John Appleby of Avantra: “Picking up on Cues”

Picking up on Cues– You have to check in on your team and allow them to speak up about issues. While this may happen in the physical office, this can often get lost in the remote-work shuffle. As leaders, you must ask: Does my team have the right tools to get the job done? Sometimes, […]

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Picking up on Cues– You have to check in on your team and allow them to speak up about issues. While this may happen in the physical office, this can often get lost in the remote-work shuffle. As leaders, you must ask: Does my team have the right tools to get the job done? Sometimes, the question is a bit more challenging. For example, does working from home, with your family, create an environment that makes it difficult for your team member to focus? These conversations can range from simple to complicated, however, the conversation is necessary to ensure your team has what they need to effectively do their job and produce great results.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Appleby.

John Appleby leads Avantra as the Chief Executive Officer. John helps Fortune 500 companies with digital transformation on SAP HANA. Prior to Avantra, John served as the global head of DDM/HANA center of excellence at SAP and as the global head of SAP HANA solutions at Bluefin Solutions. A recognized thought leader in the SAP market, John holds an MA in computer science from the University of Cambridge.

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

One of the most exciting moments in my life occurred during the transitional phase from college into the corporate world. I found myself encountering a few false starts as I began navigating my professional career. After graduation, I took a lucrative position as a contractor in the U.K. with a notable tech company. However, after a short stint, I decided to bet on myself. I made my way to South America in an attempt to start my own business. Unfortunately, the timing was not quite right, and I found myself back to square one in the U.K. job market just as the boom was taking shape, and massive growth and adoption of the Internet was underway. Still, to control my living expenses while taking a second stab at entrepreneurship, I found myself working and living within an art commune. The commune eventually became the place where I built my first IT business and made lifelong friends. It was quite an unusual situation; living in a small space above a dance studio while building my first business from nothing. I learned quite a bit about resilience during those tough times, and that has helped me right up to the present day.

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

One in five employed adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health issue, which could be anything like depression, anxiety, or insomnia. As a CEO, I believe it’s essential to understand that no one is immune to this. Stress, exhaustion, and adrenaline overload are symptoms that impact our mental health. Regardless of your title, position, or career, it’s crucial to recognize why you feel jumpy, easily angered, or suddenly anxious, and to address it immediately or it will become an ongoing issue. The role of a CEO, in particular, can become extremely stressful and all-consuming that I’ve come to realize this is just a job. There is more to life than the work you do. Many people find themselves mentally drained and burned out because they associate their successes with their careers. If they don’t close a deal, margins fail to increase or sales stall, and they carry the thought that these outcomes are a reflection of their self-worth. This is far from the truth.

The secret to leading is understanding that as a CEO, you cannot do it all. I believe building a reliable team can help alleviate the weight that comes with the role. For example, I know that I can count on our Chief Financial Officer and our Chief Technology Officer to handle particular parts of the business, and this alone allows me to let go. To thrive and avoid burnout means doing the best you can at your job, delegate where necessary, and finding peace with that. Creating moments to connect with your children or partner after work, and taking pleasure in the things you enjoy are paramount and extend far beyond a stellar profit and loss report.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience 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 often say I’m the youngest of the Gen Y generation or the oldest Millennial, depending on how you frame it. I grew up learning to type before I could write because I had a computer in my home, and technology was a huge deal for my family. In college, I studied computer technology and had the opportunity to work remotely with people from around the world. Since that time, I’ve worked remotely with teams of more than 40 people. So, this reliance on telework doesn’t feel different to me. However, I am thrilled to see that it is becoming more commonplace and accepted across various industries beyond the tech space.

Managing a team remotely can be very different from 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 many factors that must be considered to create a great virtual culture for your existing team and new hires. I have a few tips that have helped me lead our current team and onboard fantastic remote talent:

  1. Energy and Use of Video Technology — While the rise of Zoom has helped save businesses during this unprecedented time, I believe everyone can admit that Zoom fatigue has set in. Video calls require an added level of focus that is not needed when you are face to face. Participants have to work harder to process non-verbal cues like tone and pitch of someone’s voice, facial expressions, and body language. Additionally, knowing when to use video and when not to use it is essential. We encourage our team to implement video calls when needed and let their team members know it’s okay if they don’t want to appear on video. Even with all of this at play, energy is important. To keep your team engaged and happy, don’t be afraid to use the phone to communicate directly with team members, reduce back to back calls, and encourage your team to take frequent breaks. This helps with resetting the mind and body, making way for the positive disposition everyone will want to experience on your next virtual meeting.
  2. Hiring Remotely — When hiring a remote team member, leaders not only have to consider whether this person will be a great fit in the office, but also a great remote employee. It’s certainly a new way of thinking about talent; however, it is necessary. I recently interviewed a candidate, who — in hindsight — would have been hired if we’d interviewed him in person; however, his virtual interview did not go as well. He was extremely nervous and uncomfortable, which struck me as odd during our conversation. Once the interview ended, I provided him with advice letting him know he would need to get accustomed to this interviewing style. One question to consider here is: Can your new hire handle the remote aspects of the position?
  3. Remote ‘First-Timers’– The transition to remote work has been painful for many employees who were used to an office routine. For this segment of the workforce, it’s hard to strike a balance when “work is home.” What was once their bedroom or kitchen table is now their office. So, when do they “turn off?” As a leader, you have to be mindful that some of your employees may not be emotionally prepared to transition to remote work. Providing your team with resources or creating hard stop times (a timeframe where emails and correspondence closes for the day) may help your employees become more accustomed to their new routine.
  4. Picking up on Cues– You have to check in on your team and allow them to speak up about issues. While this may happen in the physical office, this can often get lost in the remote-work shuffle. As leaders, you must ask: Does my team have the right tools to get the job done? Sometimes, the question is a bit more challenging. For example, does working from home, with your family, create an environment that makes it difficult for your team member to focus? These conversations can range from simple to complicated, however, the conversation is necessary to ensure your team has what they need to effectively do their job and produce great results.
  5. Ergonomics in the Home Office — Do your employees have an efficient work environment in their home office? Working from home has taken many forms, with people working from a desk and others sitting on the couch or at their kitchen table during work hours. Having an ergonomically optimized workspace helps your teamwork efficiently and safely. I have a colleague who suffers from RSI (repetitive strain injury) and will never be able to sit at a computer for hours at a time, and code again. Due to RSI, he has to manage the project instead of implementing the work. While may sound superfluous, I believe it’s vital that companies physically check in on their employee’s workspace to make sure they have the appropriate desk (sitting or standing desk) chairs and tools to work efficiently and healthily.

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 the breakfast of champions” — Unknown.

I’ve found that providing constructive feedback can, unfortunately, be viewed as criticism by the person on the other end, whether it happens in person or virtually. First, the best way to provide constructive criticism to a remote employee is to gain multiple perspectives around what you aim to communicate to the recipient. Can other team leaders offer their insights on interactions or projects with the team member? Can they identify areas in which the person excels and where they need work? How does this align with your experience with them? Preparing yourself with these insights ahead of time allows for a well-rounded discussion. Second, always create a specific day and time so that people are prepared to receive the information. Giving critical feedback is not easy, but it’s important. Lastly, give them time to process the information they’ve received and provide them a time to come back to you with a response. The important thing about feedback is that you are helping people understand and learn how to improve.

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

I have a contrarian approach to this, as I don’t believe email to be the best way to give constructive feedback. It’s a great system of record but not an ideal way to communicate. The best way to prevent an email from sounding too critical or too harsh is to write the email and never hit Send. Instead, pick up the phone or schedule a Zoom call to communicate effectively with the person on the receiving end.

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?

I would suggest having a daily stand up with your team. Our team does this the first 15 minutes of every day to connect and interact with each other. The camaraderie is needed in the virtual space since “watercooler” talk is currently on hold. When it comes to “what to avoid,” I believe it’s vital for leaders to understand they cannot replicate what they once had in the office setting. This makes the ability to pivot imperative. For example, everyone will not arrive at their desk at 9 am ready to work. Sure, the commute has been eliminated, and they are working from home. However, you have to think more synchronously. Single parents specifically are being challenged right now. School has become home, and your employees’ significant others are at home, which means they navigate taking care of home life and work at the same time. Give your team members time to adjust and grace for things that can be out of their control.

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?

I manage a team of about 40 employees in various capacities, and I’ve found an essential aspect of creating a healthy and empowering work culture is letting people work autonomously. This means letting people do the best that they can within the time allowed. Employees must have the ability to be assigned work; they can pick up and put down, working through it in their own way. Many team members aren’t used to working this way, and as a leader, you must create a framework for this to occur. Managing results and not activity will help empower your team to work together while being apart and — believe it or not — build a culture of trust and understanding.

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 undoubtedly say, encouraging more women to enter the STEM field. The IT industry is still male-dominated. Even though “much has changed” within the last decade, we have a long way to go as an industry. We must start by removing the biases that exist between men and women, especially in high school. It shows a failure in the education system, and we must work to remove the stigma around women in tech. In many ways, we’ve regressed, especially in light of what’s happening with COVID-19.

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

I received an art gift from an artistic group called Gaping Void a few years ago. The piece has a 1980 slogan from Ford Motor that reads, “Quality isn’t job one, being totally frickin’ amazing is job one.”

Quality isn’t enough anymore. No one wants to be a “quality employee” or a “quality company.” People want to be excellent at what they do and change the world with their ideas. That’s the type of person I’ve always strived to be and the culture I aim to create at Avantra and in my life in general.

Thank you for these great insights!

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