Keelie Segars of Markstein: “People are whole people, not just their work function”

People are whole people, not just their work function. Being detached from a physical space has created barriers for teams, but working through technology has also brought us into each other’s homes as never before. We have a manager with a dog named Ruby who has a favorite squeaky toy and an associate vice president […]

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People are whole people, not just their work function. Being detached from a physical space has created barriers for teams, but working through technology has also brought us into each other’s homes as never before. We have a manager with a dog named Ruby who has a favorite squeaky toy and an associate vice president whose young daughters begin their naps just after lunch. Did you know those types of details about your team members before we moved into a remote environment? I didn’t. Each and every person we work with day in and day out is a whole person. You don’t have to know their personal details, but to effectively communicate with someone you have to meet them where they are. You have to honor that they are not just the tasks that they complete for your company, but a multifaceted person with pressure, joy and sometime sadness that extends beyond the workplace.

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 Keelie Segars.

A seasoned agency leader, Keelie Segars has more than 20 years of experience developing and leading award-winning integrated agency offerings and operations that help clients and teams achieve their goals.

Keelie joined Markstein in 2015 and became CEO in 2019. She leads Markstein’s executive leadership team, setting the vision for the agency’s continued growth and commitment to helping to solve complex business and social challenges — one client at a time.

She steered Markstein’s human resources and operations during a time of double-digit annual growth, creating new offerings and improving agency performance. Keelie also oversaw the advertising strategy and national roll-out of Encompass Health’s new brand, supporting the company’s transformation across 120+ hospitals.

She previously served in account management roles and as director of human resources and director of operations at agencies including Intermark Group, Scout and Luckie. Throughout her career, Keelie has worked across sectors to deliver results for clients. Her work on Mohawk Flooring’s SmartStrand challenge led to sales of more than 50 million yards of SmartStrand carpeting and was recognized as a finalist by The Cannes Festival of Creativity. She also led multi-tiered, integrated programs for Krispy Kreme’s corporate and franchisee communications, including the development of a brand voice and social media platforms.

Keelie holds a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham Southern College with a double major in history and economics. She also completed a course study at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Keble College, Oxford University and has a certificate in human resources from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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?

As a history and economics double major, who did not want to go to law school and worked my way through college, I found myself with a wide array of interests and experience, but little certainty about where to jump into the business world. I had taken marketing electives, started interviewing and was offered a role with a small advertising agency. Agency life was perfect for someone who was curious and ambitious. I was able to work in multiple industries every day and rewarded for driving client success with very few boundaries on my creativity.

Over the years, I have not only worked with clients large and small over a wide variety of vertical markets, I have also followed my career through most facets of agency life from account management to operations and digital to traditional. I’ve watched the industry shift from what was once a creative driven pursuit towards primary audiences, which frequently was hard to quantify, to a highly measurable industry with sophisticated tools to drive many audiences to action.

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

When you build a career in agencies, surrounded by creative and entrepreneurial people there isn’t a most interesting story because every day is an unscripted adventure. Several years ago, a flooring client launched a new carpet with superior stain resistance and durability. Our team was challenged to digitally market this new product with very limited budget. After a lengthy brainstorming process, we decided to partner with a local zoo, carpet a rhinoceros enclosure, stream the experience and launch a digital campaign based on video and social content. That year I spent weeks at the zoo and the next summer we expanded the effort to include elephants and camels. The campaign won international recognition, our client sold millions of yards of carpet and we had a lot of fun. That experience taught me to be careful with your creative ideas, even the ones that seem a little crazy. They can lead to amazing, successful experiences.

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

“If there is no wind, there will be no wave.” — Fortune Cookie

I am a person who has spent my professional lifetime making order out of chaos for our agency and clients. I am drawn to structure, but I have learned over years of working with creative and much less structured personalities that by embracing the crazy and letting go of the reins can bring the most inventive and successful ideas and outcomes.

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?

Early in my career, the CEO of the agency I was working for called me into his office and asked me to begin a human resources department for our agency. Until that point in my career I had worked in marketing and client services. I had no HR experience or, candidly, interests, but he saw something in me and convinced me that this was the next step in my career path. After a year of diligent mentorship, study and certification, we had a strong and thriving HR department that supported employees across multiple states. The CEO drilled into me that in a professional services firm the inventory rides the elevator every day. They are the key to business success.

I only stayed in HR for a few years, but it taught me several important lessons. I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to if I am willing to roll up my sleeves and work hard. I learned that employees across the organization have more in common than they have differences, and they all need support in one way or another. I also learned that you cannot always make everyone happy, but if you frame your business objectives to also support your team, you can have a successful business and team.

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?

Being physically together as a team is all about energy and collaboration. When everyone is regularly in the same space, you get to know your team members as people. You learn how they take notes and when they go to lunch. You build personal relationships. Being in the same physical space also creates opportunities for “water cooler” conversations where it is easier to know what others are working on, where they are finding success or struggling with frustration. Physical proximity creates casual connections and awareness of those within your team that may not be related to shared projects or assignments.

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?

When you are not physically together, the only reason to connect is for a structured purpose, it eliminates the casual relationships outside of business objectives. It can also lead to silos as different workgroups create their own micro-cultures outside of the organization’s larger context.

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.)

  1. A work relationship is still a relationship and relationships take work to be healthy

A few years ago, I had a miscommunication with a co-worker, which lead to some friction. After a necessary, but uncomfortable conversation, we realized the where and how the miscommunication occurred, but not without an emotional toll. After the incident, Danny Markstein our Founder and Chairman reminded me that our relationships with our co-workers are just like any others in our lives, they have their ups and downs and it is through this process that relationships are strengthened or weakened and mature over time. It reset my perspective on my team members and was a reminder that, just as we nurture our relationships with our partners, friends and family members, we also have to work at building and maintaining strong relationships with our work family. The virtual environment has only increased and made more challenging this reality. Relationships take work and the minute you quit caring about them and quit working at them is the minute they start to weaken and deteriorate. Don’t take your relationships with your work family for granted. It is those relationships that make great work happen in person or virtually.

2. People are whole people, not just their work function

Being detached from a physical space has created barriers for teams, but working through technology has also brought us into each other’s homes as never before. We have a manager with a dog named Ruby who has a favorite squeaky toy and an associate vice president whose young daughters begin their naps just after lunch. Did you know those types of details about your team members before we moved into a remote environment? I didn’t. Each and every person we work with day in and day out is a whole person. You don’t have to know their personal details, but to effectively communicate with someone you have to meet them where they are. You have to honor that they are not just the tasks that they complete for your company, but a multifaceted person with pressure, joy and sometime sadness that extends beyond the workplace.

3. Communication is about honesty and transparency

Working in the virtual world has made regular and effective communication more critical than ever. So many people struggle with having honest and transparent conversations, especially about difficult or sensitive issues. Frequently, we associate these conversations with being cruel or unprofessional, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown asserts that, “Clear is Kind. Unclear is unkind.” Especially in a virtual world where we can no longer depend on running into someone in the company kitchen or working feedback into a casual conversation, it is critical to learn and regularly practice open and honest communication. We must be proactive and address issues before they grow into larger problems.

4. Mental health is real and work/life balance is a myth

Shortly after moving from a traditional work environment into a virtual one, it became clear that we were losing our boundaries. The workday suddenly had no clear starts and stops. Our professional and personal lives started to blend together and many of us found that we were working all of the time and burning out. We must stop and take a step back. In this new and flexible environment, it is easy to lose track of what we need to be our best selves. Taking a timeout to evaluate what you personally need to be most productive and encouraging your team to do the same is critical to doing your best work. For some, it’s eight hours of sleep per night. For others, it is a feeling of financial security. Most of these things will not be directly work related, but when not acknowledged and respected, they will become a work issue. You must bring your best self to work to do your best work.

5. We have to know where we’re going in order to get there

Keeping your team aligned around a focused, mission-based plan for success is more critical than ever. In a structured, office environment we have informal ways of judging alignment and direction. When our team is not physically together, we lose those opportunities. Team members can become adrift, not understanding how their efforts contribute to the successful whole or what success for the organization is, especially when we think beyond financial measures. Clearly communicating your company’s plan and objectives, setting regular times to return to those objectives and share performance and having one-on-one conversation with direct reports to answer questions and provide guidance is critical to keeping your team aligned, feeling motivated and productive.

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?

When moving the company into a virtual environment, we had an older style, desk phone set up. While phones could be forwarded and voicemails were emailed to team members, the forwarding was clunky, the emails meant you had already missed the call and there was no way to call out on your business line. Updating our system to one that includes an app for employee cell phones where they can make and receive calls as if they are sitting in the office, created a seamless experience for our clients.

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?

We added Microsoft Teams to our suite of actively used platforms. While it does not replace the in-office experience, it has been a very supportive tool to facilitate internal meeting, both scheduled and impromptu quick chats. We have also relied more heavily than ever on our project management tool to organize our projects and help ensure on time delivery.

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

I don’t think any communication feature or tool will replace the basic human interaction and conversation. If it were possible, the perfect tool would create an environment of trust and empathy where team members could communicate with a perfect understanding of their co-workers and without fear of being mis-understood or judged for their challenges. If someone could invent that tool, I’m sure they would be very wealthy and likely have a Nobel Prize.

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?

The pandemic has absolutely increased the need for unified communications, both out of necessity and real-time testing. The rapid evolution to a virtual environment has driven unprecedented need for online platforms to support business progress. It has also driven a real-world laboratory for the experience of juggling multiple systems at the same time. We regularly get feedback from our teams that they feel overwhelmed by the number of sources from which requests and bits of information come to them. Being able to consolidate these into an organized, or better yet, curated follow of information would be a game changer.

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?

A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar on VR, AR and Mixed Reality. One of the examples shared was how these technologies were being used to create training programs for military and first responders where they were transported into virtual scenarios to test their training under stress. Our business is a long way from these conditions, but the move to a virtual workplace has created a longing for collaborative meetings, especially brainstorm style experiences where energy and interaction is so important. The possibility of being able to recreate these types of experiences with team members across the country or the world is very exciting.

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

My biggest fear with the application of new technologies, like VR, AR and Mixed Reality is that teams will use them as a substitution for real, human interaction. Maybe, one day, the technology will be advanced enough to replace a real conversation or physical approximation, but we are a long way from that day. Until it comes, it will be important to identify the best way to use the new tools without them becoming another wall to separate teams behind technology.

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?

Our client interactions have definitely moved more to video calls. While this can sometimes be challenging in situations when we used to communicate face-to-face, the normalization of video calls has been helpful when working with clients who are out-of-state or in situation when we utilized phone calls. While a video call doesn’t offer nearly the level of connection as an in-person conversation, it does provide a more intimate experience than a phone call.

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?

Giving feedback, especially constructive, is never easy, but it is particularly challenging when we are not physically together. First, you must choose the medium that offers the experience closest to in-person, most likely a video call. Second, when planning for the conversation, determine the best way to clearly, without anger or emotion, articulate what needs to be said. Third, remember that it is human nature to assume the worst. Take a step back from your notes and make sure you are being as objective as possible. When you share your observations with the team member receiving the feedback, invite them to explain the circumstances around the situation with which you may not be aware.

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

Camaraderie and cohesion are founded in shared experience, especially successful experiences. In a virtual environment, it can be more difficult to acknowledge and celebrate success. Dedicating a portion of a team meeting to share the work of a smaller group will serve to empower and reinforce their success.

On a more personal level, recognizing cultural anniversaries and shared experiences can reinforce team cohesion. Recently, our team celebrated the anniversary of one year since we left our physical office. We shared photos that team members submitted from their quarantine experiences. We have our yearbook type awards, like best home décor or most surprising pet. While these may not be work focused, they reinforce our experience and success in converting to a virtually connected world.

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. 🙂

Vigilant kindness. In a world that is increasingly divided, we are all humans working to create connections and live meaningful lives. If we can approach each other with kindness, which creates acceptance and empathy, we can find our common ground and work together to accomplish great things. The move to the virtual world has physically divided us in ways we have never experienced before. Our community has become more and more virtual: online news sources, social media, etc. We find ourselves in echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs and make others seem distant, illogical and odd. It is only through vigilant kindness that we can find ways to continue to be open to those who may or may not share our views and find new ways to unify.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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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