Drew Gerber of Wasabi Publicity: Five Things You Need to Successfully Manage a Remote Team

Fotis Georgiadis
Sep 6, 2020 · 7 min read

Being Connected: Working remotely vs. in-person affects how connected your team is to one another. To address this, make technology your best friend! Schedule times when everyone can connect via Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom to share, ask questions, and just support each other.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to know to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Drew Gerber, CEO of Wasabi Publicity. Drew is on a mission to change global conversations and challenge industry conventions. He lives to spark “aha” moments, helping people discover new ways of thinking to create positive change.

Wasabi Publicity works with clients who are clear they have enough and who are committed to making a difference. Drew is the author of “Destination Aha! Becoming Unstuck in Life and Business,” and he lives in Budapest, Hungary, with his husband and two rescue dogs, Brodee and Koki.

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”?

My degree is in chemical engineering. I never planned to be the CEO of a PR company. But, as fate would have it, I had a passion for marketing and fell in love with PR. When I met my business partner, Michelle Tennant Nicholson, that was when I got clear about the power of PR in changing what people are talking about, which ultimately changes the world.

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

The main reason Michelle and I decided to go virtual when we created Wasabi Publicity in 2001 was so we could live anywhere in the world. Back then the whole virtual concept was new, so much so that we were recognized by Good Morning America and The Christian Science Monitor for innovative business practices. The decision made it possible for me to live in the most beautiful city in the world: Budapest, Hungary.

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 learned the difference one letter can make in the meaning of a sentence when I was working on marketing copy for a company. Instead of “Your publicist is your most sacred business relationship,” I put “Your publicist is your most scared business relationship.”

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be flexible in the integration of healthy work/life balance. This ensures your employees remain less stressed and more in control and satisfied with their lives (and in turn, more productive).

For example, allow and encourage employees who are parents to be with their child on the first day of school, or attend a holiday lunch, or award ceremony. Simply prepare in advance for staff absences with skill redundancy. In our company, we make sure at least one other team member can do someone’s job, which means we can continue to serve our clients and avoid any undue stress.

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?

20 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?

1. Lack of Information: Even with video conferencing, the nuances of body language and nonverbal communication are missing. People interpret words (especially written words) in different ways, therefore dealing with emotions can play a large part in managing a remote team.

2. Being Connected: Working remotely vs. in-person affects how connected your team is to one another. To address this, make technology your best friend! Schedule times when everyone can connect via Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom to share, ask questions, and just support each other.

3. Structure: It can be very challenging to create structure when everyone works from home. Again, utilize technology to keep staff organized and set expectations. We use Basecamp.

4. Being Related: We are human beings with a need to be related to each other. Ask your employees how they’re doing, or how their kids are doing. Discuss fears and concerns around the pandemic. Don’t be afraid to get personal and encourage a personable, relatable culture.

5. Flexibility: A remote team comes with all kinds of distractions and considerations. The majority of our staff are parents (skin and fur), and the reality is, we deal with kids crying and dogs barking all the time. Be flexible! It’s all part of the fun and being related.

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

If there’s an upset, get clarity — with a conversation, not an email.

One of the most important distinctions I learned at age 15 while doing the Landmark Forum is called The Vicious Circle™. When something happens, we assign a meaning, and then we form an opinion. Over time, that opinion (the story we tell ourselves) becomes the way it is, and our actions are based on that interpretation. When we can separate what actually happened from our story, situations that may have been challenging become open to change.

Here’s a great example: A huge challenge when we first created Wasabi Publicity virtually 20 years ago was dealing with emotions and interpretation around short texts and emails. Sometimes, the person on the receiving end would misinterpret the brevity, getting upset and worrying that the sender was mad with them. In reality, the sender is almost always just busy. Being able to separate your meaning from what happened alleviates a lot of unnecessary drama.

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?

Another powerful lesson Landmark taught me is on the power of listening. Clear, effective communication requires us to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what we may be adding based on our experiences or our view of life.

I believe constructive criticism requires these steps:

1. Listen carefully to what’s being said.

2. Distinguish what’s being said from your interpretations.

3. Use language to create new possibilities and relationships.

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

From my experience, if constructive feedback is needed, don’t send an email. Do a video call so you can see how that person is taking the feedback and to make sure they’re left empowered.

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?

It’s an opportunity for companies to reevaluate what works best for them. A lot of employers that believed people who work remotely are less effective are now finding the opposite is true. As we’re navigating these uncertain times, this is the perfect chance to evaluate and set up the working situation that best serves the company and its employees.

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?

Years ago, we created PR Power Hour (aka water cooler chats). This provides a daily opportunity for our team to collaborate, share, and be connected via Google Hangouts.

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. :-)

We owe a lot of the way marketing currently works to one man: Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Louis Bernays. In the early 1900s, Bernays realized that people’s emotions were the key drivers of their decisions, which meant that manipulating those emotions could elicit whatever reaction you desired.

Being fascinated with neuroscience, something clicked for me recently. Our current “Bernays” marketing model is designed to aggravate our brain’s amygdala, leaving us feeling unsafe, insecure, and unsure — and desperately seeking a solution to escape that feeling. Our amygdala is hijacked. We make decisions that are not in our best interests, or the world’s.

Amygdala-driven marketing feels off for me, and now more than ever, it’s not business as usual. My commitment is to support people, companies, and organizations who want to market differently. They are clear they have enough, and they want to make a difference by sharing their message (without activating the amygdala) and making the world a better place.

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

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” by Deborah Moggach: ”Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright, it is not the end.”

If I could create a movement it would be to have people relax and enjoy the journey.

Thank you for these great insights!

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