Paul Hanges of JibJab: “Knowledge Transfer”

To truly create a healthy and empowering work culture with remote teams, I believe leaders and CEOs should focus on the fundamentals: values, traditions, and attitudes. We recently revamped our core mission statement to further solidify the idea that we exist to make billions of people happy every day. And to make that happen, our […]

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To truly create a healthy and empowering work culture with remote teams, I believe leaders and CEOs should focus on the fundamentals: values, traditions, and attitudes.

We recently revamped our core mission statement to further solidify the idea that we exist to make billions of people happy every day. And to make that happen, our employees must feel like they have a positive work environment that allows for individuality, creativity, autonomy and trust. If my staff feels cared for and supported in their work and personal lives, I believe they will want to produce the best work they can for both the brand and for themselves, and that in turn keeps the idea of a positive work culture flowing continuously, even if it all has to be done virtually.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Hanges, an accomplished leader in the digital media industry, currently serving as the CEO of JibJab, a leading independent provider of social expression content specializing in digital branded entertainment e-cards, satires and messages.

Paul has a wealth of experience overseeing growth strategies for large-scale content production studios and has been on the forefront of the digital branded entertainment experience for more than a decade.

Paul joined JibJab in 2016 as its chief operating officer where he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the studio, in addition to direction and performance of the legal, accounting, paid media acquisition and customer service teams. In his role as COO, Paul introduced new performance management processes, revamped budgeting, and forecasting modeling, and secured several new production financing deals for the company. He was named CEO in January of 2019 after the company was acquired by Catapult Capital.

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 have an operational-focused mind and have always said my successes come from building the support and trust of colleagues at all levels throughout an organization. I do this by committing to provide trust and transparency with everyone. I know what I know, but most importantly, I know what I don’t and lean heavily on those in the organization that oversee those areas.

I’ve been fortunate to build my career from within as I’ve had two specific tenures which would be considered longer by some standards. It’s important to me that you not only implement a plan, but that you are there long enough to get feedback and modify it.

Prior to JibJab, I served as senior vice president of operations at Evolve Media, a digital publisher and ad sales company. At Evolve Media I oversaw a team of more than 50 employees that serviced 50MM dollars of global ad revenues and set strategies to counteract the largest challenges in the ad industry, including viewability, ad fraud, and ad blocking.

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

I left my first job out of college after working an 18-hour day…on a Monday. I left the office at 4 am and was back at work the next day at 10am. I made it through a busy season, then ran to the first opportunity I found. I was very lucky that it ended up being a role I loved, but I remember how I was running from a job, not to this new one. I blamed the hours for many years, but now, I run a company that is holiday-based and it is common to work 14–18 hour days during our peak periods. I’ve come to realize that if you love what you do, the people you work with and you have work-life balance in the other parts of the year, it makes a really big difference.

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?

Maybe it’s not the “funniest” mistake but it’s certainly one that I’ve looked back on and shaken my head at! Early in my career, I was so scared of delivering bad news (thankfully it was to vendors vs employees) that I would stop reaching out if I decided to go in a different direction. I was caught flat-footed when an agreement came through to my boss for signature a month after going with another vendor. Without a definitive no, the vendor had their legal staff advance the agreement process for signature since the status was not updated to a “no” on their side. I had a bit of explaining to do to my boss on why we were paying two vendors for the same service.

I have learned that bad news delivered fast is far better than bad news delivered slow and I have been told I often live this to the extreme and have had to alert vendors that I’m too transparent and blunt at times, so they shouldn’t take it personally. This trait sometimes ends up being a great strength as it allows vendors and those we’re partnering with to further improve their product and, we can get to creative solutions in contracts much faster than the alternative.

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

Focus on removing roadblocks, delegating decision making and embracing failure.

I often joke with my friends that I have never felt farther away from the business as I am as CEO. Naturally, you would think it would be the opposite as the person who leads and is responsible for the strategic direction of the company. But, I’m no longer in the weeds and, and with limited time on my hands, it’s easy for the majority of conversations with employees to revolve around a problem or a pressing need, which can cause employees to be on edge. I have had to make a concerted effort to actively reach out to see where I can help them. I want them to know they have an ally, and I am here to make their jobs easier, not harder. You would be amazed at what that mentality shift does to keep employees excited about the job and actively engaged.

If they know you are there to help make their job easier, they’ll feel empowered to make decisions. I do not hire people so I can tell them what to do. We all have different ways of approaching the same goal, and when it comes to working with and leading my teams, I try to make sure they know they are trusted to make the decisions that will help the company meet our objectives. The more their decisions impact the company’s performance the more valued and rewarding their job will be.

Finally, you must be ok with their failures. If we are not taking strategic risks, we will get complacent as a company. At JibJab, failures are not met with reprimand, but rather a “what did we learn”? As CEO I do not tolerate the same mistake twice, but if people do not feel comfortable telling us when we’ve failed, we’ll miss all that data that will inform future decisions; not to mention employee sanity.

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?

As an executive in the technology industry, on the West Coast, I have been able to “test the waters” with remote work for several years already, even before it became more of a norm. Maybe that’s more the Los Angeles way of life, where space is tight, rents are high and employees can’t afford to live as near the job as they might be able to in the middle states or on the East Coast.

In a former position I ran a global team, so in some regards, I have managed remote teams for most of my career. But this is the first time I have had an entire employee base operating remotely. Prior to COVID, JibJab leadership teams had already been testing the idea of more remote work situations, with staff coming into the office a few days a week and working from home the other days. Managing remote teams has its own unique challenges but being fully remote brought so many new ones that we hadn’t faced before.

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?

If done well, remote work has immense potential to produce positive changes in efficiency and productivity. And, while there will always be hurdles associated with keeping a team together from afar, (video presentation and conference call technology, scheduling, and performance management, etc.) the benefits can far outweigh the challenges that leaders will face.

To be clear, though, this current situation is in no way, shape or form normal, and we are presented with challenges that do not exist in a long-term remote culture. People looking for a break from their home office cannot just head down the street to their local coffee shop; co-work spaces may not feel safe, or have monthly membership restrictions; kids are home from school or daycare and are clamoring for your attention (and workspace); personal life stresses and anxiety are at an all-time high; and seeing your friend for some wine and TV to let off some steam after a long week is no longer an easy reality.

Leaving out all those unique challenges relative to COVID-19, here are the other top challenges I’ve been confronted with while managing a remote organization:

  1. The Human Factor: In an office setting, CEOs often get most of their face time with staff at the “watercooler” or in the office kitchen, or during company events like retreats and all-hands meetings. But when the entire employee base is virtual, CEOs are a lot less likely to see their entire staff in an informal setting when everyone’s guards can be down. I have to be very intentional with my actions to reach out to people when nothing is needed and simply to check in. As CEO, it is easy to say, “no one wants to hear from me, they want to do their job and sign off”, but that could not be more wrong. Showing you care and asking about a non-work thing makes people feel thankful and appreciated. It is the modern day handwritten thank you note.
  2. The Disappearing Act: It is easy to get caught up in your work and lose touch with what others are working on. We no longer have passing conversations in hallways or the lunchroom, and sometimes those casual interactions have bigger, broader impacts on what we are working on. We have to be intentional with our communications to encourage this idea, so we don’t lose the benefits that come along with everyone being in the know. We have tried to do it by randomly pairing up employees via our “coffee break” channel, where staff are encouraged to talk about anything and everything to help creativity flow. But as CEO, it’s even more important for me to have a presence with the workforce, so I make it a point to write in our general Slack channels twice a week to provide company updates and new happenings. These updates go a long way in making people feel connected to the company.
  3. Blurred Boundaries: As recently as March, our work days would end and we would all go to our place of residence, and if we were lucky, we’d be able to put the phone down, enjoy a meal and socialize with friends and family that evening. However, It’s become increasingly difficult to draw those lines as some people have had to establish an “office” at their kitchen table, and children are now a part of mom and dad’s entire day as opposed to in the mornings and evenings. The blurred boundaries between home and work have proven to be a unique challenge for myself and my leadership team. I have managed this by making sure we build in off days every 3–4 weeks. Sure, people can take vacation days, but if other people are bombarding you with messages and emails (not knowing you are on vacation since they no longer see you throughout the day) that vacation may not provide any true rest and relaxation. We also set the expectation that family comes first. In return, leadership only asks for transparency when it comes to scheduling and projects that need to move forward.
  4. Establishing a “Remote Culture”: Zoom happy hours are cool, until people no longer show up. Pre-COVID we would regularly gather as a team at after-work events, where staff could catch up and spend time with the people they are friendly with or even get to know another team member they hadn’t spent quality time with yet. Staff could make a quiet exit anytime they wanted if they had other obligations or simply did not want to stay too late. But on Zoom, every conversation is a group conversation and leaving feels like you are letting everyone down at once. We have found a few different ways to get smaller groups of people involved, such as forming a “listening party” club where we share collaborative playlists on Spotify and listen together, discussing the songs we picked. We’ve also formed a “wine club” that allows staff to pick a wine from a grocery store that the team can then discuss the specifics of that wine and if we enjoy it (extra points for staff who find the best wine at cheapest price). And for people who enjoy reading, we’ve created a book club. It’s hard to get everyone engaged, so the focus has been on creating smaller sized groups and having more intimate and emotionally connected conversations.
  5. Knowledge Transfer: In a hierarchical business organization a lot of the learning is done when someone overhears your conversations and can scoot their chair over to ask a few quick questions. That becomes exponentially harder when everyone is remote and when an email, Slack message or a phone call feel like much bigger nuisances than ever before. Our organization is more flat, but it isn’t any easier. In fact, onboarding new team members has become harder since a lot of the knowledge within the organization is traditionally learned through the informal conversations and rapport we’ve built with colleagues outside of our immediate business circles. As such, we put the onus on existing employees, both stakeholders and counterparts, to be proactive and have bi-monthly touch points with new employees. I not only encourage my staff to be proactive, I demand it. Given the considerable shift in how our teams have to interact these days and not having an office to utilize as a way to get to know each other, I have been very clear in my intentions here — we must encourage knowledge transfer, virtually, in any way we can and not wait for someone new to the culture to speak up.

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?

Honest feedback should never be unexpected. CEOs and their leadership teams should have continual conversations with employees to help alleviate the stress that might come with having to receive feedback from a manager, and this idea is heightened even more now as our regular one-on-one conversations have to be done online. When I have to give honest feedback over a video conference or phone call, I try to remember these two important points:

  1. Focus on my own body language: If we do need to be on video, am I leaning in and engaged in the conversation, or am I sitting back with my hands folded behind my head? I expect my team leads to question their own engagement and follow this same thought process. Even constructive feedback can be dealt positively with affirmation of good work and a few measurable ideas for success. If we are without video, I make sure to leave the room where my computer is to make sure I’m not distracted.
  2. The “feedback sandwich”: The idea of giving feedback to any colleague or team member should not change just because we are now remote as difficult conversations or constructive feedback can easily come across wrong in any situation. Ideally the situation at hand is not a surprise to anyone involved, and even if it is, professionalism is 100% necessary 100% of the time when it comes to engaging with employees. Even over the phone or a video conference, employees are automatically going to feel more vulnerable because they have been summoned to discuss their performance or the project or work at hand. But I’m a big believer in the “feedback sandwich,” making sure to start and end the conversation on a positive note to help the employee feel more at ease and confident about their work and what’s expected of them going forward.

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

This should be handled the same way you would when your teams are all in the same building: seldom, if at all. If you would not feel comfortable giving the feedback over email when the person is a few desks away, you should not provide the feedback via email if they are working remotely. Every manager in our company has one-on-ones with their employees each week to ask three main questions (or iterations thereof):

  1. How are you feeling?
  2. Where can I help you?
  3. How can we get better?

That third question is where we are open and honest with one another about how everyone in the organization can work better together, including constructive feedback for that employee. Just because you are remote, does not mean your communication methods have to change. It all revolves around having consistent and anticipated opportunities to communicate so no one feels blindsided.

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?

The best advice I received when we had our first kid was; everything changes all the time. If you think you are the worst parent ever and do not know what you are doing, give it two weeks and it’ll change. If you think you have everything figured out and parenting is the easiest thing ever, give it two weeks and it’ll change. I think the same can be said about remote work, especially when we were thrust into it with the pandemic. The challenges you feel today will be widely different from the ones you feel six months from now. And conversely, if you feel like you have it all figured out today, wait six months when there is a breakdown on the teams and you don’t know how to pull everyone together to rally behind a central idea.

Carrying our culture into the remote work situation wasn’t too hard the first few months as we’d really solidified who we are as a team and established years of rapport in our work together. But the longer you go without seeing one another the more that culture fades and is harder to bring back, not to mention bringing in new employees who have a hard time learning that culture through observation. It makes corporate core values even more important and ensures people exude those values in everything they do. It’ll remain your constant guiding light.

It’s also easy to confuse productivity with being overworked. Many employees will not know when to shut off the computer and end up working 10–12-hour days, while others may be more focused on increasing output to “prove they are working.” It is easy to think this heightened output level will be there forever, but it’s a trap. It all eventually returns to the norm, or you will push harder and burn out your employees.

I am not sure I’m ready to fully commit to the idea of 100% remote work settings for JibJab’s future, but it is something I have given serious thought to. As a creative brand our teams naturally thrive when they can come together and share their excitement over a new idea or launch, and without that in-person experience, I’m sure it has been a little challenging for several of my staff members. That said, I am extremely proud of what JibJab has been able to accomplish since March when we all left the office, turning project ideas into launches at an accelerated rate and producing two times the amount of witty, vibrant and unique content than what would be considered “normal” for that time of the year.

For example, our “Happy (Quarantine) Birthday” e-greeting launched in April after an extremely quick turnaround time of just two weeks and ended up being shared nearly 200,000 times by people across the country, more than triple the amount a popular non-quarantine related e-greeting would see.

I would advise any new leader or CEO to be cognizant of boundaries and plentiful with patience when it comes to their remote work teams. There is no cookie-cutter process that exists for everyone when they have to work from home on a permanent basis, and as such, I’ve tried to avoid any situation that would cause my teams to feel as if their creativity and productivity will be hampered because of the idea that work has to happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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?

Work culture has had to change dramatically for many companies. And while I am a believer that culture does not have to be defined by what happens in person or by the perks that are offered, they are a small part of the equation when it comes to building a healthy and productive, and happy work environment.

To truly create a healthy and empowering work culture with remote teams, I believe leaders and CEOs should focus on the fundamentals: values, traditions, and attitudes.

We recently revamped our core mission statement to further solidify the idea that we exist to make billions of people happy every day. And to make that happen, our employees must feel like they have a positive work environment that allows for individuality, creativity, autonomy and trust. If my staff feels cared for and supported in their work and personal lives, I believe they will want to produce the best work they can for both the brand and for themselves, and that in turn keeps the idea of a positive work culture flowing continuously, even if it all has to be done 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. 🙂

Smile: It is an easy task for everyone, and you cannot help but to feel good yourself when you see someone smiling uncontrollably. It is also part of the reason why I love JibJab. We aim to deliver joy to billions of people every day. Even under a mask, it is hard to miss when someone is smiling. Smiling can also make others around you happy, and who could not use a little more happiness in their day right now!

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

Every kid eventually realizes their parents aren’t superheroes.” Ok, this seems like a weird quote, but hear me out. Kids look up to their parents so much and eventually there comes a day when they realize you don’t know everything. It does not mean they love you less. It does not mean you are less of a parent. In fact, it likely opens to a stronger relationship where you can learn and solve problems together. I think about this often as a CEO in relation to my employees. I do not have to act like I know everything. In fact, it is better if I don’t. They will know they can provide a unique perspective and value to the company to feel even more appreciated. CEOs do not have to have every answer and the sooner executives and leaders realize that, the sooner they will see more successes and in turn, gain more respect from the employee base.

Thank you for these great insights!

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