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Michael Sabo of RJO Futures: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

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 Michael Sabo, Senior Market Strategist with RJO Futures.

In 1997 at 21 years of age Michael left college, studied for, and passed the Series 3 exam and never looked back. He began his career as a Commodity Broker at a small brokerage firm just outside of Chicago, IL where he often worked 12-hour days for a year. Determined to be more than just another broker he left that company and for the next 8 years built two successful commodity trading companies eventually selling his ownership interest to his partners. In 2006 he began his daily commute to the Chicago Board of Trade one of the most well-known commodity exchanges in the world. There he joined a fast-paced trade desk at Lind Waldock which was later acquired by MF Global.

In the fall of 2011, in what seemed like a scene straight out of a movie, MF Global filed for bankruptcy, the 9th largest in US history. He was terminated on Friday and hired on Saturday by the largest privately held FCM in the industry, RJ O’Brien. Michael has been with RJ O’Brien since that day in 2011. As a Senior Market Strategist and a strategic visionary, he oversees the operations of a trade desk he grew to be one of the most successful desks in the private client division known as RJO Futures.

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?

It is an interesting story. It was the summer of 1996, a good friend of mine opened a small commodity trading account with about $4,000 and invested in corn call options. He wanted me to get involved but at the time I knew very little about commodities and even less about options. Well in about four months his 4k investment grew to about 70k! That summer corn went historically high due to tight supplies and a drought, the perfect storm and corn prices skyrocketed. You can already imagine how the “wheels” were spinning in the minds of a 21-year-old and my friend who was 20. Of course, like some great stories, this one didn’t have a happy ending. He basically lost it all, as he kept “pressing it” in attempt to make more. He could have taken money off the table but choose not to. For me it was a front row seat to an epic learning adventure. What I witnessed that summer set me on a new direction in life. I saw the incredible opportunity the commodity markets offered and from that day on I knew I wanted to be involved with the markets in a much bigger way.

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

There are so many interesting stories and few bad ones. One story that has always stood out is the MF Global one. MF Global acquired the company I was with and started making significant changes in the way our business operated. We were a force to be reckoned with, we were biggest “kids on the block” being led by an overly aggressive CEO. Being a publicly traded company that didn’t bode well when investors caught wind of how aggressive the “growth strategy” was or lack thereof. Our stock price began to plummet the summer of 2011 and into the fall as investors lost confidence eventually causing the firm to file for bankruptcy in October 2011. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Friday afternoon when I was called into a conference room at 12:30 pm and told when we walked out of that room the Bankruptcy Trustee along with their security guards would be there to seize the assets of the firm and escort everyone out, we were finished. The silver lining for me was out of 50 Brokers in my division I was one of 13 summoned to the conference room where our Director informed us, we had been chosen to come join RJ O’Brien. He went around the room and needed a yes or no answer on the spot. Without hesitation I said yes. When we walked out of that conference room, we walked into the biggest emotional roller coaster I have ever witnessed in my career. Employees who spent a good portion of their life working there were openly crying, others were mad as hell yelling choice four letter words to anyone who would listen and some just had blank lost stares on their face, over 1,100 people were terminated that day. I walked back to my trade desk in silence, grabbed a few things and walked out the door, I was one of the fortunate ones. That Saturday afternoon I was at

RJ O’Brien filling out new hire paperwork and getting my trade desk ready for Monday’s business.

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

There are many but one of my favorite “life lesson quotes” that is in my personal playbook is: “Only when you focus on helping others achieve their success will you experience more success than you ever believed possible.” I have seen it time and time again where people mistakenly believe the fastest way to success is to put themselves first with an attitude of what’s in it for me. I learned a long time ago that mindset will never get anyone true lasting success. Staying focused on the success of others around me has allowed me to grow professionally at RJ O’Brien, become known and well respected in the Futures Industry and cultivate / maintain long lasting relationships with clients.

None of us can 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?

There are several people I am grateful towards over the course my career. One in particular is Keith Riddoch who is an Executive Director at RJ O’Brien. Keith took the time to really understand my vision on ways to improve several things in our division which are now being implemented. Having successfully built two trading firms early on in my career I was able to take some of those same core marketing ideas and implement then here in our division. This has resulted in additional organic lead generation which helps my entire team at RJO Futures grow their client base.

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?

ENERGY, this is probably the biggest benefit of us all being together. There is nothing like being on the floor of a brokerage room with long trade desks, brokers sitting or many times standing or pacing around their monitors with flashing quotes, wearing cordless headsets discussing everything from why a market is moving a certain direction to advising clients on buying or selling a specific commodity. The tireless market chatter gives off so much positive energy to anyone who comes within ear shot of it. To the readers who have experienced firsthand what I speak of they know that energetic feeling it produces, to the ones who haven’t experienced it, try to, but be careful its addictive! In addition, being able to quickly shout out a trade opportunity or a market moving news event to your team at a moment’s notice is something we all took for granted.

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?

I think while some are common in every field, being in the fast-paced world of commodity trading where minutes often matter there are some unique challenges to us all not being physically together. Early on I often was thinking: is my team working as seamless as we did when we were together in the office? To how do we read each other’s body language and communicate as fast as we normally do? And then there was the What does my teams home trading set-ups look like and is it adequate? That was probably the single biggest challenge initially, making sure our team had sufficient trading set-ups in place. Yes, we had our work phones and work numbers ringing to us as well as a laptop or desktop but in our line of work its more than just that. Did they have a dedicated work area or were they working from the dining room table with other members in their household? What about multiple monitors to watch multiple charts, quotes, and news feeds? Printer and scanner capabilities? Webcams? Etc. I was concerned for everyone on my team — we already had plenty of additional market stress to contend with as the world went into lockdown mode and I didn’t want my team to have additional stress if there work from home environment wasn’t ideal.

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 ?

Timely interaction with your team — seeing how quickly things develop in the markets its important to not assume your team has seen the latest news.

Frequent, informal video meetings — some of our best ideas have come out of just quick informal meetings where it sparked an idea or thought that led to something much bigger.

Non-business calls or video chats — we have been working from home for over a year now. In order to maintain a close team its important to communicate with your team on a non-business level just as with would do when in the office. Many on my team are also personal friends. A few of my colleagues have had babies, one has gotten married, 2 engaged and several have moved. These are things we would normally discuss around “water cooler” but aren’t able to right now. It’s important to maintain those personal relationships so they aren’t lost.

After having a virtual meeting, I like to follow-up with an email that outlines the pertinent information we discussed so everyone stays on the same page. Its so much easier to be distracted when working from home during a meeting vs being in the office.

Make it fun — if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. Creating a fun work environment increases productivity and overall job satisfaction, simply telling an appropriate joke or sharing a funny story during a meeting can go a long way. You can accomplish so much more with a team when they have fun doing it!

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?

RJ O’Brien was already well prepared for a business interruption due to our Disaster Recovery Plan and had a Team in place that could implement it at a moment’s notice. While no one anticipated a pandemic that would ultimately force us to work from home as long as we have, we did have structure in place to deal with whatever was thrown our way. We already were using VMware and basically all we had to do was grab our work phones and “plug in” from home. After seeing how well we made the transition with only a few minor bumps along the way I would say EVERY company large or small should have a continuation plan and a Team in place in an attempt to minimize business interruption.

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?

There are several but the two that immediately come to mind are VMware and Microsoft Teams. VMware gives you access to your work desktop and Teams allows to at least have visual interactions with your team this is as close to being together as you can get in my opinion.

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

A trade tracker software that uses artificial intelligence to “learn” about clients trading habits focusing mainly on risk tolerances and trading style (position trader, swing trader, day trader etc.) the more trades a client does the more accurate the profile becomes. This would assist the broker in quickly identifying suitable trades for clients based on their past trades. The broker would also be able to plug in a “trade screener” to help identify potential trades and then push it into this software to quickly identify clients that might be interested in the trade. It also would have the ability for the broker to manually input a trade with all the parameters and generate a list of clients who might be interested. This software would ultimately help brokers better service their clients while reducing the amount of time needed to do it.

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 believe the pandemic has increased the need for unified communications. Every company has some unique needs and levels of importance when trying to implement all the options available to them. As I see it, companies want and more importantly need, to be able to bring them all together quickly and have them work seamlessly so they can focus on doing what their business does best vs trying to work with several independent technologies.

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?

It’s all very exciting. I can’t say one excites me more than another though. I like to take it all in, learn as much as I can and then think of ways to adapt them to my industry generally working to integrate it into a new product or service that we may want to launch.

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

I am still a firm believer in face-to-face meetings and get togethers, there’s just no substitution for it. Humans are instinctually programed to interact with each other. Many studies have shown a lack of social interaction can negatively impact your health. Like everything in life, balance is important. Managers and Team leaders need to pay close attention to this and make sure they plan regular team social events as we incorporate more of this technology into our business operations.

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?

Most of my interaction with clients and prospects was over the phone prior to the pandemic so not a whole lot has changed there. I did travel about once a quarter to speak at seminars and to visit other brokerage firms I advise on growth strategies. That has gone completely to video calls and go to meetings which have been successful but aren’t the same.

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 prefer to immediately address the issue and reach out over the phone versus email. I start by broadly discussing the issue and then drill down to what is going right and what specifically needs to be adjusted. Generally, the individual or team is doing 9 out of 10 things right so I think it’s important to acknowledge that just as much as the issue that needs to be addressed. After bringing attention to the situation vs the individual I offer suggestions on how I think it should be addressed and ask them to share with me how they think it should be addressed. So much of our business is mental mindset so I believe it’s important to end the conversation with an upbeat encouraging tone vs a negative one. I want to address the issue not ruin their day and have a negative impact on their performance for the next several hours.

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

Virtual team happy hours, a time and place to unwind with colleagues.

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. :-)

Virtual interactive financial education tools that allow investors and traders to take even greater control over their investment decisions.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

A lot of my vision and ideas are being implemented and displayed on our website https://rjofutures.rjobrien.com/

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