Erica McMannes — I have had to extend my day, I’m now getting up two and a half hours earlier than I usually would because that’s the only way I can get in some quiet time. I’m an introvert, and being in the house with everyone here can get me worked up.
Liza Rodewald — I’m the opposite, I follow all my family members around saying, “who wants to spend time with Mom!”
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liza Rodewald & Erica McMannes.
Liza Rodewald: Liza Rodewald is a four-time entrepreneur and software engineer with over 16 years of technical experience building multi-million dollar enterprise software for government and healthcare industries. Her passion for entrepreneurship came from a desire for a more flexible lifestyle and to shape the future of work for companies and workers. She is an Active Duty Army Spouse and mom of four.
Erica McMannes: Erica McMannes has been an Active Duty Army spouse for 18 years and was more or less forced to find creative ways to find fulfillment and income that has accommodated moving 11 times so far. Her career path started out working for Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation and Child, Youth, and School Services in various director and leadership positions as a Child Development Specialist but as many entrepreneurs do, she found her way into consulting for startups in Silicon Valley on community growth and branding development and led her to launch Instant Teams in 2016.
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. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
EM: Four years ago this month, I sent Liza a Facebook message to tell her that I had an idea. Our whole company literally started with a Facebook message! I had been working as a consultant for several different startups out in the Valley and had built up a few teams of military spouses for our customers to help out with the project work. One of our client’s executives said, “spouses are a force to be reckoned with, why don’t people know about you guys?” That was the ah-ha moment for me. It made me realize that maybe more people out there could and should know about us.
LR: I was a software engineer running my own company and I was building remote teams out to fulfill my contracts with the Secretary of State’s office. Then I met my husband, he went back active duty, and that led me into the military community. I started meeting spouse after spouse that needed remote work options, so this idea of building Instant Teams on the technology-side was starting to form. Then we moved to Virginia, and Erica and I met for the first time. We met as casual friends in a virtual workout group on Facebook. We both sort of knew that we were in business, but didn’t really know much about each other. It wasn’t until three years later that she sent me that Facebook message.
But after that, our thinking really started to line up. Erica had this idea on the workforce side and I had this idea on the technology side, and we had both lived both sides of the problem. We decided to start at the problem first, if we could prove that we can fill a need to help spouses and help companies then we could evolve and develop it into a technology platform.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
EM: Liza and I like to say we were tricked into this personality assessment meeting and we thought we were just helping somebody out by taking this assessment and then we got on the phone and it was definitely a sales call. We were slacking back and forth, back-channelling the call, but it turned into a huge learning moment for us. That call flipped our roles, at that point we realized that Liza and I were trying to fulfill roles that really weren’t naturally what we were good at or what either of us really wanted to do. It caused us to completely switch titles and roles, so that little accident of walking into that personality assessment sales call changed the trajectory of our company.
LR: It was interesting because we naturally gravitated towards me, with the technology, operations, and project management background, being the CTO and whatever else, and since Erica came with the idea and had a deeper grasp on the military spouse experience because she had been one way longer than I had that she would be the CEO. When we met, that was my first military move, so I was new to the whole thing. But looking at that assessment it was clear that she was way more process and detail-oriented, and I was all-in on the vision side and that was just all more of what I liked.
Once we figured that out and we switched, that’s when things started to take off. That’s when we agreed to go into the Founder Institute, we started running in our lanes. It took some working out, we had a lot of conversations, and we have always run this as a partnership. A complete 50/50, we’re in this together, there’s no power trip over one or the other. Just what are the lanes that we need to be in to make the company most successful. It was totally fortuitous that we ended up in this random sales pitch that resulted in us finding where we would thrive and survive as leaders in the company.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
EM: With the recent close of our Series Seed round, we’ve launched right into building up our sales department and that’s brought us some exciting new enterprise level customers that will bring so many amazing remote and flexible roles to our workforce. Strategically in 2020, we are focusing on the complete lifecycle of workforce development. We are gearing up new assessment tools, digging into strategic partnerships, and really looking to envelope not only the remote work roles we can provide but also the training necessary to develop and hone remote work skills that lead to success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
EM: Is it really cheesy if I say Liza? People often think that we were really good friends that started a company together, when in reality we were just casual acquaintances that had perfectly matched ideas and complementary strengths. Growing through this as a professional for the first time, having a cofounder has made all the difference. For me that is a make it or break it type of thing. Of course we’ve had great mentors and people that have contributed, but I do not see us being where we are today without the partnership that we have together.
LR: That is 110% it, it’s what we have always done. If one of us is down, the other can be up, we’re never both down at the same time. If one of us is overwhelmed, the other one helps us get it done. We have leaned on each other far more than anyone else in the whole ecosystem of support that has grown around us. And that is one of the best things that has come out of Instant Teams. When I talk to investors, I genuinely say I have the best co-founder. You are going to love her. I know that anything I throw her way she is going to take care of, I don’t have to worry about it when it is in her court. It’s a really good feeling to know that you have that.
EM: We’re 100% dependent on each other but can act independently. It’s like a marriage right? You have to have a common understanding but still be able to function in your own strengths.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
EM: It’s a whole new layer, we’ve always been completely remote, so our teams have figured out that pre-COVID normal remote daily lifestyle, but now this has been a whole new layer. Kids are now home all the time, many are trying to do virtual school. The unique part of being a military family is that some of our spouses aren’t home, they are essential workers. So I am running a business full-time, from home, alone, with two kids. We have some spouses whose husbands and wives are deployed, so they have no support unit and are 100% solo-parenting and working from home. I wish there was some fancy structured methodology to it, but it’s just checking in, staying in constant communication, and taking the time to stop and make sure that our priorities are straight and balanced and that our team feels supported and balanced.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
LR: A few weeks before COVID-19 hit, we had put out our flexibility policy to the whole team which was a definition of what we as a company see and expect remote work to be like in the home, things like required childcare when you’re working from home so that your kids are taken care of during your core working hours. We immediately had to throw that out the window and say, now how do we keep people from feeling overwhelmed and still productive but not feeling like they are failing at everything? I have four kids at home and my husband and I are both working more than full-time hours, and I’m supposed to be at the level of homeschooling with all the work my kid’s school has sent home. How do I do all that? I don’t. Something had to give, for me, my youngest has two more years before kindergarten, so they’ll be fine, and I took that off the plate. And then I said what are the hacks that I can see in the schoolwork for my elementary school kids so that we can maintain, maybe we’re not excelling at the moment but we’re not going to fail. So somewhere in between a normal expectation and a point where we can actually operate on a day-to-day basis with everything that’s being asked of us. The important thing is to stay sane and stay okay, it’s okay that something has to give right now.
This is the same approach we’ve been taking with each team member. How are you? Where are you at? What can you do realistically? Don’t tell me it’s okay, that you can still work eight hours. In two weeks you’re going to be burned out. Even if I only get four hours of quality time a day from you, let’s do that and plan for it, versus trying to put in too much time and exhaust ourselves. As the leaders, we have to be the gatekeepers for that, otherwise our team members will just push and push themselves and burn themselves out.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
LR: We’ve been working for a while now to build in self-care into our team and our culture. With COVID-19 that has made the need for this even more clear. One of the things we’ve done recently is start a “You-First” Slack channel. We have someone on our team who is responsible for making sure that every one of our 80 team members are spending some time doing some type of self care and we’re encouraging that from an executive level on down. Erica and I post there to show them what we’re doing. Here’s me taking some time off, here’s me going for a walk in the middle of the day with my kids, so that they see it is okay to share and that we are really modeling for our team that everyone can and should be taking that time for themselves.
EM: Another thing that we do is a color-coded mental health check, where no one has to share details but people can just share if they are a red, yellow, green, blue or black, as a way to share what their mental status is today. It’s cool because you can see if someone says that they are a blue or black that people will reach out to them and ask if they need to check-in or want to take it offline to talk. It’s sort of an anonymous way to let people know if you’re not doing so great without having to feel like you are complaining or that they can’t talk about it.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family? Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
EM: For me I have had to extend my day, I’m now getting up two and a half hours earlier than I usually would because that’s the only way I can get in some quiet time. I’m an introvert, and being in the house with everyone here can get me worked up. I’m happy to get up early, get some time in on my Peloton, look over my notes for the day. Normally I’d be in the house for eight hours alone where I could do my work and have my vibe, but now I needed to make that space in the day for my quiet time.
LR: I’m the opposite, I follow all my family members around saying, “who wants to spend time with Mom!” One of the big shifts that I’ve had is putting everyone on different schedules. We had a very concrete routine set in place, and now I’ve had to create a way to task everyone with things that you might not normally task your kids with. Like make sure you spend 30 minutes outside everyday, make sure you do some physical activity. My younger kids will do whatever, but my teenagers, they’ll sit in front of their screens all day if I let them. Creating this new family structure so that we all feel good at the end of the day when it is time to relax, we go on walks together, and the other things we’re doing to unwind together that we didn’t use to do. Our days as a family look completely different than they used to.
EM: Times have changed and you can’t expect your routine to be the same. We’ve had to restructure. If you tried to not change your family life within this that would be a total disaster. You have to recognize that this is not normal, this is not the same, now how do we adjust to all survive.
LR: From my perspective, running a company, I don’t have more time just because I’m home. I’m getting annoyed with that. If you’re a working parent that is working full-time from home and now you are homeschooling your kids, there’s not just all this time that you suddenly have to take up a new hobby, or learn to play the piano, or whatever people are out there saying. I’m like who is doing this? I have less time now than I had before because we are working so hard to make sure that the company is advancing during this time, that the people on our team are okay and that they are able to do their jobs. We are busier than ever, so how do we stay sane when those things aren’t options for us. It’s all about how I do little things for myself so that I don’t burn out, and so that our team sees that and they don’t burn out.
EM: We have to watch that burn out even more so now. Because everyone’s home and people can just keep working — we started seeing people save little things that they can do over the weekend and emails going out at 10:00pm on a Friday night. But then, we saw our team members being frustrated first thing on Monday morning, and we realized that people weren’t giving themselves the space to have a real weekend and take a break. We started a weekly wrap-up meeting on Fridays for people to clear their minds. They can tell us what they did this week and check-out mentally so that they can shut off and go have their weekend.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
EM: As an entrepreneur, you already have to have the mindset that things could be really awful for a while normally but that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. When you layer military life on top of that, crisis is not unknown to us. We have lived through very hard times in our lives, we know that it is going to be really hard right now but there is a process to go through, there is a community to reach out to. Layering in 18 years of working through crisis in the military community, adding in entrepreneur experience and the mindset that has to be embraced to stay on track there, this is like, well okay this is just a third layer and the same strategies that apply to the other two apply now. I don’t want to say that anyone is ever well-positioned for a pandemic, but the mindset is something that entrepreneurs and military families already know how to apply. A lot of it for me is also faith-based, I’m not in control and it’s okay that I’m not in control, there’s a bigger world and a bigger concept of living and I’m just a part of it. There’s always hope, there’s always beautiful things happening out there, you just have to focus on those — it’s terror management theory. You can remove yourself from it, you can stop watching the news for a while, you can take things out of your Facebook feed — you can choose to realize that you have 100% control over what you feed yourself.
LR: My mantra has always been “what goes down must come up.” For entrepreneurs that hope cycle is an opportunity for us to all take a step back and hone in on creativity. Before this, everyone was just running down a certain path really really hard and all the sudden they were halted. We’re all just looking at it now to see where we can support our communities, where we can pivot as a company to have a positive impact, those are all happening around us. People are finding positive, creative ways to sustain the people that work for them, but also fill a need in the community to help the world get through this. A global health crisis is never something anyone would ask for, but we are definitely looking at our unique resources and asking, “how can we be helpful right now?” We have a chance to really help, as entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s our time to really dig into and apply our creativity.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
EM: Our culture has always been one where it’s okay to have uncomfortable conversations, it’s okay to bring up something that isn’t working, we know that we need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. We don’t wait for people to crash and burn. When you have really dedicated team members they will tell you that they’ve got it. It’s on you to say with encouragement, no look me in the eyes, let’s check in, how is it going really? And then things like the You-First Slack channel and a weekly check-out, you have to put those extra steps in so that people know that they are supported and that it’s okay to not be 100% alright right now.
LR: One of the cool things about how our workforce is set up is that we have the option to do job sharing between team members. If someone can no longer work 40 hours, we can bring someone else in alongside them to take 10 hours of work off of a team member that can only do 30 right now. Doing that time offload means that no one loses their job, and we don’t suffer as a company because we need all of that work to be done. We can do that across the board, we can do that for our remote team members that are working for customers, we can bring more people in to help job share and even out the load so that they don’t have to miss the work.
The model that we have developed allows us to be incredibly flexible and creative. We may need to restructure someone’s job so that the work can get done and they are supported, but nobody’s going to lose their job. There are a lot of lessons that other companies can learn from that, it doesn’t have to be that someone is a 40-hour worker and if you can’t pay them for 40 hours they get laid off, or they’re furloughed. There’s much more creative ways to look at this — what can you scale down, what can you scale up, who can you swap around? The job sharing concept is going to be a major shift that comes to the workforce post-coronavirus. Companies need to be thinking about how this impacts their budgets and their bottom line as they reconfigure and adapt to the new reality that their workforce can operate remotely and that work can be shared and even more collaborative.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
EM: This is really cheesy, but this has been mine since I was twelve — “Nobody knows how much you know until they know how much you care.” That isn’t some high level leadership thought but everything I do on a daily basis comes back to that. When you need to ask people to do hard things, or when you have to ask them to show up in a time that they don’t want to, if you don’t have that base focus on the relationship and they don’t know that you care, people are going to walk. That line has helped me time after time personally, professionally, and with our company.
LR: Mine comes from the movie Robots movie — “See a need, fill a need.” That whole movie was about him looking into space, finding the needs, filling the needs. That’s how I am as an entrepreneur and I say that a lot and I think about it a lot. Even in this time, see a need, fill a need — what’s going on, how can I help. That is what shapes my thoughts and my vision process.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can connect with our team by visiting our website www.InstantTeams.com and following us on Instagram at @remotepromilspo. If you’d like to connect with us directly, we’re on LinkedIn daily and would love to meet you there!
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!