Susannah Bailin of AC Health: “Trust”

I learned my lesson about false appearances when I took my oldest daughter on college visits in 2008. Entering a lecture hall from the top of an amphitheater, I was dumbstruck that even though every student had a laptop open on their lap to take notes, 90% of the screens were open to Facebook. As […]

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I learned my lesson about false appearances when I took my oldest daughter on college visits in 2008. Entering a lecture hall from the top of an amphitheater, I was dumbstruck that even though every student had a laptop open on their lap to take notes, 90% of the screens were open to Facebook.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susannah Bailin, CEO of AC Health.

Susannah Bailin worked in Venture Capital with Kleiner Perkins, Hambrecht & Quist and Adler and Company before changing sides and founding two companies. RPC served recent college graduates with an in-person 7-week course delivered by college career development directors in Cambridge MA to solve the problem of making the wrong job choice. In 2017, she founded AC Health to solve the problem of patient non-compliance with therapeutic care plans. She has a BA from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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”?

Picture a nerdy girl spending most of her childhood with her face in a book. I loved Saturdays because I could spend the whole day doing homework without any interruptions. My other passions were theatre — I played the lead in 16 musicals — and soccer — my high school team won the NJ State Championships my senior year. After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard University, working in Venture Capital in the time of Lotus and Data General, I plunged into the world of entrepreneurship and am still swimming valiantly.

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

One interesting story is my Jekyll/Hyde life sitting on both sides of the entrepreneurial journey as both a founder and an angel investor as a member of the NY Angels. My career is long enough to have spanned from having had to write a 50-page business plan complete with financial projections to raise capital to today when a 12-slide pitch deck is all that’s required. I wrote such a business plan in 1988 to raise capital for my first company — RPC — and did data collection through the mail with surveys designed by the Yankee Group. I raised funding through networking and relationships with not much competitive analysis since the business — a Stanley Kaplan-esque training course for career decisions for college seniors — had no national competition. Fast-forward 30 years and I have the opportunity to self-fund but am faced with no end of competition for capital.

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?

I began my career in Venture Capital in the 1980’s when it truly was “venture” capital. At a meeting with Fred Adler of Adler and Co. in New York City in 1985 I was presenting the research I had conducted with engineers to understand the market potential for personal computers. I inadvertently added two extra 0’s on the market sizing data as calculators in those days had a formula button that converted integers into whole numbers which I was completely unaware of! It wasn’t so funny at the time, but it certainly taught me not to use any tool for analysis without taking the time to evaluate the rationale for a number, not simply the arithmetic. This has saved me some embarrassing moments and has also helped me perform due diligence on startup financial projections without having to use a calculator!

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

My Burnout Formula : #expectations of one’s boss X #time you are expected to be available ➗ one’s level of control over one’s work.

To help employees thrive and avoid burnout, I have learned to make sure that 1) my expectations are reasonable, time-sensitive, measurable and appropriate, 2) the hours that an employee is available are discussed to ensure that they work for both parties and 3) a figurative scale is used to determine how much control each employee feels they have in their work. This last piece of advice gives everyone permission to discuss what part of their work has no room for creativity. Without the ability to influence improvements and progress, there is too much room left for burnout.

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?

5 years

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?

As the Founder of a Remote Patient Engagement platform, my definition of “Remote” is highly focused on the features that encourage and support efficient communication and uniquely personalized approaches.

1. What do you mean you don’t like Asana?:

Remote means no quick “what’s going on” update in the hall so everything must be accounted for on some digital platform. Unlike being able to figure out other people through assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, there are no Communication-Platform Types. For example, I assumed that my preference for Trello cards was due to its ease of use, color schematic and visual chronology and that everyone would agree. WRONG! I quickly found out that my CTO insisted that we use Asana even though I found it the least intuitive UX I had ever seen.

2. You may think you are being clear:

The proclivity for using acronyms and nicknames for everything is a very dangerous habit when you are working remotely. For example, I spent hours investigating a potential competitor because I thought USP referred to the quality credential of a pharmaceutical substance rather than ‘unique selling proposition’.

3. Boundaries or lack thereof:

Remote means that you are available 24/7, right? Actually, yes it does. But it has consequences — and I’m not talking about having distinctions between personal and professional. That’s obvious. When I repeatedly get updates from a colleague at 10:45pm, rather than at 3:30pm when I reached out for an update, my first reaction is that they were doing something other than work until 10pm or why wouldn’t they have at least sent a quick reply that they were busy and needed to get back to me much, much later at night?

4. Isolation:

As an introvert, I relish the peace and quiet of remote work. Without conversation and discussion, though, I can find myself losing track of how my time I am working on a single task. That has serious ramifications because I tend to complete the tasks that I enjoy at a much higher rate than the ones I don’t — even though the latter are urgent KPIs.

5. Trust:

I learned my lesson about false appearances when I took my oldest daughter on college visits in 2008. Entering a lecture hall from the top of an amphitheater, I was dumbstruck that even though every student had a laptop open on their lap to take notes, 90% of the screens were open to Facebook.

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

1.The challenge of choosing a communication platform can be addressed by compromise. Forcing people to use a system that they do not intuitively understand will waste time and effort on everyone’s part. Experiment until you find a platform that everyone on the team is somewhat comfortable with and for those who have the higher hurdles, make sure they get something in return.

2.The challenge of being crystal clear in your communications can be addressed by not only avoiding shortcuts in your language, but also taking notes during in-person conversations. Using the language of the team members themselves rather than interpreting what they mean by writing it in your personal shorthand, is another technique that has worked very well for me.

3. The challenge of making sure that you don’t communicate through the timing of your correspondence can be addressed by simply paying attention. Consideration for someone else’s time and emotional response — ie. do not send an email about a new problem after 8:30 at night unless it is an absolute emergency — is a sign of empathic EQ. If that is not your instinct, it probably means that you have been in relationships with others who have not respected your boundaries. Take stock and release the urge to perpetrate the bad behavior. You can then truly empathize and make a productive and thoughtful decision.

4.The challenge of isolation can be addressed by changing environments. I find that even if I am alone all day, it shifts my energy and focus simply to leave the house for a while. That sounds pretty much of a duh, but you’d be surprised how easy it is for me to fall into a habit of staying in place unless I make a concerted effort to get out!

5. The challenge of trusting that everyone working remotely is being as productive as possible is very, very hard IF you already have issues with trust that stem from your early personal life. This is one of those deeply personal issues that cannot be compartmentalized as “personal, not professional”. If this resonates with you, I suggest spending time thinking about what needs of yours are not being met. Once you have identified that list, you can take them one by one and separate your emotional response with an action idea that can help you get what you need and give your team member the respect and independence they deserve.

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 don’t believe that being with someone or talking to them over Zoom changes the way that you deliver constructive criticism. What does change is that you won’t run into him or her later that day — which can be awkward! That said, I believe that beginning with the aspects of my own remote performance that can be improved or beginning with the aspects of their work that has exceeded expectation is always the place to begin as it takes away my power and/or increases theirs. In the end the goal is always “what will serve the company’s goals best”? And the answer is always “whatever it takes for us to be productive, good collaborators and flexible partners.”

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

I start with being completely transparent “Since we can’t chat together about …., I wanted to send you some thoughts on how to [fix the problem].” I use the same words/language that has been used previously in discussing the issue. I look for opportunities to remind the employee what they had said they would be accountable for — so that nothing is without precedent — content, deliverable, deadline, process, inclusion of other team members.

If you really can’t tell whether an email may be too harsh, give it to someone else to read before you send it. You probably are having feelings associated with the situation that may affect your language. An objective third-party can make suggestions and give you their perspective about how vulnerable you are making the other person feel.

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?

As the CEO of a software company, I have been working remotely for most of this chapter of my career so have not been in that position.

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?

Share achievements. Shout out great work. Continuously celebrate milestones. Say thank you at every chance. When you make someone feel good about themselves and share that accomplishment with others, it elevates a ‘member of the team’ to a ‘uniquely amazing human’. I can’t think of anything more gratifying and motivating than that.

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. 🙂

My movement would be #LookInside. From early childhood, we are taught to learn from outside of ourselves — for good reason — to stay safe and healthy and to behave in ways that fit into the cultural norms of our community. However, there is little education about the transition from ‘what am I being taught’ to ‘whom have I become?’ It is only in the answers to the second question that you can make authentic decisions for yourself. I am not talking specifically about spiritual investigation — which many find through meditation and philosophy — but rather a thoughtful investigation about the types of people and activities/tasks and environments and lifestyle implications that give you positive energy, motivate you to be your best self and inspire you to grow and delight in your every day.

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

Do not create a future that doesn’t exist.

We are biologically programmed to look for danger. Protecting ourselves from potential pain and struggle can overwhelm the importance of seeing what’s working, how much opportunity there is for growth and adventure, and how much we must be grateful for in our professional and personal lives. Mindfulness is really a reminder that “now” is always where you are and in that moment is not only the importance of protecting ourselves but also the awe for what is around us, and the gift of the positive attitude we can choose to look at our current circumstances.

This is relevant in my life because of the very nature of life — that it is always changing and that can be very uncomfortable. Remembering not to create a future that doesn’t exist is to avoid hyper-vigilance and focusing on all of the possible struggles that could result from that change. Without that anxiety, I have been able to dream about the wonderful possibilities of those changes and remember my own agency to affect the change in the world that is meaningful to me.

Thank you for these great insights!

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