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Eleanor Haglund Of Aspire360 On How to Communicate with Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely in The Same Physical Space

An Interview with David Liu

Communicate Your Trust: We’ve seen in the past year that for many, remote work leads to burnout. Employees working from home end up working more hours than they ever did in the office and report more anxiety and stress around their work. That burnout leads to disengagement and turnover, both of which can cost your venture tons in the long run.

We are living in a new world, one in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never physically in the same place? 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 Eleanor Haglund.

Eleanor Haglund is the CEO of Aspire360 and a public speaking expert. She has used her pitching expertise to found two previous startups in the publishing and the healthcare spaces and to lead a startup CEO community with business resources. She harnesses her previous startup experience and her performance training (over 12 years of acting and singing) to help professionals present their message in a clear and compelling way.

An experienced public speaker, Eleanor has won awards in several startup competitions, including the Columbia Venture Competition, McGinnis Competition, the CMU Venture Challenge, and Hack-a- Startup. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s Creative Writing program.

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?

Aspire360 was born out of the lessons I learned starting a company. It’s hard to go at the process alone, and I’ve found a lot of value in leveraging the knowledge and experience of others to grow smarter.

Using that network and other resources, we’ve built a tool geared towards my fellow startup CEOs. Our network of mentors has raised more than half a billion combined, and have experience building teams, fundraising, and growing.

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

Most interesting story…that’s tough. I think every day is interesting, even though many people would find some aspects of the job incredibly mundane. When you’re the CEO, you’re managing the P&L and you’re doing the work of a first year intern. I think some people get into entrepreneurship because they want the fame or the money, but to me it’s a way of life. It’s finding problems that need to be solved and connecting the resources that are needed to solve it. So I don’t think I could pick just one story. They’re all interesting!

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

One that comes to mind often is, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Entrepreneurship won’t always be easy, and that’s why so few people embark on the process. The defeatist in all of us wants to bow out the second things feel tricky or complicated, but when you tough these moments out, you’re better for weathering the storm.

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?

I was lucky enough to find mentorship early on in my college career. Kit Needham is the head of Project Olympus, the incubator at Carnegie Mellon, and I still turn to her today when things get tough.

I remember during one of my first hackathon startups at CMU, everything was going wrong. Nothing seemed to work, from the dynamics of the team to the overall idea, and I had serious doubts we’d be able to get it to work by the end of the weekend.

It would’ve been so easy to bow out of this failure and turn nothing in, but Kit encouraged me to keep going, even when I doubted myself. More than that, she pushed us to bring our whole selves to the experience, and I poured my heart out to finish the pitch on time.

My team ended up winning that competition, teaching me a major lesson about perseverance and defeating self-doubt.

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?

Let’s face it, working “face to face” is often easier than working apart. You have a whole person in front of you, which means communication is just easier. Not only can you use body language and other nonverbal cues, but you also have the advantage of casual discussion to share ideas and get to know each other better.

When you’re together, it’s so much easier to build communication and culture.

Along those same lines, it’s much simpler to keep everyone in the loop. It could be as easy as yelling across a few desks to let a teammate know a project deadline is extended, or that you’re changing tracks.

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?

When you’re not in the same space, communication can really suffer. You need to reach out with intention, and probably over communicate as a bare minimum.

You also need to be an excellent listener. Like I said above, the advantage of communicating in person is the benefit of nonverbal cues. Those get lost in email and are hard to pick up on Zoom. You need to make sure you’re listening actively and following up when directives and even emotions are unclear.

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?

Create Time for Casual Conversation:

When you don’t have the traditional water cooler to gather around, you lose out on casual conversation and spontaneous interactions. Some of the best ideas can come out of interactions that have nothing to do with work.

You can’t recreate this experience online exactly, but I make it a point to catch up with teammates each time we have a call or meeting. I start calls checking in instead of diving right into the topic. Create space for employees to share what’s going on in their lives, or simply ask what they’ve been reading.

Communicate Your Trust:

We’ve seen in the past year that for many, remote work leads to burnout. Employees working from home end up working more hours than they ever did in the office and report more anxiety and stress around their work. That burnout leads to disengagement and turnover, both of which can cost your venture tons in the long run.

I think a way to combat this stress and burnout is communicating trust among teammates and employees. Encourage them to take breaks (and mark it on their calendars or Slack) so they don’t feel they “always need to be on.” By setting expectations and a process, you can help foster trust in your remote team.

Put it in an Email:

This is a little counterintuitive to my other advice, but if you can make an email instead of a meeting, do it. Don’t hold a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. Zoom fatigue is real, and when you communicate smartly, you show mutual respect for employees.

Learn to tread that line between showing up “in person” and communicating over an email where teammates can engage with it on their own time.

Proactive Communication:

Remote work can prey on employee anxiety. While they’ll never know exactly what you’re thinking, being in the same office gives them the opportunity to at least pick up on emotional cues or interactions.

Instead of letting your employees assume the worst, keep everyone informed. Over-communicate, and let people know what you’re thinking about, what you’re working on, or what you need help with.

I’m always reaching out to my teammates first, so there’s little doubt about what I am doing.

Get on the Same Page, Literally:

This sounds like a no-brainer, but here I am saying it. Make sure you’re sharing all relevant information. When you’re in person, it’s easy to download teammates on the project or the documents you’re referring to, but remote, this information can fall through the cracks.

You can’t be on the same page, literally or figuratively, if you’re not sharing the right documents or notes. I try to tread the line between oversharing and sharing just enough relevant information. You don’t want to overwhelm employees with documentation and data, but if they don’t have enough, it’s hard to keep up.

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?

At Aspire360, we have a network of mentors across the country, all with different availability and communication preferences. While it’s nice to standardize communication, you also have to meet people where they are. This means I’m switching between emails, phone calls, and video chats depending on who I’m working with. It can be confusing, but I find working with teammates to use their preferred means of communication means better engagement overall.

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?

It’s simple, but using Google Docs and editing together makes it easy for groups to stay on the same page. I find it smooths out the collaboration process to add comments and track edits in real time. It also takes the guesswork out of responsibility — you can tag whoever needs to tackle the task.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Zoom calls are amazing, but when it comes to socializing within our mentorship cohorts, I wish there was a better online tool to mirror the casual talk at a cocktail party. It’s hard to mingle and get to know cohort members, as those who are super sociable have qualms talking to the whole group, while those who are quieter tend to share less. If there was an online video conference tool where people could casually break out or mingle without commitment, that would be ideal.

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 importance of having a unified set of tools and method of communication has never been more important. Clear communication that transfers no matter what platform your on is even more important now that we cannot be in person with each other.

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 the more casual online video tools can become, the better. I’m excited as technologists work on video tools that mimic social spaces we encounter in real life. I look forward to the day I can attend a friend’s party across the country with a touch of a button, and it’ll feel like a party rather than a board meeting.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

I think online tools can make us much more streamlined, but I do worry about organizations losing spontaneity or those random connections that seem to only form when you share a workspace. Right now, it’s a lot harder to collaborate across departments or disciplines.

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?

Our Axiom groups have always been online-only, but we are finding that people are more willing to join these groups as they become more comfortable with online interactions. It’s such a wonderful way to connect people who might otherwise have never met without a digital forum to do so.

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?

Don’t let communication get tangled up! Feedback is always hard, so I recommend a two tier approach:

  1. It’s okay to leave basic feedback in a document or presentation. Make edits or comment concisely, and err on the side of politeness.
  2. If you have some nuanced criticism, conduct it over a call or video chat. Those types of comments can come across as critical or confusing when you don’t have body language or tone to work off of.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Make space for people to share themselves, whether that means a daily prompt on your general Slack channel, or Friday office hours where you invite anyone to meet you on Zoom.

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 think you’ll agree when I say we could all use a little more kindness. I am such an advocate for random acts of kindness. Those actions don’t take much work on your part, but their positive impact is contagious. I’d love to see more little go just a little out of the way to improve someone’s day for the better. You never know how much that could mean to them!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We’re always talking about the intersection between leadership and learning over at the Aspire360 blog.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/eleanor-haglund/) if I can help you.

You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook: @Aspire360CEO

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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