Clarity: I know I’ve mentioned this before, but clarity is crucial. With remote working, it can be quite difficult to “read” people’s emotions and understand their body language (we all know video conferencing isn’t always the best for understanding how people really think and feel). That’s why it’s so important to provide clarity to your team and to communicate information very clearly. That way, there’s no guessing — or second guessing — involved.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Drew Carter, President of Maritz Motivation.
Drew is single-minded about creating massive value for clients. He’s spent more than 20 years in senior advisory and executive roles, transforming some of the largest companies in the world. His patent for measuring and optimizing the effectiveness of marketing is an example of his focus on innovation. As President of Maritz Motivation, he is committed to leveraging science, technology and data to deliver actionable behavior insights — empowering clients to lead change in their industries.
Incentive Magazine named Drew one of the most influential leaders in the incentive and recognition industry. He brings his passion and energy to the Board of Directors for Achievement Awards Group, Impact Dimensions and Quality Rewards Travel.
Drew has a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and Business Management from the University of Kansas. He also has a Masters of Business Administration from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you for joining us in this interview series, Drew. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I like to say that I’ve worn a lot of hats throughout my career — I’ve lived many places, tried many things, and truly believe each opportunity has led me to my next.
After college, I dabbled in accounting as an auditor. I learned pretty quickly that accounting was not the industry for me. I may love numbers, but I needed work that tapped into the right hemisphere of my brain a bit more. From there, I upended my life here in the U.S. and took a job in Brussels at a startup telecommunications company that worked on providing data services to companies throughout Europe. Because I savor the challenge and am always up for a new adventure, I left to attend business school at Wharton, then took a job in San Francisco, and then I moved to New York to take a job at a quantitative analytics shop. I was recruited to join a management consulting firm in New York and helped spearhead and create its digital practice from the ground up. Maritz Motivation was a client of mine, and when I helped to create and design the roadmap for their digital transformation, they asked me to come and lead it. It was certainly an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’ve been at Maritz Motivation for three years, and this organization inspires me on a daily basis. I love what I get to do every single day — work with my intelligent colleagues to understand the root causes around people’s behaviors and what motivates a person to change his or her behaviors and actions. We get to work every day on finding ways to unlock people’s potential, and there is nothing more rewarding than that.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I was at Opera Solutions in 2008, Netflix offered one million dollars to any group that could double the accuracy of its CineMatch engine, which was an algorithm used to predict specific movies and shows subscribers would like. Forty thousand different teams from around the world entered. It took three years of intense work, but we ended up tying for first place with Bell Labs. It was a mathematical tie, which is almost impossible, so you can imagine how stunned we all were. Of course there couldn’t be two winners, so they used the time of day the companies submitted their responses to determine who would take first place. Bell Labs submitted theirs just 20 minutes before ours, giving them one million dollars and bragging rights. However, we got more sympathy press and recognition than Bell Labs did for their actual victory, so I considered it a win-win for all.
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?
My funniest mistake was also my most humbling. When I joined Maritz Motivation three years ago, I was asked to address the company at a big gathering. This was the first time I had ever been on stage to address a group of more than 1,000 people — many who had no idea who I was or who may have been skeptical of the new guy in charge. Whether it was nerves or just a lack of reading the room, I told a joke to kick things off. Apparently, it was a pretty bad joke because no one laughed. I had 1,000 blank faces staring at me.
Luckily, I rebounded, but it definitely taught me something. It taught me that it’s not about me — it’s about each and every one of my colleagues. I should have thought about what they might want to hear, and I should’ve talked to my colleagues before my speech to listen to what they might be interested in hearing. Emotion is such a hard thing to steer, so it’s important to try and put yourself in other people’s shoes.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’m a big believer in these three things, which I think help to not only avoid burnout amongst colleagues, but will also help to maintain engagement and authenticity:
- Clarity: Employees want clarity on what’s happening at your company, even it’s not what they want to hear. Leaders should always be transparent, tell employees what the plan is, and make them feel like they are a part of it all.
- Compassion: Employees want to know you care — it’s as simple as that. No one wants a tin man as a leader. Show you care for the people who deliver for you each and every day. This is especially important for mission-driven companies like Maritz Motivation.
- Control: People desire control in some way, shape or form. I think we’ve all felt a lack of control given the current crisis in the country. A full lack of control can lead employees into a negative head space and into a downward spiral. Try to give employees as much control as you can to make their own choices.
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?
I’ve actually had quite a bit of experience in managing remote teams — 14 years to be exact. But, managing remote teams then versus managing remote teams during a global pandemic is certainly a different ball game.
At my previous job, I managed teams in other parts of the world. Aside from the time zone challenges, we would see each other several times a year and ensure we received the face time that was desperately needed. COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we work, not only now, but I think for the foreseeable future as well.
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?
I certainly think there are myriad challenges when it comes to managing a remote team, but with a lot of work and a lot of heart, it is definitely possible to be successful.
- Clarity: I know I’ve mentioned this before, but clarity is crucial. With remote working, it can be quite difficult to “read” people’s emotions and understand their body language (we all know video conferencing isn’t always the best for understanding how people really think and feel). That’s why it’s so important to provide clarity to your team and to communicate information very clearly. That way, there’s no guessing — or second guessing — involved.
- Empathy: Empathy is always important, but it’s even more important during these difficult times. Trying to describe the “why” is challenging when you’re working remote. It’s harder to peel back the layers and dig deep when you’re not face to face.
- Nuance: I love to explain this one with Brene Brown’s wise words “paint done.” This term of hers refers to being explicit. It creates space for input from all parties while also being very explicit on what you need and want. Nuance is so hard to pick up on remotely, which can make for a messy situation when it comes to expectations.
- My “Team One”: I think of my “Team One” as the people who have my back. The people who support me, encourage me, and want to help — that means everyone in my company! When we’re remote, our sense of “Team One” can decline unless we make it an explicit priority. I try very hard to make sure everyone understands the critical role they play for the company.
- Expectations/Culture: As with any company, the longer you are there, the more you understand the work environment, culture and people. If you’re relatively new to a company and are working remotely, it’s very hard to understand this and adapt.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
I think the first and most important thing to address is that these are NOT normal times. We’re in unchartered waters, and because of that, you might have to do things differently than you’ve done them before. During a time of crisis such as this, the command and control process fails. Think of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Did you know there were two power plants eight kilometers apart? Both experienced the same threats. One plant, Fukushima Daiichi, experienced three core meltdowns, unmeasurable damage and cost. The other plant, Fukushima Daini, had zero meltdowns. The difference was leadership style. Daiichi was characterized by authoritarian, top-down decision making focused on traditional rules. Daini pivoted to be empathetic and data-centric, changing policies based on new information. It’s about being nimble, agile and adjusting quickly. Here are some tips I have for making remote working more successful.
- Everyone should do a little self-evaluation. You need to figure out how you want to show up to work each day.
- You have to get creative — maybe even more creative than you’ve been in the past. At Maritz Motivation, one of our jobs is to help companies reward their most motivated employees. Often times, we do this through sending their best salespeople on extravagant trips. This has obviously been prohibited during the global pandemic, so we had to think outside the box. We launched a new curated box called “Amaze Crates” that is sent out to top performing folks at companies. It’s full of hand-selected gifts that are tailored to each person. A little bit of creativity can go a long way.
- Just because we’re all working remotely, don’t let your culture slip. You may not be throwing a baby or bridal shower in the office, but don’t skip it. Acknowledge people in new ways. Throw a virtual shower, send a gift to that person’s house. We just recognized our own salespeople by sending bottles of champagne to everyone’s house for a virtual awards ceremony. Culture is more important now than it has ever been.
- When it comes nuance and expectations, there is so much that happens at a company that is what I like to call “tribal spirit” — the implicit knowledge that comes from working together, face-to-face. Try hard to think about communicating this “tribal spirit” remotely. There is so much implicit knowledge at companies, so we have to work even harder to be super clear and acknowledge and respect one another.
- Make it a point to be empathetic. It’s important to try and understand what people are going through. They may be juggling kids, other household responsibilities, e-learning and more — all while trying to be present at work. During this time, I’ve learned that being vulnerable as a leader and sharing my own personal challenges has helped me to be more relatable and approachable to my colleagues. Being understanding and compassionate is what it’s all about.
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?
I truly feel that giving feedback is a gift, but many people don’t have the well-developed skills needed to give that feedback or receive that feedback. This is a time when nuance and empathy matter most.
I just recently had a feedback session, and here’s the struggle. It’s harder for people to trust or understand where you’re coming from, especially when you’re not physically together. So, being explicit about expectations during a feedback session is critical — tell people what they need to do to absolutely kill it in their current role, and tell them exactly what growth looks like for them.
I liken feedback to mealtime with my kids. The easy route would be to let them eat pie, cake and sugar for dinner — all the things they beg for each night. It’s easy to give in and not argue, but it also will be really painful in the long term (hello tummy-aches and sugar rushes right before bedtime). It’s the same thing with development. It’s hard to give feedback, but it’s critical for long term growth and development. Don’t just think about the easy, fast route — think about what the long-term implications will be and use that as your guide.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I would counter this by saying don’t ever give constructive feedback over email. It should always be on a video call so you can be face-to-face.
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?
The good news is that every single person is in this together. Whether you’ve worked remotely in the past or not, we’re all dealing with a new way of working. Here are a few of my tips to avoid potential obstacles:
- The sheer technology and logistics of working remotely can be largely overwhelming. Consider having someone from your IT or tech team conduct a Tech 101 to teach colleagues the ins and outs of the systems you’ll be using on a daily basis.
- Consistency is key. People start to feel lost or out of control if their daily schedule is rocked. Even though you’re working remote, keep your weekly and bi-weekly meetings. It will help to bring structure and routine to everyone’s day.
- Be empathetic. You might hear screaming children or barking dogs — or you might see the occasional kiddo running behind your colleague during a video call. Everyone is trying to adjust to the new normal, so embrace the craziness with your colleagues.
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?
The key is including everyone in the process of defining what a healthy and empowering work culture looks like. The process of defining what that looks like is the most important. If you include everyone, it’s not my definition or your definition — it’s our definition, collectively. Most people want a lot of the same things, and you’ll be able to identify that by going through a defined process.
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. 🙂
This is a tough one. There is so much going on in our world right now. While there are a lot of things that are challenging and difficult to digest, I have been trying to look for the good — the silver linings — that have come out of everything we’ve recently been experiencing.
My family has been spending quite a bit of time together, just like everyone else. And while my two sons have always had a massive sibling rivalry, it’s certainly been intensified within these close quarters. During their whole lives, and especially now, we’ve been talking a lot about not judging each other and not judging others. My two boys are different people with different interests. And that’s great. I try to teach them that judging each other for being different — or judging anyone for being different — is a wasted effort. We’re all valuable. We all bring something to the table. If we could expand this notion to everyone, the world would certainly be a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure that I have a favorite life lesson quote, but I do have this to offer. Empathy is everything. And when you combine empathy with innovation, that’s when you really have the secret sauce.
Two people who really inspire me are Elon Musk and Brene Brown. If you take the innovation from Elon Musk and the empathy from Brene Brown, magic will happen.