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Marla Isackson of Ossa Collective: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

Self-care is critical especially during this time of great stress and anxiety, so it is really important to set aside dedicated time every day to focus on activities that feed your mind, body and soul.

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 Marla Isackson, a seasoned marketing executive with over 25 years’ experience creating innovative marketing campaigns for world-famous brands including Citibank, American Express, Barnes & Noble, and WebMD. A longtime passionate supporter of women’s initiatives, Marla is creating a new movement for women in podcasting. She is the founder of Ossa (https://ossacollective.com/), a podcast network and two-sided marketplace with over 1000 podcasts, connecting women-hosted podcasts and women-focused brands in order to increase the representation and influence of women’s voices worldwide.

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?

I am the Founder and CEO of Ossa Collective — a women’s podcast network and two-sided marketplace on a mission to increase the reach, impact and earning power of women’s voices on a global scale. We run a two-sided marketplace of over 1,000 podcasts that connects women-hosted podcasts and women-focused brands.

Prior to Ossa, I built a women’s empowerment network called Like A Boss Girls to a following of over 1.2 million people.

In my earlier career, I worked as a corporate marketing executive. I have over 25 years of experience creating innovative marketing campaigns for world-famous brands like Citibank, American Express, Barnes & Noble, and WebMD. I wanted to create a home base for women entrepreneurs, social activists, leaders and go-getters — the type of resource that I wished I’d had access to in the early days of my career. Much of the work I did at Like A Boss Girls carried over to Ossa when I made the transition in 2018.

I’ve spent many years in this space of women empowerment and believe that podcasting is a great opportunity for women to elevate their voices and maximize their earning potential.

A passionate supporter of women’s initiatives, I believe in the power of podcasting as a rapidly growing communication platform with the reach and impact to elevate underrepresented voices

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

During my tenure at American Express, my team and I were challenged to develop a new approach to connect with younger audiences. I remember sitting around my conference table with my team brainstorming ideas. We reviewed a great deal of consumer research to assess needs and trends. Evaluating the in-house technical and marketing capabilities available to us, we wanted to create a credit card that was truly innovative. We presented to management a really extraordinary new type of card design which pulled the entire concept together. With the incredible creativity and tenacity of key members of my team plus the dedication and hard work of many other employees, we successfully launched a new credit card, Blue from American Express.

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

While I was developing an approach to help myself work through daily challenges in a positive mindset, I adopted the mantra “Everything is Figureoutable”.When confronting challenges or issues, I approach problem solving with this quote in mind. It’s a mantra that guides me as I work towards achieving clarity and resolution.

None of us is 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 worked with many extraordinary people. Creating Ossa, required us to understand the complexities and opportunities of our business and find consolidated tools and resources to help bring our concept to market. Our friends, Anne Kavanagh and UJ Rojas as well as Debra Angilletta have provided invaluable insights about tools and resources enabling me to more effectively manage our growth. Meredith Reed, my friend and EIC is not only very talented but she is also a stickler for details, enabling us to really uplevel our processes.

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?

My business is run virtually and team members are located all over the US. I live close to Manhattan and pre-pandemic, often connected with some team members when they were in town or if we were at an industry conference together. Whenever we can be together in person, even if it’s just once a month for a few hours, I make it happen. When we’re in the same room, I can minimize distractions, making it easier to focus on whatever project we are working on.

It’s where some of our best ideas have come from, from that spontaneity of being face to face.

It’s those coffee breaks, the dinner after our sessions — the mix of formal meetings and social activities really creates the team bond that energizes us so that when we go our separate ways, we can crank out the work with a clear sense of vision and purpose.

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?

Having been a fully virtual company prior to the pandemic, our day-to-day interactions have not changed much, and we’ve built plenty of structure into the week so that we’re staying connected and on task — weekly Zoom check-ins, Slack channels, etc. The big challenge during the pandemic has been the level of stress and uncertainty in everyone’s lives that was much less of a factor one year ago.

While we’re fully virtual, I miss getting together with some of my teammates from time to time. I’ve found it to be a challenge to maintain the same sense of collective energy when there’s no in-person recharge event on the calendar. We have to find other ways to recreate the brainstorming and idea generation that usually comes from us all being together for an action-packed afternoon. Zoom virtual cocktail parties and coffee breaks have helped a bit but it is not close to being the same experience as when we get together IRL.

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.)

  1. Make frequent, consistent communications a priority. We hold a team meeting every Monday and all team members are expected to attend. We communicate company announcements, review the status of initiatives, and discuss any issues or concerns that need to be addressed. A very important component of the meeting is the celebration of all weekly ‘wins’, to motivate and to build morale.
  2. Create tangible goals and KPIs. Each team member is assigned specific metrics based on the nature of their responsibilities. This provides a framework for projects which is even more important working in a virtual environment.
  3. Evaluate productivity tools and resources. There are many tools available but it is really important to focus on the best tools that will help your business operate more efficiently and effectively. I would recommend being mindful of the ‘shiny object syndrome’. Just because a tool is new, does not mean it is better or more helpful.
  4. Encourage team building activities. Working virtually has its advantages but it can cause people to feel very isolated. This situation can lead to great stress and anxiety. Face to face connection is critical and Zoom has been such an invaluable tool to help create a sense of community and connection. We instituted a virtual Holiday party that included fun games and activities. Establishing virtual ‘coffee breaks’ and virtual cocktail parties has helped to maintain our connection with each other.
  5. Set boundaries to encourage work life balance. Working virtually has enabled people to save many hours a day in commute time. However, this has also created a blurring of work time and home time. I found myself working longer hours. My staff was experiencing burn out. Self-care is critical especially during this time of great stress and anxiety, so it is really important to set aside dedicated time every day to focus on activities that feed your mind, body and soul.

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?

When the world transitioned to working from home in March 2020, we experienced all sorts of connectivity issues due to the volume of internet activity. Although we’ve been using Zoom for years, we began to experience disconnected video calls and frozen screens, impacting overall productivity. I bought a new router and this seemed to alleviate most of our connectivity issues.

In addition to the overall impact of the pandemic, our team members have been affected, this year by some extreme weather situations resulting in power outages, floods, freezes — all sorts of disruptions. Many on the team also had to juggle work responsibilities with helping their school-aged children adjust to an online school environment. These massive changes exacerbated overall stress and anxiety and required all of us to be more patient and compassionate.

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?

My team and I spent the past few years tweaking a tech stack that works for our needs. We use a mix of paid and free online project management and communication tools that are well known to many: email, Slack, Google Drive, Asana, Hubspot, phone, and Zoom.

Although there are benefits working together in the same space, these tools have enabled us to work much more efficiently. We would use many of these tools even if we worked together IRL because they help with overall communication, productivity and efficiency.

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

My business is focused on podcasts, and I do think there is a major opportunity in next-gen audio communication tools. Think of the massive growth in podcasting over the past decade, of new social media platforms like Clubhouse, even online dating — and yet we’re still using our cell phone numbers to connect.

Based on the work Big Tech companies have done — Amazon’s Alexa, Google Voice, I believe that the future is audio. Tools that connect our conversations to our action items and deliverables, that allow us to collaborate on podcast scripts or other products using just audio — that’s where we really have a communication gap that needs to be filled.

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 pandemic solidified our unified communications strategy we had in place. As an all-virtual team, we did not have to scramble to adapt. We use a variety of collaboration and communication tools such as Zoom, Google Docs, Slack and Asana. We were approached by other founders needing to adapt to an all-virtual work environment. They wanted some guidance and information about the tools and strategies we use to help keep our business on track.

The one change we did notice is that our zoom team calls were now longer in duration. Because we were all stuck at home with many of us feeling isolated, these team calls provided a platform for much-needed human interactions.

Additionally, communicating with our podcasters and advertisers over this past year, we identified an opportunity for us to create enhanced capabilities for our podcasters and advertisers. Ossa Insights, currently in beta, consolidates data from various distribution and social media platforms used by podcasters into one, unified package, enabling us to offer consolidated analytics.

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’m excited by VR and AR experiences, because I believe that it will enrich the quality of our virtual meetings. Screenshare 2.0 will enable us to review a project and take notes on a whiteboard simultaneously. Again, we can’t forget the power of audio here. I’m interested most by what are the ramifications of VR and AR when it comes to amplifying our voices.

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

I’m always looking for the best communication and project management tools that will add value to my team. Eliminating multiple tools with ones that streamline processes would be very helpful. There is disruption in all aspects of our lives-societal, political and technical and it is even more important to filter out the noise. Although there are some great new technologies and tools, the pace of introduction can be overwhelming.

Additionally, so many areas of the world are underserved and don’t have access to these new technologies for a variety of reasons. We need to fix this so that we can all connect and thrive in our global economy.

Although I love some of the new tools that have been developed with 24 hour a day capabilities, we need to be careful that we still try to maintain work-life-balance. I think the greatest risk to remote work is oversaturation and burnout.

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?

The pandemic impacted the way that I think about how to best communicate with our customers-podcasters and advertisers. We are dealing with data overload so finding a way to communicate and cut through the clutter is critical.

We are using the customer service application Intercom, an app helping us to more effectively build better relationships with our customers. Intercom offers many features-we are using the chat bot capabilities enabling us to respond instantly to customer questions or issues and use the help center frequently. The two-way integration with Slack makes it easy to chat to customers.

Ossa offers our podcasters very robust community features and benefits. We introduced new online community features to help facilitate engagement. For example, we offer an internal online guest placement tool called Pod Swap as well as a new video how-to series called Pod Tips.

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 prepare a lot for feedback sessions with my team, remote or otherwise. It’s so important to get this right in a virtual environment, especially with everyone taking on more responsibilities at home and facing a deadly virus on top of all their usual daily stresses. I rehearse my feedback sessions. Then we go face to face on Zoom. Even with Zoom, it’s hard to pick up on how they’re feeling. You just don’t get the same amount of information without those physical cues. I just have to be so careful. I want to be respectful but clear in my communication. If there’s an opportunity to see them in person soon after our Zoom session, I may not give them all of my feedback in our Zoom call .Depending on the subject and the timing, it may be more effective to wait.

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

There are many instances earlier in my career in corporate America when I’d finished a meeting and said, “that was a waste of an hour,” However in a remote world you really need the structure of a weekly team call. Maintaining a consistent schedule just provides that sense of structure, cohesion and normalcy that people need in their week.

This past holiday season was an extremely stressful time for all. Due to social distancing requirements, celebrating with friends and family was understandably restricted. My team and I celebrated via a zoom holiday party hosted by Meredith Reed, our incredibly talented EIC and excellent party planner. She organized games and quizzes, giving us the opportunity to celebrate together while keeping safe.

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 love to connect with Simon Sinek. His Ted talk about ‘Finding Your Why’ has had a significant influence as to how I think about my purpose and the vision and missions for Ossa.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/marlaisackson/ https://ossacollective.com/

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

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication

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