“Building a Remote Team.” With Fotis Georgiadis & Bill Eckstrom

We tend to make negative assumptions — my people don’t work as hard, they are not as productive, they must be spending more time on social media, etc. Negative assumptions create distrust, which damages leadership effectiveness. Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Bill Eckstrom, CEO and founder of the EcSell Institute, a research-based organization that coaches […]

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We tend to make negative assumptions — my people don’t work as hard, they are not as productive, they must be spending more time on social media, etc. Negative assumptions create distrust, which damages leadership effectiveness.

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Bill Eckstrom, CEO and founder of the EcSell Institute, a research-based organization that coaches company leaders on growth and performance.

Bill’s vast experience of turning subpar leaders into elite coaches will help you understand why measuring performance at the leadership level is critical to growth at the individual, team, and organizational level. Bill is known as the world’s foremost authority in metric-based performance coaching and growth. Utilizing both entertainment and poignant research in his talks, Bill will leave your audience ready to take action. Bill was invited to the TEDx stage in 2017, and his talk entitled “Why Comfort Will Ruin Your Life” was the fastest growing TEDx Talk in the history of the event. Bill’s latest book, “The Coaching Effect,” is based on the research of over 100,000 workplace coaching interactions and helps leaders at all levels understand the necessity of challenging people out of their comfort zone to create a high-growth organization. Growth is what inspires Bill’s philanthropic life, especially his involvement in therapy dog work. He and his Labrador, Aspen, work together at senior living homes, children’s hospitals and anywhere the presence of Aspen’s wagging tail and soft soul can bring a smile.

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”?

Ispent the first 15 years of my career in sales, then sales leadership roles until 2008. At that time, I was searching for a leadership development program that was as robust as the training programs available for sales teams. It was also important to me that the program be based in data and research, not opinion — but I couldn’t find any that checked those boxes. That’s when I founded the EcSell Institute, a research-based coaching and leadership development organization.

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

I applied to do a TEDx Talk in my hometown and was rejected. Not long after, I was asked by the organizer of a TED event in different city to give a talk there. The resulting talk became their most viral talk in the history of their event. Based on TED viewing data, the goal was to have 15,000 views in the first six months — the video hit 15,000 views in just over 24 hours!

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?

When giving a speech, never go to the restroom without turning of your wireless mic. I did this once during an intermission, thinking I had clicked it off, but obviously had not… When I returned to the audience, I received a standing ovation.

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

Know if the leaders within your organizations are coaching in a way that promotes thriving employees! Ultimately, the only way for CEOs or founders to understand the effectiveness of their leaders’ coaching is to quantify it through objective measurement. If you aren’t measuring it, you are leaving your employees vulnerable to underperformance and burnout.

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?

My first remote team was in 2000, and I’ve had remote team members in every role and company since that time. Looking presently at EcSell’s senior team, there are several remote members; our President, director of research, director of events, and various others been working remotely for over four 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?

There are certainly differences in managing remotely vs in person, but they are not so significant that leaders can’t overcome them.

  1. Out of sight, out of mind — let’s face it, not being physically present makes it easy to forget about those on your team. There are fewer questions, fewer reasons to be present, and fewer distractions, which all lead to lack of communication.
  2. Relationship creation and perpetuation is easier to let slide — this ties back to the previous challenge, but is unique. Creating and perpetuating relationships is still foundational to engagement, turnover, sales revenue, and more. Not all communication creates deeper trust-based relationships, so leaders need to do the right activities with the right quality. For example, most remote leaders will still hold 1:1 meetings with those on their team, but if all they talk about is the numbers, relationships will diminish. Leaders need to get personal with their people! More intentionality must be brought to relationship development to maintain growth.
  3. We tend to make negative assumptions — my people don’t work as hard, they are not as productive, they must be spending more time on social media, etc. Negative assumptions create distrust, which damages leadership effectiveness.
  4. Access to high-functioning work places at home is not a given — kids, aging parents, lack of space, lack of proper office ergonomics, and more are all factors that impact work effectiveness.
  5. Team members aren’t necessarily feeling confident in their ability to do their jobs well — Our COVID-19 Insight Survey™ tells us that only 35% of employees strongly agree that they know what to do to be successful in the near future.

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

  1. Leaders need to do be doing more “check-in” calls with team members. Again, the top performing leaders of teams are doing this a minimum of 2–3 times/week/member of the team.
  2. Because of what we are seeing in our COVID-19 research, leaders need to hold 1:1 meetings with those on their teams at least weekly (if not already happening). They can move to every other week once the chaos is behind us.
  3. Always assume those on your team are still providing the best effort they can, but once a week, ask the question, “Is there anything you need or that would help your productivity in your new virtual environment?” I did this for a team member who responded by asking if I would adopt his kids (he was joking, of course).
  4. During a team meeting, ask “Would you share one best practice you are doing to be more effective while working from home?” Then, put together a list of the best practices and share with everyone in your company.
  5. Ask (don’t tell) each member of your team what their key priorities are for the next four weeks. See if their answers are in line with your expectations, and if not, share your expectations in a clear and succinct manner. Then ask them to paraphrase (in a way that is not condescending) the key priorities so that what you said and what they heard are in sync.

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?

Feedback is too often thought of as an activity that occurs only when somebody has not met an expectation, which is usually why it is associated with “constructive criticism.” However, consistent feedback should be woven into the fabric of the organization. When feedback becomes cultural, whether positive or negative, the response is easier to receive. So, the challenge at hand is not the communication medium (virtual -v- in person), but rather the culture of feedback within an organization.

EcSell Institute research is showing that many people prefer to video chat over simply a phone call, which can assist in the feedback process. Regardless of the communication medium, effective leaders should always be very deliberate about asking questions, which may seem at odds with the term “feedback.” Questioning is the most powerful form of feedback. So, if either negative or positive feedback is being provided, always be sure to ask, “How is this making you feel?” Another effective form of feedback is to ask the employee to paraphrase all or some of the conversation that was just had, which ensures both parties are on the same page.

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

Email should never be a medium for providing feedback, but it can be used as a tool for written follow-up to a spoken feedback conversation. There is too much emotional risk to use only the written word for feedback; employees need to hear a voice and see a face for proper feedback to occur.

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?

EcSell Institute research shows that communication is key. 86% of top-performing companies have leaders who are reaching out to those on their team a minimum of 2–3 times/week — some (50%) are doing it as often as daily with great results. These “check-ins” don’t have to be all business-related — sometimes people just want you to ask how they are holding up.

Obstacle to avoid: don’t assume everyone wants to be treated the same way during this new working dynamic. While some may want or need to hear from you 3–4 times/week, others may only want to visit once weekly. It is a leader’s job to determine what is unique for each individual on their teams.

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?

Our business-related team meetings used to be every other week, but we now hold a 15-minute off-week meeting too. All meetings begin with a thumbs up, down, or sideways as a quick “how are you doing” indicator. If a team member is sideways or down, we then ask if it is something they would like to share or discuss later.

We also recommend a weekly virtual team gathering that is primarily social. EcSell has dubbed ours FAC — “Forget About Covid.” It’s 3–4pm on Fridays, and we begin by having a team member ask a unique question that each person needs to answer.

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. 🙂

Practice the 3 M’s: Mindfulness. Meditation. Manifestation.

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

“The constant façade of order hides the wilderness that is craving to seep out and teach us that life wasn’t created to be what we think it is. Beyond words, we must experience the wilderness to be taught what cannot be otherwise known.”

Dr. Serene Jones

I used this quote in the closing of my TEDx Talk. By living these words, which captured the spirit of my talk, my life has forever evolved for the positive. It allowed me to write a book on the topic, and it has given EcSell Institute’s work worldwide recognition.

Thank you for these great insights!

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