Trusting: We don’t see our team and a random delay can send your mind spinning wondering if they are even working. The truth is, they might not be, at least not right then. The question isn’t “are they available this second,” it’s “are they getting their work done?” That is what is important right now. We are all dealing with a number of factors as we are trying to manage working from home, many of us without childcare or many of the luxuries and time savers we are used to having. Be sensitive to that and trust your team.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Frankel of Stretto.
With nearly 15 years of industry insight and professional-services know-how, Sarah brings substantive expertise to her role as Executive Director at Stretto where she creates and implements the business development strategy for the company’s corporate-restructuring services. Working with a roster of former turnaround professionals and subject-matter experts, Sarah outlines both individual and team client-acquisition plans with a focus on increasing Stretto’s chapter 11 market share. Drawing on her business acumen, she oversees the development of service and proposal materials that speak directly to the company’s capabilities to meet clients’ diverse restructuring needs and objectives. Clients and industry colleagues value Sarah for her insightful perspectives on market conditions impacting case administration and claims management. Sarah is also recognized for her keen ability to pair bankruptcy professionals together in dynamic social settings, facilitating business relationships and firm growth. She plays an active role in the corporate-restructuring community as a member of the TMA, ABI and IWIRC, previously serving in board positions for TMA NextGen, IWIRC and IWIRC NY. Sarah has been recognized as an Emerging Leader by M&A Advisor and was awarded the International Rising Star award by IWIRC.
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 grew up in Palm Springs, California, the youngest of three and the only girl. I spent my childhood in a Dodgers cap trying to keep up with the boys and dreaming of what life in the big city would look like! I went to college and started working in So Cal before convincing my then boss to let me up and move to NYC. This boss was my first mentor, the first professional to truly believe in me, and his “yes” launched me on my first real journey. This set the tone for a career driven by passion and mostly devoid of fear that has seen me climb from data entry to department head and led me to build and sell my own business. Having others believe in me along the way has always allowed me to believe in myself and continue to dream bigger and bigger. You can still catch me in my Dodgers cap, but it’s the boys that are trying to keep up with me now!
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?
The list of funny mistakes is long, and continues to grow, but there is one that stands out in my mind. There were two men in my industry that look VERY similar. One, a strong professional in the middle-market and the other, basically “The Man.” “The Man” had never given me the time of day. At this point I had met him a dozen times and re-introduced myself to a blank stare every time. The “regular guy” had always been extremely kind and gracious to me. One night at an industry event I saw “The Man” as I walked into the room. He immediately waved and yelled “Sarah! Join us!” I had to look over my shoulder for the other Sarah because surely this wasn’t for me. Nonetheless, I let the moment balloon my ego and help me float right over to the conversation. I stayed with him and we held court the entire night. I never felt more powerful and in control of my career in my life. I was “The Woman,” I felt amazing and I acted with more confidence than usual, which is saying a lot because I’m not much of a wallflower to start with! Towards the end of the night, someone came up to our cool kid circle and introduced themselves. “The Man” then turned and introduced himself. I stopped in my tracks. This was not “The Man” acting out of the norm by being kind to me, this was the “regular guy” who had always been kind to me. I thought I was kicking it with Leo at the Oscars, but I was with his friendly stunt double at a viewing party instead. Nonetheless, this was a beautiful lesson in “Fake it till you make it!”, even though I didn’t realize I was faking it. The “regular guy” remains one of my favorite people in the industry and while he might not elevate me the way my previous placebo interaction did, he is kind and gracious and gives me the confidence to be myself, which is even better.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Plan breaks for yourself and your team so you (and they) hit pause before folks reach their breaking points. There are a million ways to do this functionally, but make it a priority — it encourages team support and allows for the best of your team to emerge.
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?
From the earliest days of my career, I’ve worked with and managed teams based in various locations. The challenge now is that none of them are in offices, so simple logistical challenges have to be overcome through process and not ad-hoc reactive thinking. Further, because we are client-facing and entertaining is our main source of interaction, we were forced to pivot completely, which presents both challenges and some interesting new opportunities. To that end, we have a full year of virtual events planned, something we would have never considered before. While it was daunting at first, we are now loving the new landscape it offers and are running full speed ahead.
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?
- Whiteboard Meetings: I love a good whiteboard meeting! I’m a visual thinker and communicate with and organize my team best when we can map out a vision and build it on a whiteboard. I miss that. My favorite meeting each quarter is a marathon whiteboard session with my events team. We now try and manage with shared screens and design programs we haven’t used in the past. I often just sketch what I’m thinking and send a picture to the team. It is exposing us to technology and resources we wouldn’t have found in the past, which is great, but I do miss my whiteboards!
- Trusting: We don’t see our team and a random delay can send your mind spinning wondering if they are even working. The truth is, they might not be, at least not right then. The question isn’t “are they available this second,” it’s “are they getting their work done?” That is what is important right now. We are all dealing with a number of factors as we are trying to manage working from home, many of us without childcare or many of the luxuries and time savers we are used to having. Be sensitive to that and trust your team.
- Time Zones: Quarantine has provided a few silver linings, one of which is that working remotely could really mean anywhere. Some folks have taken advantage of that and relocated their families, sometimes numerous time zones away. Be aware of where folks are and try and find times that are reasonable to all.
- Soft Touches: We have lost our water cooler chats. Our walk by the office and notice the balloons to remind us it’s your birthday moments. Our soft touches. Try not to be all business on your calls. Seek out some human moments with your team. In a world of non-stop video and virtual meetings, it’s still okay to just call and say hi.
- Boundaries: One of the biggest dangers of working from home is the non-existent line between work and home. No one really stops working at 5 anymore, but in these times we find ourselves working at midnight. Worse, we work and live in the same space and blur the lines ourselves. Encourage your team to set boundaries and “turn off” when they need to. That doesn’t have to mean they are “off” at 7, but they should have dinner with their family, or spend an afternoon in the yard with their children. Let them pick what is important to them, let them disappear then and cover them during that time.
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?
I always like to think bigger picture when I’m giving feedback. Is this a trend or a one-off mistake? Don’t criticize when angry. Unless something requires you to stem the bleeding, sleep on it. You want criticism to be constructive and productive, not reactive and demeaning. Always remind them you are on their team and offer solutions to improve. When you are ready to discuss, call. Don’t email. Too much gets lost on email.
One of my team members recently did something that wasn’t awful, but unfortunately could have had some pretty significant consequences for them and the firm. I had to talk to them about how we could have handled the situation better, but that we were on the same team and prepared to solve it. They were really down on themselves for the misstep and in those cases, further criticism has no value, they just need support. We kept it at a simple conversation, I left them alone for the day, and that afternoon had some beer and chips delivered to their house with a note from the team saying, “we have your back.”
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
The best thing I can say is to just not do it. Always call instead. Make the goal of the call not to punish, but to discuss and problem-solve. If it needs to be memorialized for any reason, follow it up with an email that can take a more positive tone of “Thank you for discussing X with me, I think we have some good solutions to help prevent this from happening again.” And then recap those solutions.
I realize that is a clean answer for ideal situations. If something is so egregious that it isn’t about problem solving, but just course correction, be direct, be clear, be organized and remove all emotion. Regardless, try and remember you are still a team and be supportive to the extent possible.
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?
Planning and organization is more important than ever. Leadership needs to have clear goals and a plan in place with benchmarks to meet those goals. Zoom fatigue is real, and most professionals have a number of meetings with folks outside their own team. You can’t have daily marathon zoom meetings to ensure you are all on the same page. Have a clear plan, set clear expectations and deadlines and utilize technology when possible to help folks stay organized and on the same page.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it has forced us to plan further out than we ever had before. With so much uncertainty and new logistical challenges, you need to take action earlier than usual to allow for the unknown.
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?
This is a tricky question right now. In a normal remote working situation I would emphasize a need to make sure communication stays strong and no one feels out of the loop. But in the COVID working environment we are all dealing with so much more. From “simple” things like working from home with two working parents while all of a sudden taking-on a full-time care giver and/or teacher role to the more serious and very real mental health concerns, there is so much more to our “new normal” than a traditional remote working situation.
Being there for your team is important. Asking “how are you doing” at the start of all calls is simple, but extremely important. Ask and listen. Allow time for this. My husband finishes all calls with his team with “what can I do for you?” I absolutely love this. It is a simple question but such a grounding way to wrap things up.
We have also shifted to more “small team” projects than we previously had done. Business Development folks, by design, are often out in the field on their own. Everyone working remotely, and not traveling, has given us a new opportunity to get new initiatives off the ground and to have them be run by folks that wouldn’t normally have the time. It is empowering and engaging and exciting to see what people can do outside their comfort zones.
I also like to keep things fun and insert challenges where I can. A little friendly competition is a great way to mix things up and build comradery. Simple challenges that we end up rewarding with desk trinkets or items to solve a new found remote working issue they have can be an inexpensive and really easy way to bring a smile to their face and help them feel connected.
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. 🙂
Keep perspective. Very few of us are curing cancer for a living. Remember what is important. Remember people are important and are doing the best they can — and if not, find out why. Be compassionate now more than ever.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Slow down and enjoy what you are doing. Set priorities and set boundaries. Know what is important to you and make time for it. I could lose myself in work 24 hours a day. I have an amazing team and the luxury of coming up with ideas that the experts around me can execute and thrive on. I love it! But I also have a daughter, a new baby on the way (I’m actually in the hospital awaiting Little Bit’s arrival now), and a husband that bring me incredible joy. I love my friends. I love baseball. I love my garden. I love to travel (you know, when that was still a thing). I need all these things in my life to have balance and happiness. That is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to embrace that will make you better at everything else!
Thank you for these great insights!