Leigh Anne Lankford of TrainingPros: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Keep everyone aware of the bigger goals. It’s easy to get caught up in your own job and forget about the larger goals of the company. To counteract that, we have a quarterly call where we focus on our mission, vision and values, along with how each team is contributing to them. In addition, when we have our first in-person meeting, we plan to have each team focus on how they contribute to the goals of the company, and how they might improve that contribution.
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 Leigh Anne Lankford.
Leigh Anne Lankford is owner and president of TrainingPros, a company that serves the training, eLearning, and technical writing communities by providing qualified learning and development (L&D) consultants to clients on a contract basis. In addition to staffing services, TrainingPros provides custom eLearning and instructor-led training development for companies through managed services. TrainingPros operates 100% virtually, with a support team of employees and relationship managers located in multiple states, along with a talent pool of 15,000 and more than 200 contractors serving clients worldwide at any given time.
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?
While I was an undergrad, I was elected to a “rush trainer” position for my sorority that I really enjoyed. Helping people learn and perform well energized me. Once I graduated and landed my first job, I gravitated toward anything that had to do with training. Within a year I was moved into position where I was doing both training and recruiting. From there I kept working my way up the ladder, and spent my evenings in graduate school furthering my understanding of the world of learning and development.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting one related to work I can think of was building and promoting my e-learning tool. It literally became my job to meet industry legends and have conversations with them about e-learning, future needs and how the tool I developed might fit in.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My most-used quote is by Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Falling back on this quote whenever something doesn’t go exactly my way has changed my thinking about failure. It’s all about learning from it rather than beating myself up.
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 have been helped by so many people that it’s hard to pick just one.
Steve Kapaun, founder and previous president of TrainingPros, helped me in multiple ways. He modeled the attitude of abundance over scarcity daily. He set up a system where anyone could achieve whatever they set out to reach. And he was always patient and available to anyone who needed help. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am.
I think the other person was my deceased father, George Lankford. He came from poor beginnings and was able to achieve amazing things by working hard work, maintaining a vision and always finding the silver lining in any bad situation. He inspired me to reach as high as I could.
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?
Our team has been remote since the firm was founded in 1997. That’s one of the biggest benefits of working here. However, prior to the pandemic, we usually got together once a year for a companywide meeting. We missed doing that in 2020 and are looking forward to getting together again. I think the biggest benefit of physical meetings is team building. We get to know each other and work better as a team because of the time we spend together in person.
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?
There are four challenges I see with regard to the support team. First, because everyone is not sitting together to work, you have to trust that they are working the hours they claim they are. Second, you have to trust that they are doing mission-critical work. Third, it’s much harder to have team meetings with collaboration. Fourth, team members can get a sense of loneliness working by themselves. Most of our support team has a family member at home with them, but some of us can go a few days in a row without seeing another person.
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.)
- Be flexible. Our team mostly comprises people who have children, and most of those individuals are women. In the pandemic, women engaged in a mass exodus from their professional roles because managing work with children at home enrolled in virtual school is nearly impossible. We were flexible with this in terms of work hours and job sharing, and we even had some team members take a leave of absence until their kids were back in school.
- Make communication a process. We have established modes of communication with everyone. Since the pandemic began, we held a weekly all-hands call that began 15 minutes early for nonwork socializing. This call provided news on all the projects, events and wins in the company. I also have regular meetings scheduled with each support department. This keeps me in touch with what’s going on with each team and helps me stay ahead of any problems or concerns. Additionally, I have a calendar link I share frequently with the relationship managers who work independently in the field. I openly offer my time to them for anything from coaching to socializing.
- Adopt technology for sharing. We recently made the transition from Google Business to Microsoft Teams specifically for this reason. At this point we are learning the basics of what we can do with Teams for collaboration, but I’m looking forward to understanding how it can further our work.
- Communicate with your employees the way they want you to. I personally use the DISC assessment to learn how each team member wants to receive communication. It’s extremely interesting how everyone has a different preference. Whenever I have a meeting with a team member, I spend a few minutes before the meeting reading up on their preferred method of communication and feedback.
- Keep everyone aware of the bigger goals. It’s easy to get caught up in your own job and forget about the larger goals of the company. To counteract that, we have a quarterly call where we focus on our mission, vision and values, along with how each team is contributing to them. In addition, when we have our first in-person meeting, we plan to have each team focus on how they contribute to the goals of the company, and how they might improve that contribution.
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?
Thankfully, we haven’t experienced any communication challenges during the pandemic. TrainingPros has been a 100% virtual company since 1997, and our employees have always worked remotely — so we were well-equipped to function throughout the past year.
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 a variety of tools: Zoom for web meetings, phone and web-based conference calls; MS Teams for collaboration; Bullhorn for staffing and recruiting; Sage Intacct for finances; and Calendly for making external appointments with clients. But I don’t think this is just a tools question. I think it’s a matter of making an effort to remain a team. And that’s a big part of my work as a leader.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Our team has always done fine virtually with or without these tools, but if I had to wish for a system to help me personally, it might be some type of artificial intelligence-generated “skimming” tool that would magically choose which emails are the most important to open and which phone calls I should take. Wouldn’t it be great to have just three items on your to-do list each day versus hundreds?
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?
The challenge is that there are so many ways to communicate now with unified communications systems. Without a strong strategy on how to use them in the right way, entire companies can be overwhelmed with too much information and too many ways to receive it. The human brain simply can’t adjust to all this information, so company leaders need to figure out a proper balance for their employees.
Many of us in the workplace started our careers without the email, cell phones or desktop computers. For new communication systems to be effective, a well-planned execution of change management needs to occur. I still find myself picking up the phone a lot, so some work habits I find highly effective are likely to stay in my communication repertoire.
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?
Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality are not being strongly adopted in the training space yet, most likely because they are expensive tools. When the industry adapts to them, our team will surely look at how our clients will be using these tools to build more effective training and how we need to skill-up to assist them.
As virtual reality becomes less expensive and easier to develop, I believe it will be a fantastic tool in training — especially for jobs that are more physically oriented. For instance, I can see how virtual reality tools can help with training someone to do a home inspection or work with machines and electronics, like in manufacturing. These tools can also be used for training sales or customer service professionals.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Yes. Humans have a need to be together. So, as successful as we can be as individuals and as companies working remotely, I do worry that we are becoming too isolated and dependent on technology.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers?
In the past, we’ve been accustomed to having lunch with our clients, or visiting them in their offices. We would often interact with customers and prospects at trade shows. With everything moving online, we started having “virtual coffee” with our clients. Rather than having a formal meeting, it seemed more inviting to meet for chats over coffee. For virtual trade shows, the effectiveness of meeting in that space varies. The best ones include five- to 10-minute “matchmaking” between vendors and prospects. That way, each vendor is able to meet with a handful of companies that are in the market for their product. The least useful ones are those where attendees are expected to visit vendor “rooms” on their own.
How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
All our sales calls are either video or phone calls now, whereas prior to 2020 we conducted only 50% of our sales calls virtually.
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 know it’s tough for leaders to give feedback that doesn’t come across too harshly. I don’t know the best way, but here’s how I do it. I have all my team members take the DISC assessment. This gives me insight about what’s important to each person, how to approach them and how to give them feedback in the best way. I’ve found that every person needs to be approached differently. Sometimes, the results are unexpected. You might find that a role one of your employees is in doesn’t match at all to a role they would enjoy. If that’s the case, perhaps there are other roles the employee can go into at your company that they would thrive in.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
We all take time to learn about each other. We know the names of our coworkers’ kids. We know what’s happening in their lives. We always take a few minutes on conference calls for chitchat, and I encourage it.
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’d love to create a movement around gratitude. We live in the most abundant nation on earth, but most of us don’t notice it. Spending five minutes each day thinking about the things in your life you are grateful for can change your whole outlook for the day. If every person in the U.S. did that, we’d see a big shift.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn about the work TrainingPros does in the learning and development industry, and discover more from our informative blog and thought leadership, at our website. Follow our LinkedIn page as well.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.