Dominique Rodriguez-Sawyer of FARE: “Dealing with the unknown”

Dealing with the unknown: Everyday will present new challenges. Many organizations went from in person conferences to virtual overnight. What teams need to know is that when change occurs you, as their leader, will keep them informed. Give them a voice as buy-in matter. Send out pulse surveys for feedback. Pivoting on a dime has […]

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Dealing with the unknown: Everyday will present new challenges. Many organizations went from in person conferences to virtual overnight. What teams need to know is that when change occurs you, as their leader, will keep them informed. Give them a voice as buy-in matter. Send out pulse surveys for feedback. Pivoting on a dime has proven to be necessary in the workplace. Pivoting with your team intact will prove to be essential to your survival.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dominique Rodriguez-Sawyer.

Dominique Rodriguez-Sawyer is the Chief People Officer for FARE, the leading nonprofit in the area of research and education for the food allergy population. She is responsible for the overall strategy, development and implementation of Human Resources programs and administrative operations, and her expertise lies in fostering relationships among HR management, senior leadership, and the staff of nonprofit and governmental agencies. She has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and French from Franklin Pierce University and Graduate Level Certification in Training and Development from North Carolina State University.

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”?

In my role at FARE, I’m responsible for the overall strategy, development and implementation of HR programs and administrative operations. My primary areas of focus are employee relations, workforce planning and recruitment, regulatory compliance, as well as facilitating training programs that improve organizational excellence and nurture the aptitudes of high performers.

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

I’d like to share two stories — one more recent and the other from early on in my career.

In 2018, FARE underwent a significant reorganization which was not easy feat and one of my greatest challenges. With 45 percent of the organization being laid off, how would we maintain morale and continue moving the needle on the critical work of our mission? Additionally, our incoming CEO was evolving FARE’s business approach from that of a challenged nonprofit to an energetic start-up. The most important thing to me was to treat outgoing employees with compassion and respect. The meetings were not easy, but I understood that feedback was coming from a place of pain and, of course, in the employees’ viewpoint, unfairness. Together with the Director of Operations and the CEO, we put a plan in place to offer assistance, including out-placement services, recommendation letters, and compensation. For those remaining, we were honest and explained shared the plan to move FARE forward. At every step possible, we involved the staff as stakeholders, giving them input into the direction and actions. We valued their commitment to seeing the mission of FARE continue to forge ahead and were determined to encourage the staff to be the most dynamic and successful individuals they could be in the new environment. Today, the organization has made a complete turnaround, having raised 85M dollars against a 200M dollars goal in 24 months for food allergy research and education. We now have a larger, more diverse leadership, staff, and board, including robust advocacy, communications, research, and partnership teams. Turnarounds can be a tough road for all of us, yet ultimately, what is best for the publics we serve.

When I first started in the field of Human Resources, my specialty was training and development. Armed with my degree, working for a well-known firm, I was assigned to a training project as co-lead in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I knew the software we were going to teach like the back of my hand. But when we arrived and began our assignment, I found that our team immediately hit a wall. There was no interest in learning at all, and we were basically not achieving our goal. So, I decided to change my approach, and instead of being the one with all the answers, I turned the tables on the participants. I allowed them to share how they felt about the new software, how they perceived it would affect their school system, etc. It was basically a listening tour. The listening grew into a mutual respect between the participants and me, which eventually morphed into trust. We had a job to do and so did the participants/school administrators — which was to learn the software. By getting their buy-in, we not only prepared them to be efficient users of the program but also to think beyond their current situation and envision how else what they were learning could benefit them. Sometimes in HR we must help employees see beyond the immediate task at hand, focus on the big picture and the value-add that their daily contributions make to the overall organizational strategy. To this day I don’t approach any situation in HR and with my team, without first going on my listening tour. Even after all these years I still have a lot to learn and can only do so if I understand and listen to another point of view.

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 once was unexpectedly asked to cover for a team member during Benefits Open Enrollment. There was a new benefit package of which the details I knew very little about and had zero time to learn. We had 400 employees, and in those days, you could show up to Open Enrollment, ask questions and fill your paperwork out in person or mail it in. When approached by an employee I gave the most obscure response that made a few people in the line giggle. Honestly, I went totally blank out of panic and can’t even remember the exact words. After the now misinformed employee moved to the next line for FSA Dependent care, the Benefits Manager came over to me, pulled me aside and shared the right answer. She did this privately, without frustration and didn’t have me lose creditability. She could have shouted ‘Dominique, what on Earth are you saying!” But instead, she simply helped me better understand what the answer should be. I found the person I had misinformed and gave her what she needed; lesson learned. It is OK to say you don’t have the answer, but you will get that for them as soon as possible. I also learned never to embarrass a co-worker in front of group of people. The same graciousness that was shown to me I try to give others.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I advise others to see and treat each employee or team member as an individual, rather than categorizing them. For example, the tolerance and breaking point of one individual may not be the same for another. A cookie cutter approach may leave you wondering why you have a resignation letter from an employee who you just promoted or gave a bonus. Do some active listening, listen with your eyes as well as with your ears. Observe behaviors because body language and even tone of voice speaks volumes. A worn out and drained employee often looks it. Also, prioritize your assignments. Not everything needs to be a fire drill. And then if everything is urgent, look at your project planning and communications. Figure out where you need to adjust or delegate to others.

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?

COVID-19 has made seasoned professionals out of all of us. I spent about 7–10 plus years working with remote staff divided into regions across different parts of the country. But having the entire organization completely remote was very new.

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

  1. Time management: Chances are, staff members feel like their workdays never end. My advice — help them set boundaries. Encourage your people to set boundaries — to establish a set finish time and stick with it. There will be exceptions, yet everyday can’t be an exception.
  2. Communication breakdowns across teams: Project ownership can appear vague without face-to-face time. Require project owners who provide timely updates. Perhaps even a RACI (roles and responsibilities) chart which will help delineate who is responsible for what. Research and invest in project management tools. Set up processes that suit your company and be responsive to inquiries. These tips will help alleviate disjointed communications.
  3. Technology mishaps: Keep your technology and equipment current and do what it takes to stay on top of it. Some aspects of remote/work from home may be out of your control like the internet speed in someone’s home, but the things you can control, you should. Examples include migrating to the Cloud and offering stipends for individuals to adapt as they need to at home.
  4. Distractions at Home: The pandemic forced some parents to become teachers as well. This has been a major source of workplace disruption for many. Give these employees a flexible work schedule. They may need to be offline from 10:00 am -1:00pm but will be make up those hours later in the afternoon. They need to be clear with others when they will be off and online so other colleagues know when to find them. Consistency is important here, because if staff can’t reach this individual that may become another source of frustration.
  5. Dealing with the unknown: Everyday will present new challenges. Many organizations went from in person conferences to virtual overnight. What teams need to know is that when change occurs you, as their leader, will keep them informed. Give them a voice as buy-in matter. Send out pulse surveys for feedback. Pivoting on a dime has proven to be necessary in the workplace. Pivoting with your team intact will prove to be essential to your survival.

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 works best only after you’ve had a conversation. Pick up the phone. Emails are easily misunderstood and often are. Use the email message to ensure that the individual heard what you discussed. The email can also serve as the guide to next steps.

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?

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. Set clear goals and expectations and take the time to go over objectives and the expected key results.

You will have to take time to get to know each team member and be transparent. Getting to know each team member demonstrates respect for the individual and being transparent in all your communications builds a culture of trust.

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?

Encourage connectivity among even your smallest teams. Having all employees on a Zoom call might be necessary for an All Hands meeting or a Town Hall, but real connectivity within smaller teams is priceless. Within your teams have at least one watercooler meeting a week and check in on the members. Don’t discuss work! You have plenty of other meetings for that. If you ran into them in the cafeteria what would you talk about? Pick a topic and run with it. You might be surprised by what you learn about your teammates.

Make culture a priority. Internal diversity and inclusion programs should continue to run. Conduct Unconscious Bias programs which will help train your managers to be more conscientious leaders. Over the past year FARE has taken a look at how news headlines on the topic of race impact on staff. All staff members at the level of Director took Unconscious Bias workshop which helped them recognize and understand implicit biases. These workshops provide tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking and ultimately work towards the elimination of discriminatory behaviors. Also make sure your organization shows support both internally and externally communities of color. Get involved within your areas of expertise in the community. Equity Equals Excellence — A Blueprint for Access is the result of a series of dedicated discussions and thoughtful reflections around the important issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access and how to address racial equity in Food Allergy.

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 would inspire what I call “compassionate reflections.” 2020 was a year like no other. When we think back on the lessons learned, I continue to hear anger and resentment in people’s reflections and commentary. To move forward, we need more compassion in our thought process on all fronts.

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

I have two life lesson quotes. The first is, You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. — CS Lewis

In HR there are often stops and starts, reorganizations, layoffs, company shut-downs, new leadership, and reduced benefits programs. You may very well walk into a situation you did not create. However, I love this quote from CS Lewis, as it reassures me that as we deal with staff and change, always take the time to assess and acknowledge what has occurred and vow to do differently, one step at a time. Build realistic milestones and make the staff part of the new direction in which your organization is heading.

My second life lesson quote is Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. — Jack Welch

I’ve always been fortunate to work under remarkable leaders. These women and men have been great at opening the “door of opportunity” for others. But what makes them even more remarkable is not only how they lead but also how they recover when initiatives or ideas do not go well. As I observed and emulated these leaders, I focused on what they did well, yet my greatest lessons were gained by how they recovered from mistakes. One of the most important contributions I can make in my field is to develop and grow the organizations’ most valuable asset — its people.

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