Christine Nguyen of Limitless Foundation: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Set Action Items- After a long hour meeting, it can be hard for individual members to identify takeaways from the meeting. One way that we have addressed that in our team is we go around the circle stating an action item for ourselves, as discussed in the meeting. This helps us really begin to explore how we can delineate our tasks and ensure more effective processes.
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 Christine Nguyen.
Christine Nguyen is a WashU student by day and a nonprofit leader by night. She is the founder and CEO of Limitless Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit fighting for equitable and accessible healthcare, loving memory of her uncle Cuong Ngo. Christine has worked in the nonprofit sector, legislative offices, political campaigns, startups, venture capital, and is headed into the management consulting space. Outside of Limitless, she is currently using her experience to serve as president of the WashU Catholic Student Union and as an engagement manager for Consult Your Community (an organization that provides pro bono consulting services for small businesses).
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?
During my junior year of high school, my uncle passed away of stage four colon cancer, and I look back at that time as one of the most painful experiences of my life-yet also one of the most formative periods. The year after, I started knitting hats for a local NCI cancer facility, networking with the American Cancer Society and attending legislative events with them, and partnering with other community organizations. At that time, I was working informally; I realized there wasn’t this organization in my community that was trying to fill the niche that I had noticed with the intersectionality of healthcare and providing both that community piece and that action-oriented piece which is where the idea for Limitless came about. I then hit the ground running with my college career, and it was an idea that I wanted to implemented for a while but still didn’t feel “ready.” So that entire first year of undergraduate education, I was taking notes everywhere when ideas came to my head about the project like a sticky note labeled “Limitless” when I saw Wicked on Broadway during reading week and thought of the name, half-asleep voice memos of when inspiration would hit at 3 am, and all sorts of random word documents in my computer. I wasn’t sure when I would launch this project, but I knew I wanted to; it was more a question of when. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and there was this need to distribute masks at such a large volume in such a short amount of time, I knew I had found the time for our organization. We were created by our community, ran by our community, for our community at a time it needed us most.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of my favorite stories about my work in Limitless Foundation was our Community Action Agency of Oklahoma City Agency Dropoff. Community Action Agency is a nonprofit organization that helps lower-income families, senior citizens, and handicapped individuals in-home repairs and paying utility bills. They also operate the head Starts for Oklahoma City and Oklahoma/ Canadian Counties. Alyssa Regier (our Chief Analytics Officer) and I were conducting this dropoff and had a ton of masks in the back of her car. We admittedly got a little lost when we were trying to find their office, but after finding it, we walked in and went to talk to one of the coordinators. We then were telling them about our organization and handed them one of our donation packages full of masks, and I remember he looked at me and was like, “how much do we owe you these are incredible??” and one of the most rewarding experiences was just being able to tell him that he didn’t owe us anything these were made by the community for community partners like him. The other employees were so excited and instantly were asking if they could have a blue one or how they loved this color print, and the next day they called us if they could have another set to continue distributing to the people they serve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Comparison is the thief of joy” is one of my favorite “Life Lesson Quotes.” For me, entering the nonprofit space at such a tumultuous time when there were so many organizations operating in the healthcare space was extremely intimidating. I had to remind myself not to compare our work to the work of other organizations, to take it day by day, and to set realistic expectations and goals.
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?
A person who I am grateful for who helped get me where I’m at today is my mentor Rob Morgan. Rob was one of my professors at WashU and the director of the Beyond Boundaries program, an interdisciplinary program of study that actually helped me refine and develop the business model behind Limitless Foundation. Rob is truly your biggest fan and will do anything he can to help you, and for us, that was networking with lawyers/organizations to help us complete our application for 501(c)(3) status.
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 a 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?
A few of the main benefits of having a team physically together are being able to keep individuals engaged, having the ability to read nonverbal cues when presenting (indicating when you may need to speed up or slow down), and the ability to more effectively visually organize and present ideas.
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?
A few of the challenges that arise when a team isn’t in the same space is encouraging participation can be hard as individuals may be less engaged in the meeting, it can be hard to brainstorm ideas as usually only one person is taking notes and it’s harder to share them while they’re being taken like in an in-person environment, and coordinating time zones/meeting times/conflicts can be much more difficult.
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.)
- Calendar Invites & Standing Meetings are Your Best Friend- Our executive team is spread across three states, and as such, coordinating a time for meetings can be pretty difficult. Having a standing meeting that fits with everyone’s schedules has been one of the best ways for us to avoid last-minute meeting conflicts, and having the calendar invite sent out well ahead of time helps our team plan around their incredibly busy schedules.
- Always Start with Small Talk- I’m a firm believer in the fact that you love your work so much more when you love the people you’re doing it with. Every time I lead a meeting, I make a point to really include a few minutes for small talk about university, relationships, plans, etc. I find that it’s an extremely effective way for me to continue bonding with our volunteers and executive team despite never being in the same place.
- Agendas are Everything- Staying engaged in a virtual meeting is hard. Having agendas written out ahead of time helps participants know where the meeting is going during our monthly meetings, which cover every topic from operations to fundraising. Our team has found this helpful to follow along and an effective way for our Chief Communications Officer to be able to take minutes during the meeting.
- Read the Room- Every once in a while, I like to look away from the shared screen or the agenda to take a look at the other participants in the room. Is everyone’s camera on? Are people nodding, or are they blankly staring at the screen/looking at other tabs? By gauging your participants’ engagement in the meeting, you can find areas to slow down and elaborate your ideas more clearly or make room for discussion on more contentious issues.
- Set Action Items- After a long hour meeting, it can be hard for individual members to identify takeaways from the meeting. One way that we have addressed that in our team is we go around the circle stating an action item for ourselves, as discussed in the meeting. This helps us really begin to explore how we can delineate our tasks and ensure more effective processes.
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?
One challenge we found with work-from-home was that with so many different communication channels, it was sometimes difficult to keep in touch with all of them. With a text message group chat, slack channel, email newsletters, zoom calls, emails, and multiple social media channels, sometimes it can be difficult for us to remember to engage with all of these channels on a month-to-month basis.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experience, which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Zoom and other virtual meeting software have been integral for us in being able to see each other and engage as close to in-person as we could be. We love the features that allow us to share screens, record meetings to share with volunteers, and live transcript our meetings. Notion has also been an invaluable visual management system that allows us to organize our various projects and functional areas of the organization. It allows us to monitor deadlines, instant message one another, and organize information in one place.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
If I could design the perfect communication feature or system to help our business. I would design a video call software that allows multiple participants to share their screen at the same time- so different individuals could talk through their ideas and reference various documents/sections without having to rapidly switch back into tabs. This system would also have the ability for participants who are not able to have their camera on/speak live due to noise or microphone issues to send their opinions in a voice message to facilitate further participation in the meeting.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
I think the need or appeal for unified communications technology has greatly expanded amid the pandemic. In the past, issues could simply be solved by a quick visit to your coworkers’ office or a simple question. With so many different systems in place and each team utilizing their own software/processes, having unified communications could be integral in simplifying the onboarding process and making cross-functional collaboration more seamless, with less time spent converting/sharing/explaining and more time communicating/collaborating.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
I think some of the VR workspaces that have allowed individuals to “meet” each other live and walk into various rooms/explore have been extremely interesting and a way to further engage individuals despite not being in the same room. I think this could be a way to make onboarding processes less awkward for individuals who have never met anyone in the organization before and provide better hands-on instruction for certain skills.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
A part of this future vision that concerns me is that some people will trade the convenience of virtual technology over the effectiveness of in-person communication. I believe communication can be effective in both spaces, but there is a dynamic you can’t always replace in a virtual setting, and I worry people will no longer be willing to make the commute or work to go to new locations to network/meet colleagues. In addition, I think more work needs to be done to make this technology inclusive, especially for those with speech impediments, migraines, or other conditions that may make interacting virtually difficult.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
We have actually not shifted the way we engage our customers, only engaging in more email chains and calls than usual. This is because usually, when we conduct dropoffs to our community partners, we go in person.
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?
I think in a remote setting, a way to improve giving constructive criticism is to do it in a one-on-one setting; that way, the recipient has the chance to ask questions and further clarify areas for improvement. I think also leaving them with the message/feedback in a text form following that call can be extremely helpful in referencing the advice at a later point in time as well.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I think ways your team can create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not together are:
- Open every meeting with small talk- it can be such a great way to break the ice and get to know your colleagues beyond their roles in your organization
- Schedule events/programming that isn’t necessarily work-related, e.g., game nights, happy hours, etc.
- Keep meeting small- getting to know people in smaller groups is much easier as you will have more time to get to know each participant.
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. :-)
The movement that I would start would be mobilizing young voters to make a change in their community. I think Gen Z is definitely the activist generation, and I’m excited about what they’ll do to change the world around them. I believe Gen-Z operates under a very action-oriented framework, asking themselves what they can do to improve the world around them. I wish that I could offer them the resources, mentorship opportunities, and motivation to get their passion projects started.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow Limitless Foundation our social media pages and checking out our website.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.