Larry English: “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”

When I had my midlife crisis at 25, I read a lot while traveling. I was searching for how I was going to live my life. One day when we were about eight months into our trip, I was lying on a beach in Bali when I read a quote that would change my life. […]

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When I had my midlife crisis at 25, I read a lot while traveling. I was searching for how I was going to live my life. One day when we were about eight months into our trip, I was lying on a beach in Bali when I read a quote that would change my life. In The Drifters, James Michener wrote, “Southern Florida is filled with people sixty-eight years old who were going to do something big in their lives but waited until it was safe. Now it’s safe and they’re sixty-eightyears old.” I immediately knew I had to take a risk and try to do something big. I often read that so many people on their deathbed regret not taking a risk for something they were passionate about. I have tried to live life taking those big risks.

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

Larry English is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting, a management consulting firm that guides you in the search for answers to complex digital, business, and technology problems. Before Centric Consulting, Larry worked for a large international consulting firm out of college until he got burned out at 25. He and his newlywed wife backpacked around the world as he tried to find his path in life — and he did. Shortly after returning home, he and his like-minded pals founded Centric with a focus on changing how consulting was done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness. Today, Centric is a 1,000-plus person company located in 13 US cities and India.

In his new book, Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams, Larry unpacks everything he’s discovered about creating and sustaining a culture of collaborative teams in a virtual environment. To learn more about Larry and how to become an office optional company, visit or connect with him on Twitter.

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 had a midlife crisis at 25. I was disillusioned with the companies that I had worked with that were all about money and didn’t care about their employees’ happiness. After backpacking around the world with my wife, I realized that I wanted to start a company that valued employee happiness and balance. Part of that solution was creating a remote company that would make it easier for employees to find balance between work and what they were passionate about. We started Centric 20 years ago with this remote foundation and have grown to 1,000 people in the US and India.

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

About 12 years ago, I joined a peer group organization called YPO. One of the best parts about this organization is you get to be part of a group of 10 peers where confidentially is guaranteed and trust ensured so you can openly share and grow. This group of peers lovingly point out your blind spots.

The biggest blind spot they shared with me was that I was terrible at vulnerability. In my entire career, no one had shared this insight with me. It was transformational. I learned to show I had the same doubts and fears as my team. When I started sharing my vulnerability, my employees immediately felt much more connected to me as a leader.

For remote companies, vulnerability is key: it is the shortcut to trust. Teaching employees and leaders to show vulnerability and not making it all about business helps build virtual relationships faster.

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?

In Office Optional I share many funny and embarrassing stories from what we’ve learned about how to work remotely. It was unheard of 20 years ago to be a remote company. One day after we decided to start a remote company, I was presenting a final deliverable to our first client on a conference call to stakeholders spread out across the country. I was at home in my office, on speaker to keep my hands free. I was excited, and the presentation was going well.

My office had the kind of French doors where the handles don’t turn — you simply push to open them. My young son, still in potty-training mode, burst through the doors and came running into my office. I had no time to react before he loudly proclaimed, “Daddy, I’ve gotta poop, and you are going to wipe me!” Just like the movies, it felt like slow motion as I lunged for the mute button — but I was much too late.

But to be serious for a minute — the biggest mistake I have made running a remote company is skimping on software collaboration tools for too long. The right software will make you more efficient and lead to happier employees as your organization seamlessly collaborates from anywhere in the world. Software can even improve your culture. Here are a few examples:

  • Training employees on your culture. They can see the history of how you interact and treat each other.
  • Creating virtual affinity groups that share a common interest to improve employees’ sense of belonging, such as veterans or runners.
  • Breaking down silos. Employees are more effective when they know what’s going on across the company.
  • Increasing trust and making you a more transparent organization.
  • Building an intergenerational workforce. The right tool increases engagement because employees can interact in ways they are comfortable with.

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

We learned that when someone new joins us that has not worked remotely before, they work way too much. The boundaries between your personal and work lives disappear. The laptop is always right there in front of you, and your mobile phone is always on. Your ability to jump between work and personal tasks is suddenly a lot easier, but if you switch back and forth all day long, it quickly adds up. Before you know it, late-night work sessions can become the norm — hardly ideal.

We’ve found the best approach is to encourage healthy boundaries around work. Based on your life schedule, determine the time periods during business hours that are strictly for work and when you’ll be taking breaks. Develop the discipline to respect those times so you can achieve a healthy balance. And share your approach with your family, so they know when to leave you alone so you can stay focused on work. Being virtual isn’t about working more. It’s about better work-life balance, which leads to happier, more productive employees who in turn create a great culture.

Also, make it okay for remote employees to take advantage of being remote. Most feel guilty initially and want to hide that they are doing something personal during traditional work hours. We embrace it. Go to that yoga class in the middle of the day or take your kid to the park and call me on the way. Help employees learn to design their day around taking breaks that energize them. They will be much more productive this way.

Finally, help employees learn to stay connected. Working from home can be lonely. Depending on your job requirements, you may have periods where you don’t interact with coworkers for a large part of the day. To combat this, encourage employees to schedule regular time to catch up with coworkers.

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?

We’ve been operating as a largely virtual company, managing remote teams, for over 20 years now. When we started the company, we always envisioned this would become the future of work.

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?

When managing a remote team, the key to success is changing your leadership approach. Here’s how:

Increase the frequency and approach of check-ins — An old leadership saying, “You can’t coach from the press box,” speaks to the need to get out of your office if you want to keep a pulse on what’s going on. You can’t walk the halls in a virtual company, so you need to learn the virtual equivalent. Virtual employees can quickly feel disconnected from the company without regular interactions. Lacking the visual cues of the office environment, a problem can fester before you ever hear about it. You want to catch any feelings of disconnection before employees start looking for a new job — this can only be done if you’re regularly reaching out to your direct reports and “checking their temperature.” And business-related conference calls won’t cut it. You need to allocate one-on-one time (in person or virtual) to check in with individual employees to connect on a personal level and give them opportunities to share any worries. By building in this one-on-one time — which, by the way, shouldn’t feel like a sacrifice, given that in-office employees spend about 8 percent of their time socializing — employees will feel more comfortable bringing up issues when they arise. Without an established, trusted relationship, they’ll feel awkward starting those difficult conversations and might even leave before you realize there’s a problem.

Establish two-way feedback mechanisms — Great remote culture can’t exist without feedback to employees on their development and feedback from employees on how they are feeling about the company. Because you don’t see each other in the office, you will want to establish formalized mechanisms to make sure feedback is occurring.

We’ve developed an elaborate individual feedback, coaching and development process. Employees tailor the frequency and type of career growth feedback that is most beneficial to them. When you are a remote employee, engagement is critical. One way to ensure high engagement is by providing regular feedback. Feedback is a win-win. Employees get help climbing the career ladder, and you get more skilled, more engaged workers who are more likely to stick around.

Businesses need to keep their pulse on employee sentiment about the company. When you are remote, it is easier to lose touch with how your employee base is feeling. And employees can feel unheard. For virtual companies, regular feedback is even more critical. With limited in-person interactions, you must take extra, deliberate steps to get feedback and understand how employees are feeling. Determine how often you want feedback and how you’re going to get it. Centric uses a mixture of anonymous companywide surveys, exit interviews, external feedback via sites like Glassdoor, and touchpoints with individual employees.

Model vulnerability as a leader — We teach our leaders to model vulnerability so that our employees feel comfortable doing it themselves. Vulnerability is the shortcut to trust. When your leaders exhibit vulnerability, they are going to build relationships faster and be trusted sooner.

Train leaders to be experts at building relationships virtually — In addition to vulnerability, leaders need to be experts at building strong relationships when we can’t meet face-to-face. All employees in a virtual company need these skills, but as a leader, you must be able to:

  • Bring Your Whole Self to Work. Share your personality, showcase who you are as a person, share your interests, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Take Time to Nurture Personal Relationships. Encourage leaders to have a genuine interest in getting to know their teammates, to be curious, and to learn what matters to them.
  • Know How to Resolve Conflict Virtually. Conflict is always hard to resolve, even when you can see a person’s visual cues. It’s even harder virtually. We use a training course based on the book Crucial Conversations to help leaders become conflict resolution experts.

Hire leaders who help embody and infuse your culture. — As we’ve grown to 1,000 employees, we worried about how to scale our culture and make sure employees felt connected when everyone was remote. It turns out it is possible, and the secret is in your leaders. To have a great remote company, you need to hire leaders who embody your remote culture and infuse it into the area of the business they oversee. If you do this, you can scale your company to thousands of employees and maintain the same culture you had when you were just a handful of people. We have created a leadership development and mentor program to ensure that our leaders know how to lead remote teams with our value system.

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?

The first part of the answer is to encourage your leaders to build strong personal relationships with their team, so that feedback is easier to give and receive. The second part is the technique of how you give feedback. As I mentioned, we provide a training course to our employees on the techniques used in the book Crucial Conversations. It provides tools on how to approach conversations as an opportunity for an honest, human-to-human interaction that ultimately builds a deeper relationship.

Finally, we recommend that any feedback be done by phone, by video, or in person. We really do not want leaders to give feedback via chat or email. There is just a much greater risk of misinterpretation and frustration on the part of the employee.

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

I see this mistake all the time with new remote leaders. I do not recommend that you give feedback over email. There is a huge temptation because it is hard to give feedback and new leaders hide behind email. I’ve seen this backfire so many times. It will often create a bigger issue than the original feedback itself. It’s important to take the extra time to pick up the phone. You will develop and maintain a better relationship with your employee.

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?

We had this question a lot when the pandemic first started. We found many companies were surprised at how quickly and effectively they adapted to working remotely. We aren’t getting this question anymore. Instead, companies are now asking, “What do we need to do to permanently adopt remote work?” If you want to become a permanent, high-capability remote organization, you must develop an integrated approach across your people, operations and technology. Train your people to be great virtual workers, change your operations to accommodate remote work, and invest in software tools that increase remote collaboration effectiveness.

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 biggest suggestion is learning to build and grow relationships virtually. We think our culture is actually stronger by being remote, because we have learned how to build deep, trusting relationships with our virtual co-workers. I’ve already touched on some of these skills like modeling vulnerability, bringing your whole self to work, taking time to nurture personal relationships, and learning to resolve conflict virtually.

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. 🙂

Well, you might ask my kids about my powers of influence! Seriously though, remote is the future of work, and it represents a potential solution to creating jobs for many disadvantaged people. We have a massive digital divide in the U.S. Using the digital economy to train and then employ millions of disadvantaged people is possible with the right approach and leadership. That is also why I’m donating the proceeds of this book to helping solve this issue.

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

When I had my midlife crisis at 25, I read a lot while traveling. I was searching for how I was going to live my life. One day when we were about eight months into our trip, I was lying on a beach in Bali when I read a quote that would change my life. In The Drifters, James Michener wrote, “Southern Florida is filled with people sixty-eight years old who were going to do something big in their lives but waited until it was safe. Now it’s safe and they’re sixty-eightyears old.” I immediately knew I had to take a risk and try to do something big. I often read that so many people on their deathbed regret not taking a risk for something they were passionate about. I have tried to live life taking those big risks.

Thank you for these great insights!

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