Trust: Building a relationship with someone you only communicate with over email/chat or the occasional teleconference is very difficult. Now amplify that by the number of people in your team, and it feels insurmountable. One of the ways to build trust is to create a shared vision, where you get buy-in from all parts of your organization, empowering them to have ownership.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christos Kalantzis.
Christos Kalantzis is the SVP of Engineering at SecurityScorecard. He is an experienced leader, technologist, blogger, and geek. He’s interested in big distributed systems, and how to build teams to implement and maintain them.
Christos grew up in Montreal, Canada, where he started his career as a DBA for companies such as Matrox, CGI, Sync, and InterTrade. He moved to Silicon Valley where he built and led engineering teams for FireEye, Tenable, Netflix, and YouSendIt. He’s worked on Cloud storage solutions for YouSendIt, before the term “Cloud” was popular. He’s also focused on solving at scale run-time databases using sharded RDBMS and NoSQL products. He is an Apache Cassandra MVP.
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”?
I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I started my career in technical support, which gave me a very healthy appreciation of the customer and their needs. I then spent years as a Database & Systems Administrator where I helped make engineering teams successful and it is during this time that I learned that investing in automation was key to scaling, both product and career-wise.
I met my partner about 15 years ago on a business trip to the Bay Area. We fell in love and I moved to San Jose, California. Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve worked for companies such as YouSendIt, Netflix, Tenable, and FireEye. In those years, I learned a great deal about technology, building SaaS products, and building & leading teams. Today, I am the SVP of Tech and R&D at SecurityScorecard, where I lead all technology aspects of our company. I feel incredibly lucky to work alongside highly intelligent, creative, and hard working colleagues who teach me new things every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have a propensity for dressing professionally; think nice slacks, button down shirts, and patent leather shoes. Needless to say, this is considered extremely formal in the Bay Area. There was one specific time during my tenure at Netflix where I was in an elevator and as I looked up from my phone, saw Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, smiling back at me and greeting me. He looked me up and down, then looked at his chinos and sweater, raising an eyebrow.
To this day, I’m not sure why I said this, but I blurted out: “You dress for the position you want, not the one you have.” Reed let out a huge laugh. Luckily, the elevator reached my floor, and I quickly exited. Today, as I work in a remote environment from home, the dress code is decidedly more casual.
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?
This is a story that while in hindsight is now funny, I found devastating in the moment:
Early on in my career, I worked for an e-commerce site. One day, as I was working, I remember thinking I was working in a development environment, so I issued a command to delete a database. Turns out, the command was made in our production database. Due to my action, the site immediately went down and alarms went off. I shared with my colleagues what happened and they sprang into action to help me recover from backups. I remember looking at my computer screen with eyes welled up. My colleagues stayed calm and told me not to worry and breathe. I was certain I was going to be fired. Within 30 minutes, we were back up and running.
My boss called me into his office. As I was waiting for the axe to fall, he smiled. He asked me what I had learned. I rattled off a slew of things like:
“Measure twice, cut once.”
“Have your work reviewed by a peer”
”Always make sure where you are.”
He said that while all those things were good rules of thumb, the main lesson is that we’re all human and that we all make mistakes. The most important lesson is to learn from those mistakes.
Since then, I’ve developed a saying: “You haven’t really arrived until you’ve brought down the production site…and quickly brought it up again.”
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
While I could write a book on this topic, I’ll focus on the importance of taking time off.
Employees take their cues about company culture from the top. Don’t simply encourage your employees to take time off; take days off yourself. Set an example, as creativity and clarity can come by taking a step back.
I’m also a fan of occasional mandatory days off. Especially in the past few months, folks are working harder and longer. A big part of it is fear of losing their jobs in uncertain times. Taking time off could seem like a risk to some. Leaders must have the pulse of their employees and understand when burnout could potentially happen. When they feel that the team is collectively being pushed hard, leaders could choose to offer a long weekend to their employees, which is helpful so that all employees are encouraged to truly disconnect.
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?
Prior to managing remote teams, I worked for a company that, at the time, was extremely intent on keeping its employees in the same office. Since moving on from that company, I’ve exclusively been managing remote teams. Here at SecurityScorecard, it is no different. Prior to the pandemic, we were a very remote-friendly environment, which has made the transition easier for us than many companies. For example, my department, tech, was primarily remote even before remote work became the norm. That said, it’s been quite the journey in learning what works and what needs to be adjusted to make remote teams work. I’m still experimenting and learning, along with my peers.
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?
5 of the main challenges are:
- Communication: When the ability to have an in person adhoc conversation goes away, so can some of the creativity that is sparked by spontaneity. Communication now becomes an intentional activity, where you need to think about what medium to use, how to precisely ask your question or respond to one, and wonder how long it will take to get a response. I’ve addressed this in the past, by putting together a guideline of what communication medium to use (chat, email, phone, teleconference), for different types of communications. It also outlined what the expected response times would be. This helped set expectations and reduced tension for both the senders and responders.
– At SecurityScorecard, some teams offer office hours, which are open timeslots where anyone can pop in and ask a question and get an immediate answer. This has been quite a useful tool for us.
- Culture: If a company starts centered around a specific office location, a culture is formed around that location. Going to the coffee shop, taking a walk with a colleague, or challenging your boss to a game of football is all gone in a remote environment. However, there are other ways to maintain a culture and a sense of belonging in a remote environment. At SecurityScorecard, we plan virtual happy hours, wellness sessions, and invite guest speakers or performers. We also hold a weekly all-hands meeting where we bestow praise on our colleagues and share company information with the whole team. These efforts help create a sense of belonging while maintaining and strengthening our culture while we’re remote.
- Trust: Building a relationship with someone you only communicate with over email/chat or the occasional teleconference is very difficult. Now amplify that by the number of people in your team, and it feels insurmountable. One of the ways to build trust is to create a shared vision, where you get buy-in from all parts of your organization, empowering them to have ownership.
- Productivity: In some cases, when working outside of an office setting and without day-to-day oversight, some team members may not use their time wisely. In cases like this, productivity may go down when those team members lack the direction they were used to receiving in a traditional office setting. In Remote teams, this is handled by resetting how we measure performance. It is not about how many hours you put in, or how hard you work. We shift to measuring outcomes. It’s now about accountability; doing what we’ve agreed to do when we’ve agreed to do it.
- Burnout: Signals to stop working, such as the office emptying out, or everyone going to grab a beverage after work, are gone. This is the other side of the productivity coin. Without boundaries, some team members may overwork themselves, resulting in reduced quality. In the worst of cases, this could even result in negative health issues for the employee.
In order to flag burnout and prevent it from happening, Ihold weekly 1:1 meetings with my staff, where our focus isn’t on work progress. Instead, we discuss how they are doing, what they need to be successful, and how they are feeling. Taking a cue from our CEO, we give ourselves a Green/Yellow/Red grade on how we’re feeling both professionally and personally. This starts the conversation and helps identify signs of burnout.
Although rare, I have had to occasionally insist someone take time off, because they were getting dangerously close to burnout. In those cases, they returned refreshed and with a new sense of purpose.
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?
Whenever possible, save constructive feedback for a tele-conference where they can see your face and you can see theirs.
Luckily, we live in an age where these tools are readily available. While not as ideal as being in person, if you stand back from the camera a bit, more of your body language can be viewed and it is the next best thing to delivering constructive feedback in person.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Constructive feedback over email is something I prefer avoiding.
However, if it is unavoidable or if you have a relationship, trust and comfort level that is well-established between you and the employee, there could be an opportunity to provide constructive feedback over email. Begin by appreciating the effort they put into the work. Just because it didn’t exactly hit the mark doesn’t mean there wasn’t effort involved. That effort should be recognized.
That appreciation can then be followed by why the effort fell short. Simply complaining that it’s wrong without providing guidance and direction is not constructive.
Finally give ownership of the task back to them. You’ve provided direction, now let them own the “how.” This shows that you trust them, which is essential in helping to move forward.
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?
One of the biggest team adjustments when going remote is the cadence of and medium of communication. The ability to simply walk up to your teammates and quickly provide updates or ask questions has gone away. There is a risk of a communication breakdown because of the deliberate effort needed to communicate in a remote setting.
Another adjustment needed when going remote is respecting each others’ time. There is a social norm in an office setting to mainly interact during “office hours.” As teams begin working remotely, “office hours” isn’t as well defined, especially if you’re juggling family and work. Teams need to adjust to more asynchronous communication. Team members should feel like they can ‘turn off’ and pick things back up the next day, even though questions might come in at all hours of the day and night.
There are many more obstacles in place, like a lack of feedback and learning opportunities as well as social disconnect. However, most are related to communication. If a team can address, adjust to and overcome the communication barriers, they will be ahead of the curve in succeeding in a remote work world.
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?
Maintaining a culture and a sense of belonging in a remote environment is something that must be tended to constantly. It is not a one-and-done activity. You must find ways for people to connect in new ways and be consistent.
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. 🙂
Provide opportunities to people who are different than you.
When I began my career in Quebec, I was the odd person out. I spoke differently (with an accent) and my Greek ethnicity made me feel as if I was standing outside the inner circle. However, one manager gave me an opportunity to grow. She believed in my abilities and gave me one of my first leadership roles.
That made quite the impression on me. I’ve since strived to offer opportunities of all kinds to people who could be perceived as “different” than me. Besides the obvious and important social responsibility of doing so, by diversifying my team, the team is constantly challenged and growing, as opposed to if I worked with people who were just like me. You can only see the big picture when you see it from all perspectives, not just one.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.”
That quote has driven me to fearlessly aim for the stars and beyond. I’ll admit that when I don’t hit my target, I still get bummed out, but his quote helps remind me that I actually accomplished a lot and should be proud of myself.