Julie Rinard of J Consulting Group: “Authenticity and Empathy”

Engagement starts with a clear mission and vision and make sure everyone buys into it and understands how they are expected to help achieve the mission. When this is truly understood, no one has to be micro-managed. For many years, I worked in a different location from my leadership team and there were times when […]

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Engagement starts with a clear mission and vision and make sure everyone buys into it and understands how they are expected to help achieve the mission. When this is truly understood, no one has to be micro-managed. For many years, I worked in a different location from my leadership team and there were times when I went for a week at a time without speaking to the executive I directly reported to. He valued me because he knew that if he had to focus on other priorities, I would take ownership of my part of the world and continue driving things forward without being prodded on a daily basis.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Rinard, a Product Management consultant who has been aProduct Management Executive for Global Fortune 500 companies and startups across many industries. She’s also an Advisory Board member for Compete Co. and CloudAdvisors, as well as a Mentor to startup founders at Chicago’s 1871 Innovation Hub.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m probably the least likely person to become a Digital Technology leader. I was an introverted graphic designer who was also a strong left-brain thinker. A friend referred me to what seemed like an interesting, but possibly dull role working in a variable data-driven print innovation center. Little did I know, being open-minded and taking the leap of faith to step out of a creative role opened up a world of opportunity, introduced me to amazing people, and exposed me to a broad scope of business and technology experiences few get to see in their careers. I’m extremely grateful!

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

I was looking for a Social Media Analytics partner to round out our Digital Product and solutions offering at RR Donnelley and happened to stumble upon a local company in Western New York that had developed a leading-edge multilingual contextual analytics engine, powered by machine learning and natural language processing. I had a partnership conversation with the Founder/CEO and came away with a job offer to join the early stage startup, Content Savvy — another leap of faith!

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

Seeing as we’re this early into the interview, and I’ve already called out two leaps of faith, a quote from Wayne Gretzky comes to mind “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” That mindset has enabled me to push out of my comfort zone professionally and personally to find the most rewarding experiences.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In her book, “Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how important it is to have a champion in your career. I was an individual contributor and manager at RRD, tucked away in a under-the-radar business for several years. My boss assigned me to a corporate project, which I could have easily declined, given my jammed schedule. The project exposed me to the CTO, Mary Lee Schneider and some of her fantastic team, Roe McFarlane, and Ronnie Sarkar. Months afterward, I joined Roe’s Product Management organization. After Content Savvy sold, I jumped at the opportunity to join Mary Lee and Roe again at Follett, and then followed Mary Lee to SG360°. I’m grateful for learning the craft of Product Management, Innovation Management, and leading cross-functional, dispersed teams toward common goals. Most of all, I’m grateful for their tremendous humanity. It was my first opportunity to see authenticity and empathy in global executive leadership.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

When a team is all together, you can have spontaneous break-out or water-cooler discussions. One also can’t underestimate the power of “reading the room” during a difficult discussion, and it’s energizing to have lively design discussions at a whiteboard where so many of those “a-HA!” moments occur. Finally, spending time with someone in-person is a way to really get the essence of who they are as a person.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Engagement is a challenge. People can end up multi-tasking and being distracted in many ways. You lose the spontaneity and miss out on the “vibe” of a room.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

You will notice I’m not going to talk about the latest new collaboration technology in my responses. Poor management, leadership, and culture are merely being exposed in our 100% remote world now, and I feel that without basic leadership skills, technology becomes an enabler of micro-management vs. a way of fostering collaboration. You’ve got to get a few basic things right:

  1. Engagement starts with a clear mission and vision and make sure everyone buys into it and understands how they are expected to help achieve the mission. When this is truly understood, no one has to be micro-managed. For many years, I worked in a different location from my leadership team and there were times when I went for a week at a time without speaking to the executive I directly reported to. He valued me because he knew that if he had to focus on other priorities, I would take ownership of my part of the world and continue driving things forward without being prodded on a daily basis.
  2. Not every meeting has to be a large group meeting, an hour-long meeting, or an on-camera meeting. Create a comfortable, safe space in which to communicate with teams. There are people who just won’t speak up in a large group, but their input is so valuable, so discussing things one-on-one might be best. No one wants to be in needlessly-long meetings — it only invites disengagement and multi-tasking. I can recall working in cultures where half-day and full-day meetings were common. People would show up, grab a seat at the table, plunk their laptops down in front of them and start typing away on other things. We all know people who have pretty much spent their careers tuning out and just “listening in” on meetings day in and day out without contributing much. Shortly after I started working in the Financial Services industry, I was notified by compliance that my product release would likely be delayed for months because I was required to perform a risk assessment. My colleagues winced when they told me it would probably take weeks just to get all the various cross-functional groups in the same room for several hours. Instead of holding one big meeting, I broke it down into 30-minute meetings with 2–3 people in each, which allowed the assessment and the mitigation plan to be completed in 30 days and kept the product release on-schedule. I think keeping meetings short and concise is even more important with 100% remote teams. I challenge you to keep breakout meeting invitees as few as possible and only add as many things to the agenda as you can cover in 30-minutes or less. You will be amazed by how much you can accomplish.
  3. Authenticity and Empathy — Take a little more time catching up on life and allow your colleagues to see you in your own environment. Talk about the big game or latest Netflix series, or the latest milestones in their children’s development. Laugh when a pet jumps onto the scene. some ways, watching people interact with family and pets puts them in a new light and levels the playing field. Learn the signs of a teammate who might be stressed or struggling. I promise, even when the pandemic is under control, everyone gets their turn at experiencing life-changing events that seep into their workday. I have always found that if a team member has a family emergency, it is so much better to ease their stress-level by telling them it’s ok to drop everything and just go take care of what they need to take care of, then regroup and come back and focus on work. I’ve never regretted being empathetic during stressful times and have found doing so pays back in loyalty and team members who are willing to go above and beyond.
  4. Group your communications to allow your team time to work without distractions. Keep a running list of things you want to address with the team or an individual. Do you really need to be flinging emails or chats out in real-time every time a thought enters your head, or every time you have a question? I worked for a VP who was an organized communicator. He would call me to hear what my daily punch-list was and then re-align priorities if there was a pressing issue in the morning. After a brief call, we were both off and running.
  5. Have your team members develop their own plan for their piece of the project or initiative and then agree to timing and check-in milestones. If the plan is going astray, they have to feel safe escalating risks and issues in a timely fashion. If you have my first tip, mission and vision, right, then this part will happen naturally and save you from the micro-management trap.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Most companies that I communicate with have been providing reimbursement for personal cell phones since well before the pandemic. To maintain privacy and separate personal calls from business, call forwarding from a corporate phone number is a common practice. Minor hiccups from internet outages or video meeting delays due to increased demands on bandwidth are the only things I’ve noticed.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Hands-down screen share and whiteboarding/drawing features are the best enablers of design discussions.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

It would be wonderful to be able to thread all related conversations together, regardless of where they take place: email, slack, webmeeting, text, chat, phone, etc. and be able to search and archive on or retrieve any topic, client name, etc., similar to how omnichannel customer journeys are integrated across channels and devices, from a marketing perspective. Why not have omnichannel, employee journey integration?

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Absolutely! I’ve touched on it in my response above. I’ve used platforms that allow text and voice messages to be sent to email, but conversations are occurring in so many places and sometimes hard to recall or retrieve from archive by topic. I think there’s a great opportunity to expand the technology beyond where it is today.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

Holographic technology that allows a remote technician to guide an onsite non-subject matter expert to repair a device is fascinating, minimizing travel expenses and down-time. AR/VR conference rooms have been around for well-over a decade yet haven’t been widely adopted. However, I can see that adoption will increase as companies opt to stay 100% remote.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

We’re human beings who thrive on human contact. I’d hate to lose sight of that.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

All interactions with customers have moved to digital where many used to take place in-person. Consulting work was often performed onsite in clients’ offices.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with 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 team member?

I have to admit that when I started doing one-on-one video meetings frequently, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I found them so awkward. Then I realized that I sit much closer to my monitor than I would ever sit when directly across from someone at an in-person meeting. It’s like “close-talking” all day long, an invasion of personal space. If it’s easy to handle a challenging topic or provide feedback with cameras are off, then do whatever is most effective.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Spend a little more time at the start of meetings talking about life. Care about each other as human beings. Have team meetings so that team members can collaborate on projects. At a leading Edtech provider, my product teams had never had group meetings and had little exposure to remote teams in other product lines. Just by sharing the highlights in weekly meetings, they inspired each other and quickly found ways to create more value by integrating products.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. 🙂

Just be good humans! Commit to helping someone everyday, whether it’s someone looking for a job, an overwhelmed co-worker, or an entry-level associate who needs mentorship. Be graceful and empathetic to yourself and team members when life creeps in or our sanity is challenged. However, we also have to balance that with doing the work we’re paid to do, so being a good human means holding yourself accountable and keeping your end of the bargain. Even without the pandemic, everyone gets their share of life-changing non-work crises that prevent us from being our best. Keep that in mind. Great teams pick up the slack, but it has to be a two-way street. It’s a balancing act.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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