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Michael O’Donnell of Grill Master University: “Onboarding Process”

Giving Constructive Feedback: Clearly communicating and giving feedback is much different in a remote environment and there is more room for the intention behind the feedback to be misinterpreted. As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael O’Donnell. […]

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Giving Constructive Feedback: Clearly communicating and giving feedback is much different in a remote environment and there is more room for the intention behind the feedback to be misinterpreted.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael O’Donnell.

Michael O’Donnell is the owner of Cave Tools and Grill Master University. His companies have received numerous awards such as the 3rd fastest growing company in Philadelphia in 2017 and the #453 fastest growing company in America on the Inc 5000 list in 2018.

Michael’s vision is to create a grilling/barbecue universe where Cave Tools provides the equipment and physical products, Grill Master University provides the education, and the cell phone app functions as a learning facilitation tool. He believes that even though technology has connected society in amazing ways, deep personal relationships have never been weaker.

The purpose of the business is really all about bringing people and families closer together. When you’re confident about cooking, you cook more often. And when you cook more often, you end up spending more quality time and forming more in-depth relationships with the people you love.


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 was first exposed to the world of entrepreneurship in college when I took an unpaid internship doing internet marketing for a serial entrepreneur. After graduation I started my own local marketing agency. I saw various levels of success with my marketing agency, but for the most part I was making just enough money to stay afloat while living at my parents house. I like to consider this my incubation period because I was basically getting paid to learn and experiment with all different forms of marketing for various clients and I could see what worked and what didn’t work. A couple years later I built up enough confidence to start selling my own products under my new company Cave Tools. As Cave Tools started to grow I branched out again and started Grill Master University.

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

Last summer I attended the Memphis in May World Championships of Barbecue contest with Rick Browne. Our goal was to meet and interview all of the top barbecue teams in the country for Grill Master University. While walking through the camp sites I look over and I see a team using the Cave Tools Beer Can Chicken. This was a surreal moment for me not just because I got to see one of the products I designed and developed out in the wild, but it was being used at the World Championships of Barbecue!

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?

During the first year of Cave Tools we used to post all sorts of photos on social media of beautiful women barbecuing and tailgating. The idea was that hey we are marketing to men and this is manly kind of stuff they’re going to like. We never posted anything that I would look back on and be ashamed of, but I quickly realized that we were alienating half of our market. Actually it was probably more than half of our market because many times it is the women in the household that do most of the purchasing online.

When I took a step back I realized that what barbecue is really about is family and bringing people together to make meaningful connections over food. When we shifted our messaging to be more wholesome and family oriented, the company became more in line with my own values and it became a company a could be proud of.

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

I think having a well thought out and clearly communicated vision is important to help avoid burnout. I don’t mean vision in the corporate buzz word sense, but in the sense of having a clear mission and objective you are trying to accomplish over the next couple years. If you or your employees are just working day in and day out with no sense of where you are going or the purpose behind the work, then regardless of how many hours you’re working you’re going to burn out.

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 have been managing remote reams for the last 8 years. When the pandemic hit it was business as usual for us

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?

Giving Constructive Feedback: Clearly communicating and giving feedback is much different in a remote environment and there is more room for the intention behind the feedback to be misinterpreted.

Creating structure for their role: When working remotely it can be very difficult for the employees to settle into a structure and routine.

Indoctrinating Employees Into Your Culture: When you hire a remote employee you need to create loyalty and an emotional connection.

Performance Transparency: A lot of little feedback and indicators are lost when you don’t have regular in person interactions. The last thing want is an employee thinking they are doing a great job and you are thinking that they’re dropping the ball.

Training and Procedures: You need to set clear expectations for what needs to get done and how it needs to be delivered

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

Radical Candor: This is a communications technique that involves caring personally yet challenging directly. While I think this is an important skill set for leaders in any organization, it is especially necessary when managing remote teams. You need to be very direct in your feedback and there needs to be the understanding that you are not criticizing someone to bring them down, but because you are coming from a place of truly caring about them and wanting to see them grow and succeed.

Management Rythmns: When you don’t see somebody every day it’s very easy to lose track and forget to check in. Some people like to do daily huddles and others like myself prefer to have set weekly check in meetings. Your meeting structure will depend on the needs of your company and the various roles of the employees. The important thing here is that you have established and consistent meetings to provide structure for both you and the employees.

Onboarding Process: In a regular office job you typically have a human resources department that helps onboard the employees and get them up to speed. Now imagine getting hired for a remote job and you don’t know your manager or any of your coworkers and the only instructions you have are getting fired at you from a stranger on slack. That’s what the experience is like for many people starting remote jobs. Take the time and build out a structured onboarding process where you can get your new employees acclimated to their new job and the way you work. The more you can include video calls the better because the majority of communication is non verbal.

KPI Implementation: Every role needs to have some type of Key Performance Indicator associated with it. You don’t need to go overboard here, but you do need to have objective data driven metrics that are checked on a weekly basis. This helps both you and the employee get on the same page in terms of performance and expectations

Training Resource Center: You should have an easily accessible training resource center with both written and video instructions for how to complete certain tasks and assignments in the company. When you are working remotely, it’s not uncommon for many people to be on different time zones and work schedules. By having an easily accessible training resource center you avoid unnecessary delays when an employee encounters obstacles.

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?

During our onboarding process we make every employee sign and agree to a team members values commitments document and then we review it together in person and discuss each line item. This helps everyone get on the same page and understand what radical candor is all about.

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

I think the larger context depends on your relationship with that particular employee. If you have established yourself as someone who truly cares and is trying to help them succeed then they will interpret your email in that way. If you haven’t built that type of rapport yet then don’t give constructive feedback over email. Words without body language and tonality can be interpreted a million different ways. Instead, jump on a quick 10 minute video call and handle the issue person to person.

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?

Creative collaboration is much more difficult in a remote setting because it is harder to rapidly bounce ideas off each other. One way to help this would be to use a plugin such as loom to shoot short screen recordings where you can quickly share ideas and add context to your thoughts

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?

I think it is important to celebrate wins and give public praise in slack. Encourage dialog and also share non work related things such as pictures of beautiful views if someone goes on a hike or funny dog pictures. The more you can humanize each person in the company the more everyone will relate to each other and be more likely to work together as a team

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. 🙂

Remote work is clearly becoming a trend and many people will find themselves transitioning into remote roles over the next few years. While this sounds amazing, it can also be a trap where people find themselves working more hours than before and staring at a computer screen all day. If I could inspire a movement it would be for people to consciously disconnect from their phones and computers and spend more time doing activities with real human interaction.

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

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

When I think of this quote I think about being a person of action. Being focused on the right behaviors instead of focusing on the outcomes. The more you take right action the more likely you are to get the outcomes you are searching for in life

Thank you for these great insights!

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