Anna Denysenko: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

I found my inspiration in the female leadership movement. Something that I’ve noticed ever since I moved to America is that it’s not just a country providing countless opportunities, but also these opportunities are equal and available to women. The female empowerment movements start here and shake the world with their strive for equity and […]

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I found my inspiration in the female leadership movement. Something that I’ve noticed ever since I moved to America is that it’s not just a country providing countless opportunities, but also these opportunities are equal and available to women. The female empowerment movements start here and shake the world with their strive for equity and equality for all. In the last twenty years, so much positive change happened, allowing people of any gender to pursue their dreams. I am a very active member of various projects and organizations. Participation in them inspires me and increases my enthusiasm towards helping provide equal opportunities for everyone.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Denysenko. Anna is the CEO and founder of Deneeze, a successful all-female owned and operated marketing and PR agency based in New-York City with its team scattered all over the world. Anna is beyond familiar with distanced management of employees, so even during the COVID-19 pandemic she keeps delivering excellent results and is eager to share some of her distant management strategy tips.

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”?

Growing up in Ukraine, I dreamt about becoming a lawyer, so my path started with enrolling into university to study law. While being a student I developed an unexpected interest in journalism and found success and international recognition in this field, yet I decided to take a chance and follow the biggest passion of mine — Public Relations. I moved to America in pursuit of new opportunities and experiences. To grow, one has to possess an ability to learn new things daily, yet starting my life over in a new country made it a bit harder to take risks and go out of my comfort zone. Seeking out new experiences, my first job in the US was working for the United Nations, after which I was invited to take the position of a managing editor of the ForumDaily, being part of their website relaunch to help other immigrants, very much like myself. To become even closer to my dream of working in PR, I moved on to working as the head of a marketing department in another company in an industry I wasn’t familiar with. This experience inspired me to branch out and allowed me to progress onto a new level of my career.

Currently, I’m an entrepreneur and an owner of my own company Deneeze, and, looking back, I realize that every single step of this journey was essential and led to what I have now. I am not planning on stopping getting closer to my dream anytime soon, yet, reflecting, my path showed me that conquering my goals one step at a time and not being afraid to open myself up to new experiences in different fields is exactly what made me who I am now.

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

Ever since I started my career, interesting situations would not stop happening to me. There is a quite obscure incident that I still can’t comprehend, and it even happened to me twice. Two years ago, one of my friends invited me to visit a breathtaking ballet performance. It was a fascinating event, but for the whole evening, I couldn’t help keep noticing elements I would’ve done differently from a PR/Marketing standpoint. I knew this cultural event was worthy of more attention and praise, yet not many people even knew about the existence of this show. I was genuinely interested in helping promote this event and, as you can imagine, the extent of my surprise was just colossal when, a year later, the curator of the exact ballet requested for my company to help them promote their upcoming performance. The situation occurred again with an art museum I was a fan of for many years. I’ve also been noticing some incoherent or inaccurate marketing moves and kept thinking over different scenarios of which strategies would benefit this company most. Out of nowhere, they also created a partnership with Deneeze so my visions became true again. One day I’m expressing my concerns and ideas about promotional strategies of a project to my friends and the next these projects are requesting my assistance. Never underestimate the power of our thoughts and how often they get materialized and always stay grateful for every opportunity you get.

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 learnt that often what we perceive as a mistake or a failure may actually be a gift that will help you learn and become better. Looking back at my story now, I can, luckily, just laugh at it and appreciate the lessons it taught me. Years back this mistake was a very important life lesson that helped me grow tremendously. While I was still working as a journalist, I always enjoyed writing exceptionally bold and scandalous material that provokes discussion. Some of my pieces would frequently cause a stir in the news or even be re-published by other publications. Working in a daily news source requires almost immediate response to every important event, yet this element can cause many inaccuracies to arise. Once I was responsible for the coverage of a new construction project. The article I wrote became sensational and spread very quickly, causing a wave of serious conversations. Shortly after, I realized that the neighborhood that the structure was being built in was identified incorrectly. This minor misstep snowballed into a massive problem for all parties involved, putting at risk the credibility of the publication and I. This situation made checking and reviewing information a priority for me. Please listen to my advice and learn from my mistakes — never rush into anything. Before acting upon anything, evaluate the information given to you as many times as you can. This is also applicable to working relationships. Important emails, documents or any part of communication in projects wholly relies on your responsibility for quality and liability of the material. Never hurry and think before you act.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

As an increasing number of people worldwide have to adapt to working remotely due to the ongoing pandemic, I think each individual will have their method to be and feel most productive. From my experience, it is crucial to remember to sometimes distance yourself from all of the technology and emerge yourself into real-life events and enjoy the present, even though that might be a bit hard in the current circumstances. Things we usually take for granted, like taking a walk in the park, spending time with our loved ones to reconnect or having free time to enjoy hobbies are now key to happiness. I would also suggest meditation or other relaxation rituals that help focus on the present and stay grateful, clearing your mind. It is also crucial to have a schedule set in place with the establishment of distinct boundaries and work hours to avoid complications while working with people in different time zones. I advise you to spend time to identify an activity that helps you relax and enjoy yourself most.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience in 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 started managing remote teams ever since I came to the US. I still had many connections and a job back in Ukraine so I had to communicate with my clients and employees digitally for 5 years now, figuring out the most efficient way of working from different parts of the world. All my jobs helped me constantly improve my skill of remote management. I had no choice but to come up with the most effective strategy of working remotely as the head office being in a 7-hour time difference with us. Later, while working at ForumDaily, I had to manage 40 employees from numerous countries. The website would present news from all over the world and different parts of the US and work remotely was our biggest advantage — no other form of working would result in such heavy news flow. We were releasing new information almost 24/7. Furthermore, when studying at Harvard Business School, I had to collaborate with classmates that were scattered globally, which required the entire process to be remote and digital. I got so used to this process and recognized the benefits of having specialists worldwide working towards the same goal, so I continued to work and develop even better distant management strategies. Thankfully, during the 5 years I’ve been in America, a distinct technological shift has occurred. Planning, organizing, scheduling and determining work hours and adjusting them to different time zones is very easy with the emergence of many different applications and online tools. This time of radical technological development decreased the occurrence of unpleasant surprises and difficulties to a minimum and made working with people across the globe easier, more enjoyable.

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?

The first challenge would be establishing communication. Sometimes, it can be very hard to find the time to devote to every employee individually and that can lead to misunderstandings.

Another challenge lies in organization. Due to time differences or just personal circumstances, every employee will have their individual preferences for a schedule. Differences in schedules are in the core of the decrease in team productivity.

One of the most important elements in the work process for me personally is face to face communication. I enjoy getting to know people and the absence of interaction with my team in real life is really one of the downsides that is very hard to deal with.

Tracking productivity can be a burden due to the distance between workers. It is easier for everyone to get used to procrastination and you can’t really supervise everyone, seeing whether they are distracted or working hard. It is especially difficult with big time differences as I have no idea what my employees are doing while I sleep.

When I created Deneeze, I immediately eliminated the challenge that was present at my other jobs. I made sure everyone was on the same page. Understanding of the task and how to use technology to complete it is crucial in the working environment. I educate every single person that joins our team on the software and programs we use as sometimes people who join the team simply may not be aware of how to use a program, yet are too shy or nervous to tell. When I worked at my first ever job, for a very long time I did not understand one platform the employer provided me with, although most other people seemed to be very comfortable with using it. I was too nervous to ask for an explanation, so I tried using other resources to do the same task which resulted in them being completed much slower. Only when the team noticed my pace being different from everyone else, I got taught how to use the correct software. After that situation, I always ask for clarification and put the worker’s understanding as the top priority.

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

Communicate as much as you can. Regardless of external factors, it is very important to find people who are willing to take on the challenges that come with this type of working environment. To prevent any mishaps and have a positive experience, install communication within the team through technology. Even though this method of getting to know one another is drastically different from the office environment, it is nonetheless effective. One of the greatest tips is also finding people you will have no problems communicating with, regardless of tools used. You have to genuinely believe in the capabilities of each individual and they have to be interested in the work and opportunities you provide them. Creating a habit of frequent communication, even though you’re not working in the same office physically, is key. People have to know that they can reach out to each other or to you to ask for help or advice. Also, use the right tools that allow for easy and accessible contact, such as videoconferencing and online chats. Putting all those means of communication into your schedule is the way to tackle this issue.

Good organization is an essential element of a good working pace. Systems like Google provide so many functions, amongst which are online scheduling, video meetings and chats. Zoom is also a current phenomenon and is extremely useful for effortless group communication. Amongst others, the programs I recommend for project management are trelo, gia and asana. Remember to make sure that everyone on the team is familiar with the programs used in your company.

Encourage collaboration to create opportunities for face to face meeting through various opportunities remotely. Some of the employees live closely so make sure to organize meetings for them, even though you may not be present. Also, if the client can talk over the project with one of your employees in real life, plan that for them. This will only benefit the company and will improve the team spirit. Organize outside of work activities(could be online as well), making the maximum out of employees who are able to travel and, therefore, meet each other. Team building is very important for the spirit of the company, even if in-person meetings occur once a year, they are still so worth it. Keep up the working pace through the team creating personal experiences, exchanging them and developing new ones together when possible.

For tracking productivity, you have to be familiar with the technology available and educate your team on them. Being on the same page and understanding the way each tool works and what kind of benefits it provides to everyone is essential and will help tremendously. The schedule of each employee should be able to adapt to circumstances and be flexible for collaboration with others. It needs to mould and change according to what suits other individuals in the team as well to make collaboration possible, setting the tone of mutual respect in communication to increase team productivity.

In order to make sure every individual in the team is up to speed with the current technologies, goals and plans, talk to them and explain everything, ask questions to prevent misunderstandings. Preferably, organize a video chat as it will make the contact even more personal. Make sure to cover all things that the person joining the team will need to know in order to perform to the best of their abilities and, in the meanwhile, get to know them a bit more to make them comfortable and decrease the nervousness that comes with entering a new team. Every team member understanding their tasks and how to achieve them and also being comfortable with the group they are is a promising combination that will take your company far.

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?

It’s true, you’re completely right.

Within any basic human interaction, there will always be an emotional and reactive impact. I can’t say that I have found the perfect approach to giving constructive feedback, but in my understanding, you should focus on the positive in any given situation and minimize the negative aspects. It is essential to highlight people’s strengths first so they learn to trust and respect constructive feedback. Facilitating two-way communication develops a deeper understanding of the issues at stake. Failure of the employee to fully understand what is required in the workplace will hinder self-improvement and reduce motivation. Through experienced and sensitive feedback your employee will be encouraged to develop and improve their skills. The length of time you have known this employee for and your relationship with them will determine whether constructive feedback is best delivered via video call or through personal communication. This will ensure the most successful outcome when seeking to explain how a situation can be improved or avoided in the future.

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

Coming from a post-Soviet Union country, I can say that people from where I’m from are often very straightforward. Understanding this information was crucial as it led me to find ways to deliver constructive criticism in a way which wouldn’t be perceived as rude or too harsh. For example, this situation can be compared to candy in the sense that you must acknowledge its external wrapping as well as its internal appeal. When communicating with employees via email or otherwise, it is important to demonstrate an interest in their concerns in the workplace and beyond. By actively seeking to understand their issues, a manager is better able to assess how to deal with an individual’s situation and provide appropriate support. At my company Deneeze, we have clients who are served by our remote workers on a global scale. As our remote workers continue to increase in number, we must continuously demonstrate our high level of management skills. Learning from the challenges our employees face, we can evaluate and adapt existing strategies to address similar issues in the future.

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?

Actually, after three or four months of the world-wide pandemic, examples like that are almost eliminated. As the majority of people had to adapt to the remote working regime, they have worked a habit out of this and found the ways of working that suit them best. For example, organizing your own working space inside your own house, managing all the inside distractions, setting boundaries for your schedule, and finding the right ways of channelling the communication to anyone in any part of the world regardless of the circumstances are all ways employees at my company have found ease during these trying times.

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?

At Deneeze, our employees work towards a common goal together while being thousands of miles away from each other, so we take empowerment of our team very seriously. Encourage an environment of open communication and feedback. Also, set the right expectations and communication methods. Always talk to your employees and reflect in every conversation to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

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 found my inspiration in the female leadership movement. Something that I’ve noticed ever since I moved to America is that it’s not just a country providing countless opportunities, but also these opportunities are equal and available to women. The female empowerment movements start here and shake the world with their strive for equity and equality for all. In the last twenty years, so much positive change happened, allowing people of any gender to pursue their dreams. I am a very active member of various projects and organizations. Participation in them inspires me and increases my enthusiasm towards helping provide equal opportunities for everyone.

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

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is a Chinese proverb that I apply to many aspects of my life. In every project I work on, despite how strenuous it may be, I believe that if I can allocate a significant amount of my time and energy towards it, I will be able to complete the task at hand successfully.

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