…whether it’s an email or a call, I try to leave room for the other person to solve the problem themselves rather than laying down the solution myself. That way, they’ve got skin in the game and they’re not being treated like some naughty kid.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leila Modarres an Iranian immigrant who, at 32 became one of Silicon Valley’s youngest female VPs. As Chief Marketing Officer, she runs all marketing efforts for Infostretch, a digital engineering professional services company with more than 1,000 employees worldwide. With more than 20 years of experience in marketing and communications serving high-growth software companies and early-stage technology companies, she has helped three startups achieve their desired exits.
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”?
As the daughter of Iranian immigrants who fled Iran after the revolution in 1980, I was raised in Boston, where I attended elementary school and grew up hoping to make it as a top artist or performer. Of course, I felt like an outcast on occasion, being from a different background; but that wasn’t my claim to fame or why I am telling you this. I was always driven — and continue to be inspired — by female characters in the entertainment industry — such as movies or TV series. As a child, dancing and theatre were my passions. I was a performer at heart, and I’d sneak into movies like “Flashdance” — a movie where the main character “Alex” played by Jennifer Beals fascinated me — a girl with no training or education making it to top and getting accepted into a prestigious ballet academy. I danced all over the living room floor for months. My mother finally decided to do without furniture!
I was determined to make my way into a role on a screen, stage or in front of an audience. Later in my teens, I also found an appreciation for business… there was always an element of drama in business… and there still is. Inspired by shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I continued to imagine myself as an influential member of a thriving organization.
One day I saw “Working Girl” and that was it. Melanie Griffith sealed the deal for me — talk about a risk taker who rose to the top. I decided that my calling was in the land of business, where I not only needed to perform every day, but I could leverage my business acumen and help others — especially young women — grow and thrive in the business world. As I think back, I am wondering if I was just looking for ways to make thigs more difficult. Not only did I want to be a top performer, but switch to a competitive field like corporate business which was — and still is, to a great extent — a male-dominated industry.
Once I got started on this track, I had the fortune of working for many amazing organizations, such as the Harvard Business Review and Porter Novelli, where I had amazing female mentors. I also rolled up my sleeves and helped grow a number of startups that were flourishing in Silicon Valley. Regardless of where I work, I will always be driven by the need to perform and help other “Tess McGill’s” navigate their way to the top. Today my inspirational fictional characters include Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary and Julianna Margulies as the Good Wife.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This isn’t necessarily one incident or episode, but is a limitation that my counterparts also face. As Chief Marketing Officer, I am constantly exposed to new concepts –ours, or our customers’ — months before they are introduced to the public, sometimes longer. We serve as a proving ground for software-based innovations in healthcare and financial services, as well as AI and IoT concepts. It is so tempting to tell the world what is coming down the pike before the news is ready to spread. In a way, this eagerness helps me focus on today’s mission, today’s message. Because our responsibility to the bottom line supersedes the sizzle of page-1 news.
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?
Two new hires. One name. This may relate to question #2, as well.
Cue…a case of mistaken identity.
Here’s what happened. On my first day of a new job, little did I know that another new starter, also called Leila, was joining the company the same day…as a software engineer. They took me into the lab, introduced me to the product managers and asked me about what programs I used. All the while I was thinking that something is not quite right here. Why don’t I have a proper desk? Where are those sales / marketing people who’d interviewed me? Why are they asking me these technical questions?
Finally, once everyone realized the huge mistake, it became a running joke between the departments. I must have put on a good show as an engineer, at least for a few hours. Despite the happy ending, the incident taught me to act on red flags as soon as they appear. I was lucky in this case that it ended on a comical note, but I made a determination to myself that I would speak up quickly in future instances whenever I felt confused or out of my depth.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
My best advice would be to be very conscious about maintaining balance in their lives, now more than ever. A lot of people have done some working from home, but for most people, this period has been their first time doing so full-time. The people who are doing the best are the people who are putting in place physical and time barriers between their working lives and their home lives. That means wherever possible, they have a particular place where they go when they want to work and that they’re disciplined about when they’re working and when they’re not. The likelihood of burnout increases when there are no clear dividing lines between work and home: it all bleeds together, meaning you never really have time to re-energize and recuperate.
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?
It’s hard to say exactly, because it’s been an evolution, but probably around ten years. In my marketing roles, this mainly came about because I was managing various marketing specialists. My ethos has always been to work with the best people I can find and it never really mattered whether they were full-time employees in the same office or even overseas-based contractors. So long as they’re great at what they do, they add a lot of value and so long as communications and time zones don’t become unworkable, then your team can really be based anywhere.
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?
- The personal touch. When you’re not in the same office, seeing each others’ faces and chatting about what you did over the weekend, you have to make more effort to maintain the glue that keeps a team together.
- Reporting. When you can’t look over to the desk to your left and ask how it’s going with some project or other, you’ve got to replicate that ability somehow. And the answer is rarely by firing off more and more emails which add to the inbox overload which most of us have to deal with.
- Articulating goals. When you’re constantly sitting next to or near your team, you naturally exude what you want people to achieve. But if they’re not right there, you need to make sure they understand what you want.
- Performance. Almost by osmosis, you know whether someone is doing well in a role when you’re sitting close by. Not so when they’re remote. You need to find some fair way of evaluating performance.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- To keep the personal touch, a lot of it comes down to technology. And that’s why the likes of Slack and Zoom have seen such an upswing in demand. But beyond that it’s actually about making an effort. Even when you feel like you don’t have the time, it’s better for everyone if you can take some time to ask how people are doing and have a quick chat before getting down to business.
- For quick updates or check-ups, instant messaging is about the best tech we have. Bigger picture though, it’s about having a system in place for people to report on progress. It could be as simple as a Google Sheet or as sophisticated as a multi-tiered dashboard. What’s important though is making sure that reporting takes a lot less of everyone’s time versus actually doing the work — and that people actually use it!
- However formal or informal the goals may be, the main thing is that they are articulated clearly and frequently and you map everything back to those goals so the team is focused. Fuzzy goals are not your friends, and that’s even more true when dealing with remote teams. Everyone has to be on the same page, even if they’re thousands of miles apart.
- In validating performance, it really depends on the type of role. In creative roles, you just have to look at something and you instantly know whether something is good or not. That’s true whether they’re remote workers or not. In other types of roles, you do have to do it by the numbers. The numbers could be revenue, it could be customer satisfaction. Whatever it is, you need to set up the system to find and track the most meaningful metrics and make sure you’re keeping a close eye on them.
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 haven’t encountered any major problems with giving constructive criticism to a remote employee in recent years. I think the main reason is that over the years I’ve developed what I’d call my Brain Trust of people that I know and who know me well, professionally. When you’ve got history and you’ve got trust established, you can be a lot more transparent without worrying that criticism might turn into a drama.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Wherever possible, I try to stay away from giving feedback over email. I do have to do it sometimes of course, but if I can I’ll schedule a quick call with them instead. I find that the honesty and context of a live conversation beats an email every time. You can overthink an email, trying to make it into the perfect argument as to why something isn’t right and should be done in another way. But after you’ve agonized over the perfect wording for it, what usually comes back is an equally agonized-over justification or deflection. So you’ve both wasted time and you’ve barely made any progress. In a live conversation, you can explain the context, explain the issue and talk it through together. But whether it’s an email or a call, I try to leave room for the other person to solve the problem themselves rather than laying down the solution myself. That way, they’ve got skin in the game and they’re not being treated like some naughty kid.
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?
I think a big thing is that you have to digitally re-create those watercooler moments somehow. That could be a lightly-moderated Slack channel where people can chat about things that aren’t necessarily work-related. Or it can be something more formal like a virtual celebration of some kind. We recently did that at our company, where there was a traditional holiday we celebrated remotely with our team in another country. Where possible we all brought traditional food to the virtual table, we chatted like friends and generally had a good time together. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.
Another thing I’d advise is to be careful about overloading your calendar with update calls. It was tempting, particularly at the beginning of lockdowns, to make sure you covered all your bases and put in place update chats with everyone. But eventually, you realize that you’re not leaving enough time to actually do any work. So you have to get out your virtual machete and start chopping down a lot of those formal engagements and just focus on the core “machinery” that allows you to do your job and trust that when specific issues come up, you’ll come together as you need to. I think this is possibly a lesson that we’ve mostly all learned now.
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?
A lot of this should come from the top and should have started well before the lockdowns began to be able to translate it to a remote set-up. I’ve worked in companies where very little thought goes into creating a healthy and empowering work culture and I’ve worked for some where it’s a core part of their values. What I’ve found each time is that it comes from the top. If a leader isn’t particularly focused on that side of business life, and they’re solely focused on the numbers for example, it’s hard to push that sort of mentality up the chain of command. So whether you’ve got it or you haven’t, that’s more than likely to still be the case when you’re working remotely.
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. 🙂
Find your network. There are some people you come across professionally who are so good at something or their brain works in such a particular way where you just have to maintain that contact and keep working with them somehow. I’m not talking about connecting on LinkedIn or even attending networking events. It’s the real-life experience of working with that person and being humble enough to know that that person brings something to the table that you don’t. I’ve been able to achieve a lot in my business life by recognizing that talent and bringing those people along for the ride. Over the years, I’ve found those people, I’ve found my network and in one way or another I continue to collaborate with them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite, so forgive me, but it’s “Be the change that you want to see in the world” by Mahatma Gandhi. Whenever you’re annoyed with colleagues, or even the whole world, it’s a reminder that you can actually change things yourself. When you stop trying to fix the world and you look inside, you find a treasure trove of things in yourself that need to evolve, before you start denigrating or preaching to the outside world. And when you do that internal work, you can actually make the world a better place, by inspiring others.
Because “Be the change” is such a popular phrase, it’s easy to disregard it, but if you take it seriously and think about it, it is transformative. In my life, I’ve predominantly worked in male-dominated industries. I could have wasted a lot of energy moaning how something or other isn’t fair. Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the support of great female mentors in my career — and their advice and attitudes have influenced me hugely. Now, I’m trying to be the change by mentoring young businesswomen as they start out in their careers.