Stay accessible: Accessibility is a really important element of leadership. Employees need to feel that communication is bi-directional and that they can reach out if they need something. At Astute, we use Slack as an internal communication tool. I am active there and so is my leadership team. Aside from our All Hands meetings where employees get a chance to ask me questions, both openly and anonymously, I also like to hold sessions with departments and teams and just tell them to ask me anything they like. Not only do employees benefit from access to the CEO, but I also want to make sure I stay connected to what’s front of mind for my team, so being accessible really is a win-win.
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 interviewingMark Zablan, CEO, Astute.
A seasoned executive, Mark has more than 25 years of experience in executive roles with high-growth SaaS cloud companies in the areas of digital marketing, content management, customer experience (CX), and data platforms. Before his current role, Mark served as Chief Revenue Officer at Sitecore, President of EMEA at Adobe and Group President of Digital Marketing Services at Experian where he always believed the key to success is directly tied to customer success.
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?
Hi, great to meet you. My name’s Mark Zablan and I’m the CEO of Astute, a unified Customer Experience platform.
I was born and raised in San Diego, but my career has meant that I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world. During my time at Ernst & Young I lived in Amsterdam for a while and then at Experian I shared time between Chicago and New York before being expat’d to London to run the European Digital Marketing business. The last ten years of my life I continued to live and work in London, joining Adobe to lead their EMEA business, then with Sitecore as CRO. Now I’m back in California as CEO of Astute, a SaaS business with close to 800 employees all across the globe.
I always knew that my career would involve two things — helping people and scaling businesses. I love helping customers and whether it was in my role as Chief Revenue Officer at Sitecore, President of EMEA at Adobe or Group President of Digital Marketing Services at Experian my focus on helping customers solve their business problems has always been front and center in everything I’ve done. I have also always had a passion for technology and its impact on how we live and work. So, I guess you could say I have found my dream job leading Astute and helping brands to give their customers outstanding experiences at every touchpoint on the customer journey.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There have been a few really interesting stories, but let me share just one that’s very pertinent to what we do at Astute.
Going back to the mid 2000’s, I was President of Marketing Services for Experian. Back then marketing was a purely analog business, managing data and databases for the purposes of direct mail marketing so brands and businesses could send marketing material and catalogues to customers via the post. Seeing the impacts of the market crash we knew we had to get ahead of the curve and start offering brands a more digital approach to their marketing. So we bought CheetahMail, Hitwise and Techlightenment to enable us to give our customers the complete digital marketing tech stack at that time — email, web analytics and social media marketing. This was basically the beginning of the digital marketing technology revolution and so began the major platform acquisitions that today make up the tech portfolios of companies like Adobe, SalesForce, Oracle and IBM.
When you put that into the context of where we are today on the customer experience journey and how much of those touch points happen in the digital world, it makes me feel proud to have been a part of the early days of digital innovations, bringing new value to customers and to consumers. Today we’re continuing to innovate as Astute. Our technology is focused on giving enterprise organizations the tools they need to bring social media marketing, customer care, and commerce together to optimize digital interactions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge sports fan. And one quote that always stays with me is, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” because in the business world it translates to the “Fail Fast” mantra that has become part of our DNA in Silicon Valley. . It’s relevant to me because I believe that personal growth and business success only come when you put some skin in the game and feel emboldened to try new things, innovate faster and challenge legacy thinking. If you never move out of your comfort zone and take a shot, how will you know just how successful you can be? I believe in challenging myself, in learning and in failing fast and iterating until you get it right. It’s worked so far!
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?
Well, I think the benefits of physical proximity are pretty significant. Aside from being able to come together for in-person meetings, there is the social, team building aspect which I find very important. Leaders shouldn’t underestimate the importance of coffee time chats or lunches between colleagues. It’s often the personal connection between colleagues that enables teams to go the extra mile with an initiative or get something done more efficiently. Many creative ideas are born out of an informal, unscheduled chat with a teammate and they tend to happen less in the more scheduled world of remote work.
I am definitely a people person and my previous roles leading global businesses have meant that I have travelled a lot for work. I’m very much looking forward to getting back out and spending valuable face time with my teams as soon as the situation allows.
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?
Team events. I would say it’s as simple as that. We recently held our annual company Kick Off, which brought over 800 people together virtually, across time zones and functions to give them a unified kick off experience. While the event was fantastic and we were very happy to be able to connect and interact in a virtual way, nothing can replace the social aspect of these events when they happen in person. Memories are forged and relationships built when groups get together for dinners and happy hours, coffee breaks or a casual stroll.
In our case, this year’s Kick Off was particularly unique because we are currently undergoing a merger and integration of three very distinct company cultures. We had to find ways to smoothly transition to one, uniting employees through virtual tools and meetings. I would say, while we have been successful, it wasn’t as easy as it might have been if we’d been able to come together in person. But of course, now that we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel we are looking forward to the next Kick Off where we can come together face to face under the same roof for the first time.
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 “3 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. You can’t over communicate: Regardless of whether teams are located in the same physical space or not, my feeling as a leader is that you can’t over communicate. More importantly, while over communicating, the c-suite needs to remain confident and focused because in a time of stressful uncertainty employees look to leadership to understand how the business will navigate through these unprecedented times and to feel good about their futures, personally and professionally. Astute we run regular company all hands meetings, department meetings, team meetings and cross-team meetings. We also share important company level updates via Slack in real time conversations. We try to make sure that we are sharing information when and where our employees want to get it as that’s the best way to make sure that people feel aligned, informed and engaged at all levels of the organisation.
2. Stay accessible: Accessibility is a really important element of leadership. Employees need to feel that communication is bi-directional and that they can reach out if they need something. At Astute, we use Slack as an internal communication tool. I am active there and so is my leadership team. Aside from our All Hands meetings where employees get a chance to ask me questions, both openly and anonymously, I also like to hold sessions with departments and teams and just tell them to ask me anything they like. Not only do employees benefit from access to the CEO, but I also want to make sure I stay connected to what’s front of mind for my team, so being accessible really is a win-win.
3. Remember to have fun: Just because teams are remote, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have fun together. And that also goes for leadership. Late last year we were in the process of introducing a new leadership team. Many employees had never met some of the newly appointed leaders so we decided to roll out an internal social media campaign called The C-Suite Challenge. The goal was for each of us to record ourselves on our phones answering some random non-business related questions like, “if you were an animal, what would you be and why?” and by doing this, help our organisation get to know each of us in a more personal way. I started the ball rolling and then I nominated someone from my leadership team to follow suit. The last challenge was to give a tour of your home office. Let’s just say, we all learned a few fun things about each other!
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?
It goes without saying that the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards remote working at a faster pace than anyone could have predicted. At Astute we already had a flexible home office set up and because we are in the SaaS business, all of our employees can access the software and tools they need to do their jobs directly from their laptop.
The primary challenge I believe we are all seeing and feeling is that we are missing the in person social interaction we enjoyed in the past. Whether you went to an office daily or just popped in once a week, you knew it was there and you could grab a coffee or lunch with your team or a colleague.
At Astute we have gone through an enormous amount of change during the pandemic. This time last year Astute was actually three successful standalone businesses — iPerceptions a Canadian Research and Voice-of-the-Customer business, Astute, a US-based AI-driven customer self-service, agent desktop CX platform and Socialbakers, a European social media marketing platform. I was hired in August to bring these three businesses together into a single unified CX platform. These changes at the company level weren’t made simpler by the pandemic and I am grateful to my team for the resilience they have shown in such a challenging environment. Empathy is a key element of our story, both externally and internally and I’m proud of the empathy that has been shown within the company to help create a cohesive organisation.
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?
It’s important for employees to be set up for success. From the very start of the pandemic, we put the comfort and well being of our employees first. Everyone was encouraged to work from home. As a result, we made office equipment available to them should they need it to set up their home offices. We also made an executive decision to provide a monthly stipend to all employees.
I would say that without a doubt tools like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams that allow business communication via video have made a huge difference when it comes to bringing people together. As individuals we have been used to FaceTime and WhatsApp video to communicate with friends and family, but now video is also commonplace in the workplace and I really value the personal touch it brings to our communication.
On Slack we have dedicated channels to topics so employees can have frequent and uptodate access information. That way employees can opt in to channels that are relevant to them rather than feeling that they are getting notifications for areas that may not concern them. As I mentioned before this is also where fun comes in. We have channels set up for feel-good content like, home-cooked recipes, sharing book ideas and more.
In addition, at Astute we like to drink our own Champagne! What that means is that we try, where possible, to use our own product to improve staff engagement and collaboration. We feel this is a very important initiative, since employees are really the first customer a business serves.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Teleportation! That way we would get to spend more face time with our teams and with our customers without the toll that travel takes. So, if anyone is working on teleportation technology, I’d definitely be interested!
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 believe the pandemic hasn’t changed the need, it’s simply accelerated it. We all know that Unified Communications can improve business processes and increase productivity, but what has become clear during the pandemic is that businesses need to implement a UC plan in order to stay competitive. Today employees want to work from anywhere at a time that suits them, their teams and their workload. They want to be able to send messages and collaborate real-time. The scalability and functionalities of UC technologies make them vital for businesses both now and in the post-pandemic world.
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?
Absolutely all of the above. The pace of innovation around connected real and virtual worlds is impressive to say the least. While I don’t believe that business travel and office life is over, I do see a need for more innovation when it comes to giving people real-life experiences in the digital world. If you look at the retail space, there are brands that are doing some very exciting things with AR. For example Lowes and Home Depot are leveraging AR to enable their customers to virtually position items of furniture in their homes to see how they would look before they purchase. There are many tangible ways in which VR and AR are already being employed in education, in manufacturing and in nursing. A recent PwC report predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings or to provide better customer service. Innovations that make it easier for remote people to come together to share experience will represent a significant value to the workplace and to our lives on the whole.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I can’t say that any part of it concerns me, as innovation tends to happen where the consumer needs is. However, on a personal level I can’t imagine accepting that I will only spend time with my team virtually. Or that I won’t visit the Barcelona beaches again in person, only through AR. But I don’t see that being the case. I don’t see the virtual world replacing in person interaction. I think there will always be a healthy mix of online and offline experiences in our lives, if we want it that way.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, we have always used a healthy mixture of in person meetings, video calls, in platform messaging and email with our customers. We look to communicate with our customers in the way they want to communicate with us. While the pandemic has forced in-person meetings to happen online, I would say that digital communication in tech companies like ours has been pretty commonplace for some time now. We even moved all of our events online so we could keep engaging with our customers despite the restrictions of the pandemic.
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?
Yes, sure. I would agree that tough communications can be hard to carry out via phone or email. However, I find that video goes a long way in this case. Video enables you to read body language and look into the eyes of the other person as you talk. My personal style for delivering constructive criticism is what’s known as the Feedback Sandwich. I like to layer constructive feedback between two instances of positive performance feedback. I find that individuals tend to respond better and be more open to constructive criticism when it’s balanced with positive comments.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I have seen teams getting really creative around building camaraderie in a remote environment. Some examples have been classic things like team ‘happy hour, team lunches and team birthday celebrations (complete with crazy filters!), even themed quizzes and remote bingo. I have also heard stories within the organisation about call hijacking, for example, if one person in the team has a birthday, what happens is that their colleagues hijack a scheduled call to wish them a happy birthday. It’s great to see that the physical and social distance we are living with in many parts of the world can’t get in the way of team camaraderie and people having fun!
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.
Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure talking with you.