…It takes longer to develop trust with people you don’t see face to face. Making the effort to get to know team members as people and not just as co-workers is critical in a world where everyone is remote. Spending time asking people how they’re doing, or what’s top of mind for them will help build trust and a sense of belonging. As a leader, you have to be willing to share as well. If you want others to open up, you have to be willing to do the same.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Lagan, Chief Customer and People Officer at Betterworks.
A customer experience veteran with nearly 25 years’ experience, Andrea has successfully led teams responsible for driving business growth, customer retention, and exceptional customer experiences.
Andrea is a great business leader who planned and implemented organizational change of global support services from a loosely managed, physically disperse cost center to a critical driver to business retention and growth. Not only does she set visionary, revolutionary objectives, but also conveys strategic messages in plain text that are precisely accepted and executed throughout the organization.
Andrea has had numerous successes from her previous experiences as COO at FinancialForce, chief customer and people officer at Alfresco, VP of cloud support at Oracle, VP of global support and operations at NetScout, director of operations at Remedy.
Thank you for doing this with us Andrea. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
Two key themes: 1) I never said “No” to a new opportunity, even when I really had little idea what I was doing or getting myself into. 2) I’ve been very lucky. On more than one occasion, people have taken chances on me and I’ve worked my tail off to make sure those chances paid off. I have tried to do the same for others in return. Finding diamonds in the rough and watching them shine is one of the best things I’ve experienced in life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My first entree into a VP role came as quite a surprise. The first 20 years of my career were spent in various operational roles: Contracts, Sales/Field Ops, Product Ops, IT Ops, all while raising 4 kids and all of the operational nuances that go with that! I loved learning every aspect of the business from an operational perspective, the importance of keeping the customer at the center of everything you do (even if you’re not in a direct, customer-facing role) and learning how to lead people and teams to drive business execution with the customer’s perspective at the core. After being so operationally focused, and because I had an innate understanding of what customers needed and why they buy, I decided I wanted to try my hand at sales. It was near the end of our fiscal year, and I worked hard to convince our head of sales at Network General to give me a chance. In parallel to this convincing effort, I was recognized by the company as a ‘Friend of Sales’ and was awarded with a trip to our President’s Club that year. My effort to convince him that I was ready for an Account Executive job paid off and he offered me the job. I was over the moon about it and the exciting news was announced while at President’s Club. The very next day, I was floating in the pool, drinking a beach drink of some sort, and our head of Product Management came to the side of the pool and said “Ken is on the phone for you and he needs to talk to you right now.” Ken Boyd was Network General’s CIO and my boss at the time. What Ken wanted to tell me was he was making some changes on the Operations side of the business and the company wanted to promote me to the position of VP of Operations. The day after it was announced to the sales team that I’d be carrying a bag, just like them! I honestly was very conflicted because actually doing this AE job was important to me, but so was the opportunity to be more involved in setting strategy for the company as part of the senior leadership team. So in one President’s Club outing, on the island of Grand Cayman, I was “promoted” twice, I chose the VP job, and it’s a trip I will never forget.
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?
I wish I could say this was when I was first starting, but it was far enough into my career that I should have known better. I’ve always worked hard to perform at my best and help my teams do so as well. One year, after a particularly great year for me (I was an individual contributor at the time), I was preparing for my annual performance review (on a side note, thank God I now work for a company that offers a solution that moves organizations away from the dreaded annual review process). When I did my self-evaluation, I gave myself all high (the highest) scores. My boss at the time also gave me all high (the highest) scores. Wonderful. Here’s where the stupidity came into play. When I had to talk about my areas for improvement, I literally said I had none. My boss was dumbfounded (and rightly so). Over time, thankfully, I was exposed to leaders and peers who helped me learn humility and how incredibly fulfilling it can be to allow others to be the center of attention.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
The strongest, most well-rounded employees are those who benefit from variety in what they are responsible for. Give your employees the opportunity for visible projects. They are energizing and the employees who want to grow will jump at the chance. Be careful not to make it a habit of tapping into your employees during off-hours, especially during these COVID-19 days when everyone is glued to their laptop for (minimum) 8 hours per day.
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 first began managing ‘remote’ employees in 1990. These ‘remote’ employees were in field offices that were remote from our HQ location where I worked, nobody really worked from home. Back then, there was no video conference. It was via conference calls that we would connect, collaborate, get to know one another, and get things done. Of course, we would travel to see our colleagues occasionally so there was opportunity for face-to-face relationship development. I then managed ‘remote’ global employees when I co-led the M&A efforts for two very large companies. Again, this was before video conferencing but it worked the same way as mentioned above.
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. Body language insights are limited: In an environment where video conference is used heavily, this can help. When video is turned on, you can see whether people are leaning into the conversation — are they leaning toward their laptop, nodding in agreement or shaking their head in disagreement, talking with their hands, etc. Or are they leaning back in their chair, participating a little or not at all, crossed arms, etc. Video affords us much of the same body language insights we had when we worked with a team that was right in front of us.
2. Proximity bias — those in the room get more off the ‘floor’: One of the biggest challenges of managing remote team members is when you, as a leader, also have team members who work right in front of you/in the same office. There is a bias to let the people in the room dominate the conversation and those who are remote have to work much harder to be a part of the conversation. Being intentional about giving speaking time to the remote team members before those in the room is one easy way to combat this challenge. Also taking pauses in the conversation so those who are remote have time to come off mute and speak up.
3. Harder to develop trust and cohesion with remote teams: It takes longer to develop trust with people you don’t see face to face. Making the effort to get to know team members as people and not just as co-workers is critical in a world where everyone is remote. Spending time asking people how they’re doing, or what’s top of mind for them will help build trust and a sense of belonging. As a leader, you have to be willing to share as well. If you want others to open up, you have to be willing to do the same.
4. Time zone constraints: When working with remote employees across different time-zones, someone is usually going to have to meet at an inconvenient time. Be flexible when scheduling (especially recurring) meetings so the same person/people aren’t always inconvenienced. Always acknowledge the inconvenience as well. Sometimes that acknowledgement is enough to help the inconvenienced person/people feel less frustration. Also make sure that you, as the scheduler, are inconvenienced occasionally as well. This will give you good insight and empathy for others on your team and might make you re-think your meeting strategy.
5. Tech failures that don’t allow you to fully connect/engage: Always have a plan B. Is someone’s video choppy because their internet bandwidth is low? Encourage turning off video so conversations can continue. Is someone’s audio garbled? Move on to another topic until that topic can be covered when audio is clear. Bottom line: be lighthearted about the tech failures — it’s probably not the end of the world and is something that can be resumed at a later time when technology is cooperating.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?