Sondra Radcliffe of Collins Aerospace: “Consistent communication is also critical for remote teams to be successful”

Consistent communication is also critical for remote teams to be successful. Leaders should schedule meetings where the team is all together and can status what they’re working on, identify the help or resources they need, and seek feedback or advice from their peers and leaders. As a part of our series about the five things you […]

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Consistent communication is also critical for remote teams to be successful. Leaders should schedule meetings where the team is all together and can status what they’re working on, identify the help or resources they need, and seek feedback or advice from their peers and leaders.

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

Sondra has had a successful career as an attorney at an Am Law 100 firm, as in-house counsel for a Fortune 50 company and as a business executive. Sondra Radcliffe is currently General Manager of the Oxygen & PSU business at Collins Aerospace where she has full strategic, operational, and P&L responsibility and leads a global team of roughly 700 engineering, manufacturing, project management and production employees located in the United States, Germany, India and the Philippines. Sondra is also a busy mom of four children.

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 started my professional career in the food and beverage industry working for a beer distributorship while getting my undergraduate and law degrees. It was a great job for a young professional and provided me the opportunity to work in a variety of roles within the company from finance to sales and operations. When I graduated law school, I started working at an Am Law 100 firm. My practice focused on civil litigation, but I was able to work on a wide variety of cases from employment to product liability and consumer litigation because I did a lot of class action work. After about 6 years in a law firm, I transitioned in-house when a position became available at UTC Aerospace Systems (now Collins Aerospace, part of Raytheon Technologies).

Since joining Collins Aerospace, my role has changed about every two years. It’s been a great opportunity for me to continue to diversify my experience and try new things. I’ve worked with a number of our sites around the world and have been able to learn about several of our aerospace products including evacuation slides, ejection seats, cargo systems, lighting, and oxygen systems. Every day I’m learning something new!

In 2019 following the acquisition of Rockwell Collins, I moved out of the legal group and accepted a role spearheading a project to align the business management practices across the 36 sites that make up the Interiors business. As that assignment was coming to an end, I moved into a profit and loss role as the General Manager of the Oxygen & Passenger Service Unit (PSU) business.

One of the things I love about the Oxygen and PSU business is that our employees can feel good about what they do because the products we design and manufacture save lives. There’s a video on YouTube that an airline passenger made about the importance of our products and work we do at Our leadership team watched this together recently; it was a great reminder of the importance of the work we do each and every day.

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

I think the most interesting story about my career is that people have repeatedly told me along the way that I wouldn’t reach my goal or be able to achieve what I have because I didn’t follow the traditional path to success.

For example, I was told I wouldn’t be able to get a job at a big law firm because I worked full-time during law school. As a full-time employee and part-time student, I couldn’t do the traditional on-campus interviews and internships that my peers used to line up jobs for after graduation, but I still got a job at a top firm thanks to an introduction from an adjunct professor who was willing to act as a sponsor / advocate for me.

I was also told I wouldn’t pass the bar exam because I had a baby two weeks after I graduated law school and six weeks before the bar exam; but, I had an incredible group of friends who recorded the lectures I missed and shared their notes with me so I could study, and I passed the bar exam on my first attempt.

Later, after practicing law for a few years I decided I wanted to go in-house. I met with a recruiter from a premier legal executive search firm who told me I wouldn’t be able to go in-house without relocating to another state and at least 10 years of practice. They say preparation plus opportunity equal luck. I worked with my business coach to determine what in-house legal departments were looking for and sought out opportunities to develop my skills in those areas. Six months later, I hired into the legal department of a Fortune 50 company (and I didn’t have to relocate).

I’ve learned through these experiences that I am the author of my story and I don’t accept the narrative that there’s only one path for success. You can decide what narrative you want and begin to write that story one chapter at a time.

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?

As I mentioned earlier, I started my professional career working for a beer distributor. Shortly after I started with the company, the team I worked with invited me to join them after work for some drinks. I agreed thinking it would be a great opportunity to get to know my new boss and coworkers. When I arrived, I ordered my usual drink and was getting ready to join the team when the General Manager arrived. He took one look at the drink in my hand (our competitor’s product) and told me that I should strongly consider switching drinks. I promptly told the server “I’ll have what he’s having” and we laughed and joined the rest of the team.

While I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, I’ve learned that brand loyalty starts first with your employees. This is especially true for consumer goods. Customers trust personal recommendations from their family, friends, and colleagues more than any other form of advertising. This is even more important in the era of social media. Research confirms that employee networks have, on average, ten times more followers than the company’s page and messaging shared by employees is re-shared twenty-four times more often. Human connection drives business whether its B2B or B2C, so leaders and employees can amplify the company brand or drag it into the mud.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

As leaders, we need to realize that everyone’s experience is different. There is no “one size fits all” solution. This became abundantly clear to me as we transitioned to working from home in the pandemic. The best advice I can give is to communicate 1:1 with your direct reports and have them do the same with their teams. Remote work in a pandemic is different for everyone, even employees who previously worked from home. There are a myriad of distractions and other obligations tugging at us simultaneously. This has caused the workday to grow longer and made the boundaries between work and home less clear. In addition to the physical fatigue many of us are feeling, many people are also feeling mentally fatigued.

It’s much harder to read non-verbal cues so we must expend more mental energy to communicate effectively in video conferences. A peer-reviewed article published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior validates the mental load of video conferencing. Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that the cognitive load required for video conferences is higher than in face-to-face interactions. Moreover, the increased amount of close-up contact we’re experiencing in video conferences is unnatural in the normal world causing our brains to interpret these situations as more intense.

To work through some of these challenges, I’ve made video optional in many of our meetings. I’m clear with my team when I want their video on (during our leadership offsite for example) but otherwise, they can make a personal choice to have their video on or off. I also asked each member of my leadership team to share their communication preferences and personal boundaries with each other. In a global business the workday is seldom a standard 9–5 but we try to respect each other’s boundaries in non-emergency situations.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s the importance of personal connection. With technology we have a lot of flexibility in terms of how we work but we also need to realize that people are wired for human connection. As I talked to our employees one-on-one, I found that many of them needed a stronger peer support network to help them navigate the challenges of the pandemic.

I participated in a high-level mastermind in 2020 with an incredible group of women. I certainly didn’t know what 2020 would look like when I signed up for the mastermind, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. As I talked to women in our company, I realized that many of them would benefit from a similar support network, so I asked if there was any interested in a monthly call. Several said yes, so I offered to host a call once a month. A year later, we’re still meeting, and the group continues to grow.

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’ve been managing remote teams for the past seven years. When you’re working with a global company, there are always going to be members of your team who aren’t co-located with you. I’ve worked on teams where the executive leadership team operated in four different countries, but there were always occasions throughout the year where we would get together face-to-face. Those face-to-face interactions helped us form deeper connections to the people we worked with and made remote work easier. Pre-pandemic remote work though is far different than what we’re experiencing today, both in terms of the remote work environment and also in the fact that we’ve lost the ability to supplement daily remote work with occasional face-to-face interactions.

I experienced these challenges firsthand as I moved into a new role last year and had to figure out how to get my new team through the forming-storming-norming-performing stages of group development without any face-to-face contact. Managing a remote team requires you to be more intentional about how you communicate and connect with your team.

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?

1. Communication. When you’re leading a remote team, you have to be more intentional about the little conversations that happen throughout the day. There is a surprising amount of business that gets done in the little conversations that occur in the five minutes before a meeting starts, in a walk down the hallway, or at the water cooler. In a remote environment, you have to intentionally creating space for these conversations to occur.

2. Social isolation. Remote workers, especially those living alone, may feel particularly isolated without the face-to-face interactions in the workplace. Remote workers may also feel “cut-off” or disengaged from the team and may worry that the lack of visibility will limit their career advancement and consideration for promotions.

3. Low engagement / lack of company culture. Company culture is an important part of driving employee engagement, retaining top talent, and turning employees into advocates for your business. It can be challenging to create a strong company culture for remote employees.

4. Burnout due to not being able to unplug. Without the structure of working in the office, some employees have reported that they feel pressure to be available outside of normal working hours and are struggling to unplug. This results in longer workdays, and over time, can lead to burnout, a problem we’re seeing in increasing numbers as more people are working from home during the pandemic.

5. Tracking productivity and work. Often, the work that best accommodates remote work is the type of work that it is more difficult to track from a productivity standpoint. This can create new challenges for managers in terms of holding employees accountable and can challenge organizations whose tools and processes have not evolved to keep pace with changes in the work environment.

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

1. Build “water cooler time” into your schedule. Be intentional about reserving blocks of time throughout the week where there are no meetings and people can simply connect. It can be hard to catch team members between meetings so having designated blocks of time where there are no meetings creates space for these conversations to occur. These connections also help prevent social isolation.

2. There are a lot of great tools for teams to connect such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, etc. but digital communication can’t fully replace face-to-face interaction. To combat social isolation leaders should consider having team members to spend one day a week in the office, or allowing them to work in a coffee shop, local library, or if whether permits, at the park on occasion.

3. Leaders should start with a vision for what they want their company culture to be and purposely think through how to include remote workers. Company culture begins with the onboarding process. It’s a company’s first impression to their new employee yet it’s often an overlooked part of company culture, especially for many remote workers. Leaders also need to be proactive about communication and work to ensure employees feel like they are “in the know” about what’s happening at the company. Finally, leaders should think through how employees work together and foster an environment that promotes and supports collaboration between remote employees.

4. The key to addressing burnout is prevention. Check in with your employees and engage them in open discussions about their individual circumstances. Encourage them to designate a dedicated workspace and support them in establishing and communicating their boundaries. Leaders with globally distributed teams should try to rotate meeting times to ensure that no one group is disproportionally burdened (e.g. afternoon meetings in the U.S. intrude on European colleagues’ evenings).

5. Here again, prevention is the best medicine. Leaders and employees should sit down early in the process and establish the expectations for remote work. This should include alignment on what the employee will be working on, what hours the employee is expected to be available, how often the employee will check in, how progress will be measured, and what deliverables/output are required. Clear is kind! The clearer you are about expectations, the better the outcome will be.

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?

First, I think it’s helpful to have regular check-ins with your team to provide feedback in the moment as opposed to waiting for a formal review six months or a year later. This allows you to course-correct and give guidance along the way. It also ensures your employees have a clear understanding of your expectations and the end deliverable.

Utilizing Facetime, Zoom or other video conferencing platforms is the best alternative to face-to-face contact, but it can still be difficult to read a person’s body language and non-verbal cues. One trick I’ve used to counter this is to have both people back up from the camera so that more of your body is in view. This makes it easier to read each other’s body language.

Given all the distractions of today’s remote work environment, I think it’s also helpful to plan the conversation at a time that allows both parties to participate with minimum distractions. This means scheduling the meeting with advance notice to avoid surprises and protect privacy. No one wants to have a difficult conversation about their performance with their spouse or children in the same room.

Finally, make it a conversation. We often don’t have the full picture of all the thing people are juggling. Allow the employee the opportunity to provide their perspective, clarify expectations, and ask questions about how they can improve their performance. The two-way dialogue these conversations provide may give you further insight into how to tailor your feedback or otherwise help that employee be successful.

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

A verbal discussion should always precede an email if you’re going to be giving constructive feedback. Two-way dialogue is critical in these kinds of situations to avoid misunderstandings and ensure that the message received is the same message that was delivered. Then, I’ll send a follow up email recapping our discussion, capturing next steps and when we should talk again.

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.

For teams that are used to working together in person, the shift to remote work brings a lot of changes. Leaders can ease the transition by ensuring their teams have the right tools to be successful. Facetime, Zoom, Google Meets, or other video calls are great for keeping personal connections intact in a remote environment. Likewise, Slack and Teams are great collaboration tools for remote teams. To make documents and presentations easier to edit without having to pass files back and forth, consider using tools such as O365 or the Google suite but it you need to share files for team access there are a wealth of options such as: SharePoint, Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive.

Consistent communication is also critical for remote teams to be successful. Leaders should schedule meetings where the team is all together and can status what they’re working on, identify the help or resources they need, and seek feedback or advice from their peers and leaders. Leaders should also schedule regular 1:1’s to connect with their remote employees and monitor how the employees are doing with the transition and what additional support they may need.

Finally, don’t forget about the social aspect of work. When transitioning to remote work your team members will likely miss the water cooler conversations, lunch with colleagues and other social interactions they previously shared with their colleagues. Find fun and creative ways to replicate these interactions in the remote workplace like coffee chats, virtual lunches, or happy hours.

Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Don’t forget to establish and align on expectations. Managers leading teams that are just getting used to remote work should set clear goals and expectations early in the transition process. Are there particular hours the employee is expected to be available? What projects will the employee be working on? How will progress be measured? What kind of communication is expected between the manager and the employee and how often should it occur? Wherever possible, I like to focus the metrics on the output (the what) not the how. That’s especially important now since the work from home environment may now also include sharing childcare responsibilities, helping children with their online learning, etc.

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?

  1. Set boundaries. Don’t expect your team to be in front of their computers 24 hours a day. With a global team, you especially need to be aware of when people’s workdays start and stop.
  2. Be intentional about developing and deepening your relationships with remote employees. People are wired for human connection. They want to connect at a personal level, and they want to work in an environment where they feel supported by their leaders and can bring their whole self to work. As leaders, we need to make sure we are regularly checking in with our employees and making sure they feel supported (both personally and professionally). Leaders should be intentional about asking their employees about their workload, the struggles or challenges they’re facing in getting work done and should ask employees how they can help.
  3. Facilitate connections between team members. One of the ways employees connect to each other is through their shared experiences. Look for ways to foster these interactions both in structured and unstructured ways. Celebrate milestones and wins together and create rituals that over time, become tradition and part of the team or company culture.
  4. Connect your employees to the company’s vision, mission, and values. Engage your employees in activities that over time will build a legacy that is aligned to the company’s vision and values. This could include community service projects, health and wellness initiatives, or matching employees’ donations to organizations that are aligned to your company’s values.
  5. Engage your employees in career conversations. Help your employees set goals that support the company’s goals, put together a personal development plan, and think through their career aspirations and develop a plan to achieve them.

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. 🙂

Actively look for small actions you can take every day to develop someone else. We rarely get to see the impact of those small actions but when we do, it’s amazing. I recently received an unsolicited email from someone I had never met thanking me for a career conversation I had with an employee six years prior. That seemly insignificant conversation inspired the employee to pursue a different career direction. Today, they are leading a team of employees and inspiring action in others. Positive words and good deeds are like compound interest, there is almost always a multiplying effect.

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 feeds 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 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.” Theodore Roosevelt

There will always be critics in the cheap seats saying “you can’t” but if they aren’t putting themselves out there, their opinions shouldn’t be taking up space in your head. Don’t let criticism stop you from chasing big goals and doing big things.

If you face a setback, pick yourself backup, figure out what you can learn from it and keep going. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, setbacks sting, but I try to ask myself two questions when I face a setback: (1) “what can I learn from this” and (2) “how will I do it differently next time”.

Reframing failure is a powerful thing. What if instead of looking at failure as the F word, we looked at FAIL as the First Attempt In Learning. How would that change the way you approached it next time? Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity basketball team the first year he tried out but rather than giving up, he used the setback to fuel his comeback. He doubled down on his workouts and made the varsity team the following year. So, I’ll ask you this: “What have you tried to fail at lately? How are you using your setbacks to fuel your comeback?”

Thank you so much for your time. This was very inspiring!

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