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Jonathan Slain: “Exhaustibility”

With our employees, we always want to make sure that they’re providing a return on investment, in other words that the expense the business has in paying their staff is returned as profit. This calculation of return on investment when it comes to staff was easier before Coronavirus. Today, we have to question if people […]

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With our employees, we always want to make sure that they’re providing a return on investment, in other words that the expense the business has in paying their staff is returned as profit. This calculation of return on investment when it comes to staff was easier before Coronavirus. Today, we have to question if people are as productive working remotely as before. Do we still get a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Is the reduction in productivity due to remote work or due to a reduced demand for products and services globally since this is the worst recession in history.


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

Jonathan Slain spent the Great Recession huddled in the fetal position on the floor of his office. He borrowed 250,000 dollars from his mother-in-law to survive. Jonathan paid his mother-in-law back and is now a highly sought-after consultant (and, yes, he’s still married!). Jonathan leverages his experience in investment banking and as an entrepreneur on the keynote speaking circuit because he doesn’t want anyone else to have to borrow money from their mother-in-law in the next recession.


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 am a recovering investment banker! This was my first real job after college doing mergers and acquisitions work in Cleveland. Since then, I’ve owned gyms and I’ve travelled the country working with management teams on strategic planning. I average about 100 sessions of all day planning per year, meaning that I now have close to 5,000 hours of helping teams figure out how to grow and prosper!

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

I SURVIVED THE GREAT RECESSION BY BORROWING A QUARTER OF A MILLION DOLLARS FROM MY MOTHER-IN-LAW! I owned a number of franchises of something called Fitness Together. These personal training studios did great at first — we grew very fast, opening several new locations. Our studios achieved new franchise records every year. It felt like we couldn’t miss! In 2008, we set a world record for the most personal training sessions ever in the history of the franchise, and later the most locations ever. We just grew and grew and grew… Until we ran into the Great Recession.

The only reason we survived at all was that I borrowed over 250,000 dollars from my mother-in-law. Amazingly, I’m still married, and I have paid back what I owed at this point. But it was bad.

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

Coronavirus’ biggest advantage is its patience. The virus doesn’t get bored or stir crazy, it simply waits for us to make mistakes, to lower our guard and that’s when we spread it. Our best defense is social distancing and masks, but both of these solutions result in dehumanizing interactions! For CEOs and founders to thrive, we need to dig deep, find another gear inside of ourselves and offer comfort and hope to all of the people that trust us enough to work for and with us. By serving others who are having a tougher time in the pandemic than we are, we win.

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 been consulting full time for four years for companies all over the country. In that time, I have worked with my clients in person and remotely.

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?

Accountability — Managing people is hard enough when you can meet with them face to face, explain the task at hand, give them the opportunity to ask questions and then follow up to check in on progress. When people are working at home, how can you make sure they are doing their work? One of the companies that I work with on strategic planning was recently lamenting that the software developers that they employ are supposed to write a daily update on what they are working on so that management can track their hours and hold them accountable. Often, these updates are generic (probably copy and pasted from prior updates) and refer their managers to other documents. In other words, “today, I worked on the coding specified in our project timeline.” For a manager to get value out of this update, the manager would have to find the project timeline, open it, find the employee’s scheduled task and cross reference it with the code the employee wrote that day.

The solution is to give your employees more guidance on what a good update looks like, a template to complete it and an explanation of why it is important (and, hopefully the why you give them is something better than “I want to make sure you’re not just eating Doritos all day on our dime…)

Bankability — With our employees, we always want to make sure that they’re providing a return on investment, in other words that the expense the business has in paying their staff is returned as profit. This calculation of return on investment when it comes to staff was easier before Coronavirus. Today, we have to question if people are as productive working remotely as before. Do we still get a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Is the reduction in productivity due to remote work or due to a reduced demand for products and services globally since this is the worst recession in history.

To combat these questions of bankability it’s important for us to think thru new metrics to measure success. As leaders, we need to provide our people with a clear measure of how they “win” each day when they logon to start working. They need to know clearly how far they have to move the ball for us to get a “first down.” Clear measurables are even more important during Coronavirus and paradoxically seem to be less available.

Comfortability — The number of Zoom users has gone up 20X since the start of the pandemic according to iPhone Life Magazine. And, we are all still learning best practices on how to be comfortable on video calls. What’s the right protocol? Can we dress more casually? Do we always have to have the video on? What’s an acceptable video background? Should I look at the camera or at the other person while I speak? Being on camera isn’t comfortable, it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated. I write this with the news of Regis Philbin’s death on in the background. He set the Guinness World Record for most hours on TV (17,000ish) and his comfortability on screen is testament to that volume of practice.

I recommend that teams default to having the video on during calls because the reward of face to face human connection is more important than the pain of poorly lit backdrops! And, if one person is on video, everyone should be on video (it’s only fair, unless you’re driving and can’t help it…) But, I also like the idea that every once in a while, it’s OK to just doing a regular old phone call. Not EVERY call has to be a video chat these days!

Dependability — Let’s face it, things come up when we’re working from home. In one day, I had visits from: FedEx, UPS, Postal Carrier, Amazon, a guy trying to sell pest control services door to door (I sent him on his way), gardener, Poop911 for dog waste (I understand it’s lazy, but we have a doberman…), and my parents. All of these interruptions caused me to pause my day and answer the door. A few times, I had to ask a video call to hold for a moment. And, it’s currently the summertime when school isn’t in session. When our kids start school again (right now they’re telling us they will attend in person in the mornings and do virtual school at home in the afternoons) all bets are off since the kids interrupt my work every 10 minutes with a homework question (most of them legit, some just asking if they can watch Dobre Brothers on Youtube after they finish their schoolwork…)

For me, I ripped apart my guest bedroom in January, when the pandemic was first starting, and converted it to a virtual studio. A room where I could put in multiple video cameras, lights, and audio equipment to improve the experience of video conferences. Over the past six months, this 15’x15’ bedroom has been transformed into a studio. I use it to conduct strategic consulting (EOS™ Traction sessions with my clients), to film television and podcast interviews, as well as conduct virtual coaching sessions with clients. More importantly, it has a door that can be shut! My family knows that when the door is closed, they shouldn’t interrupt unless they’re bleeding!

Exhaustibility — Let’s be honest, a day full of remote work is isolating and can be exhausting. How much can we take? My goal in building a virtual studio in my house was to improve the experience of a virtual meeting for my clients and myself! I wanted to experiment with how to use hardware, software, and ingenuity to make video meetings more fun, engaging, and productive. Perhaps the highest compliment that I’ve received was from a top sales executive at one of my clients who said “I was suspect of conducting an all-day online meeting, but Jonathan far exceeded my expectations. The way that he integrated technology made it very entertaining. Keeping a sales guy engaged for six hours over Zoom is quite a feat!” — Mike Barrett, Sales Director at TestOil.

After all of the effort to research the right equipment for the studio, install it (often with the help of professionals), and make plenty of mistakes (lots of trial and error and returns to Amazon and other equipment vendors), I wanted to share the current layout. I’m not expecting that everyone will want to go off the deep end like I did with this build-out, but my hope is that you’ll pick out a few elements that are right for your situation. www.AutobahnConsultants.com/VirtualTour

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