Anjee Davis of Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC): How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Watch your body language. If you are looking off camera or taking a call while laying in a bed, it doesn’t signal that you are engaged.
Be clear and concise. The enemy of good is rambling. You will lose your audience if you ramble.
Have empathy. Showing that you care is more important than driving home deadlines.
Put effort into listening. This is hard but avoid multitasking. Try not to check email, text, or take calls during a virtual meeting.
Be nice. Get in the right headspace. If you need to go for a walk before your next meeting to let off steam, take the walk!
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anjee Davis.
Anjee Davis, MPPA is the President of Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC). Under her leadership, Fight CRC grew 30% year-over-year from 2011–2019. During this same time period, the team transitioned from a traditional office to a hybrid virtual office and grew from four to more than 15 employees.
Today, the organization continues to relentlessly pursue its mission. Thousands of advocates are now involved and millions upon millions of people have been reached by her work. Davis fights tirelessly for patients’ access to care and research advancements. She loves designing innovative programs. This led her to create the award-winning One Million Strong awareness campaign and accelerate research by convening international researchers to tackle topics like early-age onset colorectal cancer and immunotherapy. Under her leadership, Fight CRC has gained influence on Capitol Hill as advocates have been pushing for increased funding for medical research. Most recently, Fight CRC celebrated the successful passage of The Removing Barriers to Colorectal Cancer Screening Act and the formation of colorectal cancer caucus in 2021.
Davis is a champion for patients and serves as the Chair of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Council of Research Advocates (NCRA), The NCI’s Clinical Trials and Translational Research Advisory Committee (CTAC) and the NCI’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Steering Committee (GISC). Building collaborations is an important part of Davis’ role and as President, she’s led Fight CRC to become a preferred partner among local, state, and national groups.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There have been many amazing experiences in my career, but the most impactful risk I ever took was taking a job working for Dr. Frank Berger at the Center for Colon Cancer Research. It changed the trajectory of my career. He called me to let me know I was hired, but the catch was that I needed to be in South Carolina in two weeks. I drove cross country from Missouri and one of his lab students let me live with her family for three months before my husband could join me.
I took the job not knowing that Dr. Berger was a senior faculty member at the University of South Carolina who believed that his role was to mentor his faculty and staff to be leaders. I was not a faculty member. I was hired to be his administrator. Over seven years, he taught me the complexities of the scientific enterprise and I taught him the power of advocacy and survivor voices. We were an unlikely pair, but under his leadership, I dug into colorectal cancer and became an expert in the field. I look back at that time in my career as a renaissance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone is someone.”
My father is an immigrant to the United States from Indonesia. He came to America as a scholar. Growing up, I heard him tell countless stories about the kindnesses and support that helped him get his Ph.D. Ultimately, he became a department chair for a small college in Missouri. He met an American Indian, named Little Bear, who taught him English from a dictionary. And his mentor was a Japanese American physician who took him under his wing to help him get a full scholarship to Southern Illinois University.
“Everyone is someone” is one of his life tenants and as I have applied this to my own life, it has enriched my career and life. Everyone is someone and you never know who you will meet and how they will come back to impact the work you are doing. I have connected with people in the airport who later became partners and befriended survivors, people who seemed humble at first but changed and advanced the mission at Fight CRC. Titles don’t matter in my line of work. It’s passion, commitment and a willingness to stay the course. To be successful, you have to put biases aside and recognize that to find success, everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and join you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband. We were married right after college. Early in our marriage, we decided that to enjoy our work life, we needed to make sure we were whole people. We agreed to give each other space to grow and expand our careers. Knowing we got married young, we needed to commit to our aspirations. Over the last 20 years we have stayed true to that commitment. We have been equal partners in our effort to change the world in our respective fields. Had he not been as supportive of my career and encouraged me to pursue my dreams when things weren’t so easy, I am not sure I would be leading a national organization today.
After seven years at the Center for Colon Cancer Research, I was offered the opportunity to join Fight Colorectal Cancer and run out national programs. My career was flourishing in South Carolina and the path forward was clear. I had a great boss and stable funding. When I was offered the job at Fight CRC, it was the first time I was intimated by the responsibility of funding programs on my own. My husband very simply asked, “If you don’t try, you will never know, so what are you afraid of? You still have room to grow.” He knew maybe before I did that my passion was to build a network and mobilize people to a cause. So, Fight Colorectal Cancer was my second-most fulfilling, calculated risk. I took the job and since then, I have never looked back. I’ve been part of growing a thriving, nonprofit organization and I’m proud to be part of an exceptional team of talented individuals.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
When our team is physically together, it builds up our connection and relationships. When we’re able to be with the patients and caregivers we serve, it helps give meaning to our work and grows our compassion and stamina.
However, the main benefit of being a virtual team is talent. Offering virtual roles allows our organization to recruit talented staff members across the country who don’t only bring their expertise, they bring a passion for the cause and mission. That alignment has been invaluable.
COVID-19 tested a lot of companies to move to virtual environments quickly. We had already been working as a hybrid organization for five years, some team members were in an office and others were virtual. When the pandemic pushed employers to go virtual, we had an infrastructure in place.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
To successfully work in a virtual environment, you need to be a strong communicator. Many employees who are new to virtual working underestimate the time effective communication takes. You need to repeat the message many times, it’s easy to miss when a team isn’t consuming what you’re saying. It takes persistence, and if you want your project or campaign to succeed, you really need to be your own champion. Follow-up and follow-through takes a lot of time.
One backbone for our virtual environment has been our project management system, but even through tasks are listed and project charters are outlined, picking up the phone or joining a video chat has been an essential part of building trust and collaboration virtually. It doesn’t work to simply point and click.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Communication takes effort. It’s not a skill that comes to you through experience. It takes commitment and discipline to grow and refine your communication skills. As a leader, you need to clearly explain: “This is what we are going to do, this is who will do it, this is the due date, and this is what it should look like when it’s complete.” Not being in the same physical space makes it even more necessary for someone to communicate clearly. There aren’t opportunities to bump into each other in the hallway or overhear a follow-up discussion.
To thrive in a virtual space, you have to:
- Watch your body language. If you are looking off camera or taking a call while laying in a bed, it doesn’t signal that you are engaged.
- Be clear and concise. The enemy of good is rambling. You will lose your audience if you ramble.
- Have empathy. Showing that you care is more important than driving home deadlines.
- Put effort into listening. This is hard but avoid multitasking. Try not to check email, text, or take calls during a virtual meeting.
- Be nice. Get in the right headspace. If you need to go for a walk before your next meeting to let off steam, take the walk!
COVID-19 has put us to the test. Typically during a year, our team at Fight CRC will have two or three face-to-face meetings. I have found that every three to four months, we need the interaction to build comradery and trust. Now, we have gone over a year without a face-to-face gathering. It has eroded our communication skills and we are experiencing Zoom fatigue.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Yes, 100%. It’s been hard. This year our team deleted all reoccurring meetings at the beginning of 2021. I asked them to review whether the meetings were truly necessary. I said, “Are you meeting just to meet?” If the answer was yes, I told them to delete it from the calendar. Over-packed calendars does not mean you are working hard.
Our team has experienced virtual working fatigue. To address the stresses of working from home this year, we closed the office for three days leading up to a weekend to give staff members time to recharge. We picked a random week and said, “Sign off! No email, no IMs and no text messages for three days!”
Unhappy, exhausted employees tend to communicate poorly and that can lead to a toxic culture. We are very intentional about open communication across our team. I encourage people to go for a walk, take time off, and take the time to gain perspective.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
We use HIVE project management system, it’s our virtual workspace. We’ve tried several of these tools and it’s the best one for us.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
If budget wasn’t an issue, having a virtual reality workplace would be amazing — one where you could still work but have the physiological feeling of an office.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with 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 team member?
We did a training for our staff six months into the pandemic called, “Crucial Conversations.” In-person or virtually, the tenants are the same. Here’s a summary of what Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Stephen R. Covey stated in the book:
Crucial conversations, by their very definition, are important and can affect a person’s life. There are three factors that tend to define a crucial conversation: 1) Opinions differ 2) The stakes are high and 3) Emotions are high. If handled properly they create breakthroughs.
My advice is to communicate often, face issues head on, and don’t allow issues to fester. The more you engage in frank discussions, the better you are at providing constructive feedback. Being honest does not equal being negative. If you take the time to prepare for your discussions, your team will understand that it’s fundamental, and that you want them to grow and improve. This also allows you to set an empathetic and honest tone. The key to this is making sure that when you give feedback, provide support and solutions alongside the critique. When staff members feel supported and know you are with them to improve their careers, they are much more receptive.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Encourage your team to have down time together virtually. Lunch as a team. Ask them to share personal life experiences with each other.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. :-)
I would build a program that embraces leadership for our young, talented workforce that is passionate about causes. Be fearless but be smart about it. Being a leader requires you to learn from people and intentionally exercise leadership skills regularly. Being able to share the art of planning and directing caused-based movements would be incredible.
Being a nonprofit leader, well, it’s not all passion. It requires strength of character, a mind for strategy, and inspirational leadership.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Learn more at FightCRC.org and join us on social media! Flex your arm, take a selfie and post it on social media with #StrongArmSelfie to support patients and caregivers in the fight!
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.