces of in-the-moment feedback, it can be burdensome to have a phone call every time, so email and/or instant messages can be used with the right approach. If sending written feedback, try to overcompensate with encouraging and reassuring language to ensure that the recipient does not take this too harshly.
  • Maintain a balanced mindset. If the employee is generally doing great, make sure he or she knows that. It can be extra difficult for employees to sense how you’re generally feeling in a remote environment, and they may overanalyze or misjudge the severity of feedback in a vacuum.
  • Apply the tried and true “feedback sandwich” approach. Start your feedback discussion with positive comments on what is going well, follow it with constructive criticism, and wrap it all up with appreciation and support.
  • A simple rewording also helps! Instead of using phrases like “negative feedback” or “gap areas,” refer to your feedback as “opportunities for improvement” or “constructive feedback.”

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

Communicating constructive feedback over email can be tricky and challenging, but these tips can prevent your intent from being misinterpreted.

  • Use the “feedback sandwich” mentioned above.
  • Point to specific examples and call out, gently, what they could have done differently. It’s important to provide actionable advice that can be put into practice immediately.
  • Make sure to speak to your overall satisfaction level. Use encouraging wording such as, “I believe you just need to tweak your approach here by doing X, Y, and Z, and keep flexing those muscles. You got this!”
  • Express that you believe in them, that they can get there, and that you are here for guidance if they would like additional help. They should feel that you are in their corner!

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?

My main advice is to over-communicate with your team, not just on work-related topics, but also on personal topics. To avoid each person feeling like they’re on their own island, open up more channels of communication (Slack, emails, and short team syncs) that provide overall updates and help drive team decisions. This ensures everyone is in the loop and aligned on the latest developments.

It can be challenging to balance meeting fatigue with much-needed face-time, so try to ask yourself if a meeting is really needed before you schedule. If it is, keep the meeting focused and succinct with a thoughtful agenda, and don’t be shy about tabling less impactful discussions (or tangents) for later consideration.

Other tactics to help make up for that lack of in-person interaction are:

  • Go over the top with employee recognition and team activities that can connect and bond with one another.
  • Ask more thoughtful questions in your 1:1s to really understand how each person is doing, how they are feeling, and where they need more support.

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?

  • Be deliberate about your culture. Map out key tenets and values, share with the team to get their feedback, and live out those values openly.
  • Be transparent with your team and don’t be afraid to ask for their help. Being vulnerable and having a shared mission can really bring everyone together.
  • Adapt to digital formats for communication and collaboration. For example: weekly “Fun Fact Fridays” about team members, Zoom team bonding events, virtual sales gong in Slack, etc.
  • If conditions permit, plan an occasional in-person gathering. Because my entire team at Paint the Town has been remote from the beginning, I have only met a couple people in-person. We are planning to host an in-person offsite and fly out team members from different coasts after the pandemic subsides, and everyone is incredibly excited!

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 truly believe that what we do and say makes a difference in the lives of those around us, regardless of our age or background. This has played out true in all facets of my life. At Paint the Town, I have had team members tell me that they have grown more self-confident in their tenure with us and that they really feel valued and heard.

At our painting parties, we have broken down walls of self-doubt and helped guests take home not only cherished memories, but cherished artwork that they created and (sometimes) a new passion.

In my personal sphere, I have saved a life with kind words and gestures of love and support.

With all the power that our actions have, I feel it only appropriate to sum it up by quoting Kid President: “Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody”!

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

My favorite life lesson quote is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” Everything great I have seen achieved in my life has been a result of a team working together to accomplish things that weren’t possible alone.

When I had first started Paint the Town years ago, I operated alone as a one-woman show. It was gratifying to know that I was directly delivering happiness and meaningful experiences to my customers, and I had complete quality control over everything. It was challenging and terrifying to then relinquish that control as I started expanding my team and delegating out what I used to do. What I didn’t realize until years later is that, as a leader, there is nothing more gratifying than finding people who believe in your mission as much as you do, giving that control and freedom to them, and seeing that you’ve achieved far more together than you ever could have by yourself.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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