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Allie Dempster and Isabelle Steichen of Lupii: Five Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Remote Team

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”? Allie: I am passionate about food and holistic health. I have had a long personal health journey that has been filled with many challenges dealing with autoimmune […]

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  • 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”? 
    • Allie: I am passionate about food and holistic health. I have had a long personal health journey that has been filled with many challenges dealing with autoimmune challenges. I have spent an endless amount of time educating myself on food and holistic health practices, and ultimately went on to become a certified holistic health coach. Simultaneously, I have spent my career working in the food and beverage industry for large CPG companies. As my personal and professional paths progressed, I spent the last few years thinking about how I could continue to have greater congruity between the two. Meeting Isabelle, my co-founder, is the true coming together of these two, at times seemingly disparate narrative threads of my life to work to have a positive impact on the world.
    • Isabelle: I grew up in Luxembourg and spent college and grad school living in Paris, France. On a personal level, I always struggled with the concept of eating animals and decided to go vegetarian when I moved to France. That was definitely a challenge from a cultural perspective, considering French culinary culture is so tied to animal product consumption, and I felt like my friends and family did not really understand my choice. When I moved to New York in 2013, it felt almost cathartic because I finally felt like I could go entirely vegan without much judgment and live in harmony with my personal compass. I then started engulfing myself into the plant based and vegan food space, completing a plant based nutrition certification with eCornell and also starting a podcast, The Plantiful, with my husband. Lupii is bringing together all these threads and combining my passion for the space with my early stage startup background. 
  • Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
    • Allie: Meeting my now co-founder has by far been the most fated feeling thing that has happened to me. Due to my personal journey with health and food and my professional background working in food, when I met Isabelle, it felt like all roads had led and prepared me for the moment of starting Lupii with her. Our shared desires to have a positive impact on the world through food led to an almost instantaneous connection and we quickly decided this is something we would do together. We are now in the throes of building Lupii, a company that we launched, in January 2020. In some ways it has been the perfect time to launch a business, because facing all of the challenges the pandemic has presented has made my desire to build this business that much more crystal clear in my mind.
    • Isabelle: There is not one particular story that stands out more than others but overall, I have spent most of my career working for early stage startups in both food and tech. I went to school for something totally different (political science and econ in undergrad and urban planning in grad school) and I have learned throughout the last few years that even though I did not have ‘the degree’ for any of the startups jobs I held, with enough growth mindset I could learn and acquire the necessary skills. Being open and curious seems to be the essence, in work and life, and that’s how I try to approach everything I do. 
  • 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?
    • Allie: I think something I am continuously working on is not taking mistakes too seriously. When I was early in my career and even now, it was very hard to look at my mistakes with much humor. However, I recognize the incredible value that humor and perspective can have on taking oneself too seriously which I think is of the greatest importance when it comes to both happiness and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.
    • Isabelle: This is kind of absurd, but in my very first job in NYC, I was tasked to order some gift bags online for an event we were preparing for. As I had just moved here, my brain was not thinking in inches but in centimeters and when the bags arrived, they were basically half the size I expected. Kind of a silly mistake but I realized how important it is to take an extra minute and check on your work. 
  • What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
    • Allie: Take time for perspective. I have had a fairly intense career journey, one to which I have given a lot of myself. However, I can say with a great deal of confidence that it doesn’t hold a candle to the emotional ups and downs that come with starting a business. What I work on constantly is making sure I have perspective about the bigger and broader world outside of my business and the practice of not attaching myself or my identity to the business. If I get too myopically focused and enmeshed in the business, I could give all of myself to it at the sacrifice of many other important parts of my life. I ultimately know that this is not a recipe for success in building a sustainable business or for me personally. Remembering that you will be the same person with the same innate value regardless of success or failures is hard work, but a critical piece of being an effective and clear-headed leader. 
    • Isabelle: Boundary setting. It’s something I struggle with myself and have been working on intentionally, especially since starting Lupii. It’s all about picking the few right and important things to do versus trying to do everything, because that’s not possible. In parallel, it’s essential to treat yourself well in the process and establish a good sleep routine and a way to actually unwind, recharge and invest into yourself. I want my employees to realize that they always have to put on their own oxygen mask first, before attending to the business, because that statement rings true for myself as well. 
  • 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?
    • Allie: The three years before Lupii. I worked on PepsiCo’s Global Foods team. All of the teams with whom I worked were distributed, and the job also required a lot of travel, so almost all of my work took place on Zoom. While there isn’t a replacement for being in person together, particularly for more important meetings, workshops, and relationship development, remote team management has been significantly improved by video calls. It allows you to connect with and build deeper relationships with remote team members in ways that simply aren’t possible otherwise.
    • Isabelle: While I spent my career working for startups with flexible work schedules, I only managed a remote team in one job I held a few years ago, so this is pretty new in that way. That being said, we are a super small team and have been able to establish a lot of trust, which is key in being remote. 
  • 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?

Allie: 

  • Casual interpersonal interactions – Having the time to pass by your team, sit down and share a meal together and other small, everyday interactions is definitely something, even if you try to offset for it, that is hard to replicate with remote work. 
  • More meetings needed to stay connected – I am someone that tries to minimize heavy meeting culture for both myself and my team, but remote work seems to necessitate more meetings to stay connected. 
  • Deeper and more meaningful interactions – Being able to share and have deeper conversations is definitely possible over Zoom, but being near someone physically and more readily being able to read someone’s energy and non-verbal communication is something that is hard to replicate in remote work.
  • Time for play – Remote work and setting time to meet and connect inherently seems to get everyone quickly focused on the job at hand. It takes more effort and thought about ways teams can have fun together through a video screen
  • Ensuring people have the tools they need – Everyone’s personal set-ups are so different given everyone needing to work from home and not all of us being set-up to effectively adapt to these conditions. Not having the option to provide people with a working space outside their home, which is certainly preferable for some, is something of which I am highly cognizant.
  • Isabelle: The number one challenge with all being remote comes back to communication: while you don’t want to get into over communicating, it’s essential to realize that not being all in one room means a lot of little things could fall through the cracks unless they get communicated on a regular basis. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had daily team check-ins that were essential to supporting each other emotionally. Over the last few months, we reduced these to two team check-ins per week. However, we make sure to keep each other updated on all the things that come up on a daily basis and mostly use slack as well as ad hoc zoom calls.
  • Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? 

Allie:

  • Take time at the beginning of remote team meetings just to chat and check-in about the everyday things that are happening
  • Try to constantly check in about which meetings are helping or hurting in terms of connection and productivity.
  • Take time to have check-ins that give your team, including yourself, time to discuss what is working or isn’t working about the habits and intentional choices  you’ve made related to remote working. Being candid and letting your team know that you don’t have all the answers, especially given this unique time and environment, but are open to always having a dialogue, can really go a long way in collectively problem solving and connecting as a team.
  • Anything from a team breakfast or other ways to connect or do something that is not related to the job and work I think is more important, but certainly much more challenging, when limited to a video screen. We are still trying to find creative ways to address this outside of team breakfasts.
  • Again, this really seems to be about having a dialogue with your team. Asking or letting them know what you are able to provide that may make a home work set-up more comfortable.
  • Isabelle: I personally believe that video calls are a way more robust communication tool than audio calls because you can see the other people and it almost feels like you are in the same room. 
  • Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
    • Allie: This is definitely a challenge. Messages that may have tough information that needs to be delivered are difficult when it can’t be delivered verbally. My preference is to always deliver constructive critique and feedback verbally. However, this is not always possible. When it needs to be done over email, I think setting the tone up front by letting the recipient know that you have some feedback you think that could help to improve a situation and that you are always open to discussing. Then delivering the feedback itself is best done in the most simple, straightforward way possible, keeping it to the facts so that there is a lot of room for emotional interpretation helps. Finally, closing the message by saying that you are providing the feedback for development and growth, I think is important to bring the conversation back to the positive intent with which it is being given.
    • Isabelle: I think giving constructive feedback should always happen over a video call. It’s essential that the tone comes out right and that can only happen when you talk to someone and they can see your facial expressions and you can see theirs. There is always time for a call.
  • 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? 
    • Allie: Don’t get too fixated on what you are missing and recognize that part of what makes teams strong is adaptability. Most things in life are out of our control and when we surrender to what is in front of us, it is incredible how resilient and creative we can be in new situations and circumstances. Expending too much energy on something you can’t change is energy that could be much better spent elsewhere.
    • Isabelle: I think we all need to develop trust in each other really quickly if we have not done so yet. There are easy ways to track productivity remotely; you will see if someone does their work or not depending on the weekly and quarterly goals you set as a team. What’s essential is to trust that they can do it even without you being physically present. I actually believe that working remotely can lead to way more productivity if you trust your team to follow their own rhythm. Some people love getting up early and working at 7am and some need more time in the morning but have no issue working later. I think letting people be more flexible with their schedule, which remote working has permitted, is crucial.
  • 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? 
    • Allie: Listen and create space for ideas from your team. Really let them know that you are open to hearing ideas, and ultimately creating a culture that works for them. Space for feedback on one’s own leadership style and work culture is a high priority to me as a leader, both with remote and physically proximate work environments.
    • Isabelle: Trusting others like you trust yourself to be productive when working remotely. Make sure you don’t set the expectation that your team needs to always be on because work and personal life can become so blurry during these crazy times. Not forgetting to praise your team for great work and celebrate wins is crucial, especially when things become stressful. 
  • 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. 🙂
    • Allie: I believe we can change the world through what we put in our bodies, so what I am building with Lupii is a direct reflection of that belief.  The ability to create delicious plant-based foods that help with individual and the collective health of our planet is the lane to which I have chosen to dedicate my skills and life. Of equal importance to me is also destigmatizing mental health. A silver lining of the pandemic is seeing people more freely speaking about the psychological challenges we all face as humans that truly have felt more universal than ever. The continued destigmatization of having support for the most complex part of us, our minds, is an incredibly important topic to me when it comes to health.
    • Isabelle: I started Lupii because I believe that there is no need to compromise on human health and the health of our planet when making our food choices. In many ways, it’s important to realize that we can eat things that are good for us and the earth and that we can build a more sustainable and resilient food system with the dollars that we spend. I spent this past summer house sitting for close friends who own a small ‘farm’ with incredibly abundant vegetable gardens. I realized how much work and energy goes into producing food, but also how rewarding it is to eat something that comes from the earth, has been minimally processed and grown with great care to make sure resources are not only extracted but also returned to that same earth. It’s such empowering knowledge to have and I believe that our agricultural system needs to move towards more sustainable practices so we can feed ourselves today and generations in the future with nutrient dense and low impact foods. Lupii wants to be a part of the movement by introducing an ingredient that is not only a nutrition powerhouse but also a rotation crop and nitrogen fixer, revitalizing soil health and only needing little resources to grow. 
  • Can you please give us your favorite  “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 
    • Allie: “Yesterday is already gone. Tomorrow is not yet here. Today is the only day available to us; it is the most important day of our lives.” – Thich Nhat Hanh. The teachings of various wisdom traditions play a large role in my life. The buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has had a large influence on me and this quote about the essential principle of presence is something I practice and work hard, with both regular success and failure, to apply to how I move through the world and approach running my business.
  • Isabelle: “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.” This goes back to my earlier story about taking a second to reflect before submitting something. It’s not all about the speed, but rather about perseverance and that’s something I remind myself every day. 
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