Empower Your People: Empower people by giving them decision-making authority on as much as possible within their scope or function. The less micromanaging within an organization, the more distributed your organization can become and the more success it will see.
An increasing number of organizations are tapping into the global talent market and building semi or fully-remote workforces distributed far and wide. While harnessing diverse talent can be a boon for innovation, this operational model is not without its challenges. In this series we ask seasoned HR and operations professionals and leaders about what it takes to run a geographically dispersed organization. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Juan Betancourt.
Juan Betancourt is the CEO of Humantelligence, an HR enterprise software solution like Grammarly, but instead of tips for writing, it surfaces tips for improved team collaboration, email communication, and meeting effectiveness. Humantelligence earned HRO Today’s 2022 HR Tech for Culture & Collaboration, TalentCulture’s 2023 Top HR Tech for Employee Collaboration, and most recently RemoteTech Breakthrough’s Overall Team Collaboration Solution of the Year awards. Juan also founded Gonza Executive Search, as well as served as a client partner for both Korn Ferry International and Heidrick & Struggles. He was an executive at Procter & Gamble, Decathlon, Siebel Systems, Reebok, and Puma. Recently named a Top 30 HR Tech Influencer by Recooty and a Top 100 HR Tech Influencer by HR Executive, Juan is an expert in helping organizations build high-performing teams, engage employees, and operationalize inclusion and belonging.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Before we drive 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 grew up in Maryland, as a Cuban American, going to public schools and competing in a variety of sports. Throughout my life, human connection and curiosity have proven to be strong themes. From learning five languages fluently, to meeting and fostering friendships with over 10,000 people (pen pals) by the age of 22, I would write more than 200 birthday postcards every morning from 6 to 9 am for 20 years. Luckily, that turned into b-day emails after 1997.
I lived abroad for 15 years after college in Germany, France, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Dubai — working at blue chip companies: P&G, Reebok, Puma, and Decathlon to learn management and business. This led me to Siebel Systems to learn software and technology, and then to Korn Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles to learn human capital management around hiring, leadership, team dynamics, and culture.
Spirituality and shamanic practices soon led to insights and the confidence to launch my current startup, Humantelligence, whose mission is to bring consciousness, connection, and emotional intelligence to the workplace. The tool is called Smarter AI Collaboration.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
When launching my startup, I believed that holding others accountable to the same level of quality and standards that I hold myself to, which admittedly is unrealistically high, would create a culture of performance and excellence. I was basically expecting A+ work on every project and initiative, down to even a very tactical level like emails, from each person at every level of my company.
However, I learned quite quickly that this would only lead to major burn out, and disengaged, unhappy employees. It showed itself in employee paralysis and a fear of failure, which only produced inaction. Instead, empowering people and letting them make decisions — whether I knew they were right or wrong — is more motivating. I had to hire smart, independent people, and change my mindset. If seven out of 10 times they were right, then don’t worry about the three times they might be wrong. My employees got so invested and committed that their energy and will to perform surged by 10x what it was when I was micromanaging them. It’s much better to have a team “all in” and performing steady than a burnt-out team constantly turning over.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first boss, Valentin Ramirez, at Procter & Gamble was that person. He helped me acclimate to a very F500 corporate culture at P&G. He showed me the ropes of how to work within a very buttoned-up culture, how to change my verbal communication and writing styles to be more effective in that environment, and how to present in a different way to influence others. We also found commonalities in our experiences as Hispanics. He was the person who trained me “red pen in hand” on what it took to do business in the U.S. at the most competitive and professional of levels.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The Harder I work, the Luckier I Am
My grandfather — my mother’s father, Alberto Facundo Borges — who immigrated from Cuba in the 1950s had that quote posted in his office back in Virginia, where he settled and grew our family. He was one of the hardest working and successful people I have ever known, eventually becoming the founder of modern-day plastic surgery. In fact, he founded the technique behind scar revision with W-plasty and Z-plasty that every plastic surgeon in the world uses today. I always admired his work ethic and modeled my life after his, believing in this quote to my core, that the harder I worked, the luckier I would get. And sure enough, I have been really lucky in life, which I fondly attribute it back to working hard.
Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?
That’s an interesting one. I’ve learned so much over the last 30 years in business and life, I’d have so much to tell young Juan. So here it goes…
Fulfillment is a function of purpose, not happiness. And you must look within yourself to figure out why this is true, and why people who are fulfilled, even those with so many challenges, are generally happier than those that are not. Once you turn 30, or say you encounter a major challenge in your life that feels insurmountable, that’s the time to look within. To do that, I would advise young Juan to look into what the US Supreme Court made legal in 2006, called Ayahuasca. It will change and transform any person into a better version of themselves and help you find the answers you need like no other process can.
Let’s now move to the central part of our interview. What are your “Top Five Strategies for Growing a Geographically Dispersed Organization”? Please share an example for each.
- Team Meetings: Use a video meeting on Monday or Tuesday each week to kick off the week and connect with your overall team. Share not only what was accomplished last week, but what each person is working on as a goal this week, and have people share something personal. Keep video on.
- 1-on-1 Weekly Meeting: In addition to the team meeting, use a video meeting near the end of each week to do a 1-on-1 meeting with each direct report. Get what I call their ‘mood meter’ which is a scale of 0–10 on how they’re feeling and why. Go over project deadlines, objectives, and deliverables, and what is expected. Connect on a human level, too. Keep video on.
- Monthly or Quarterly All Hands-on Deck: Get together physically as a group every quarter, and do something really FUN, team building, and not work-related. Or if that’s not feasible do a video conference call with everyone and make sure every gets a chance to speak, sharing a fun fact of personal anecdote, along with a professional achievement from the past month and what they are looking forward to working on in coming month.
- Written Updates/Info Sharing: Send out informational updates every week or month, or even by specific ‘win’, to entire company or team, about organizational goals, vision, and accomplishments. This keeps communication open, and everyone feels like they are part of something bigger — rejoicing in the success of a win or overcoming a challenge together.
- Empower Your People: Empower people by giving them decision-making authority on as much as possible within their scope or function. The less micromanaging within an organization, the more distributed your organization can become and the more success it will see.
Tell us a bit about your workforce, where are your people based?
At Humantelligence, we’ve always been a remote-first organization. As a startup, it was important to me to bring in the most talented people in their respective areas regardless of geographic location, time zone, or ability to come to an office. We have 15 people in 15 cities, across 2 countries — US is where most customer-facing associates are, and Colombia is where most of our software engineering team is located.
Why did you decide on a remote model, how has it benefited your organization?
I am Cuban-American and wanted to live and bring up my family in Miami. Professionally, I wanted to launch Humantelligence, a technology B2B SaaS company. However, in 2016, there were not many B2B SaaS-experienced software executives or engineers in Miami. So even before COVID, which forced many to go remote and build distributed teams, I recognized that to build a strong software company in Miami, I would have to create a remote team. It’s funny. Everyone now uses Zoom, but I was using it for 6 to 7 meetings per day back in 2016, way before it was a known brand or technology.
To me, it was important to bring in the most talented people in their respective areas regardless of geographic location, time zone, or ability to come to an office — and use the kinds of technology that would enable us to connect and collaborate as effectively as possible. The flexibility and ability to work in a remote fashion was challenging at first, but once we figured it out, it has become one of our strongest competitive advantages. We’re able to bring in top talent from anywhere in the world, and from the start, build a dynamic of inclusion and belonging because we’re all on an equal playing field.
What are the main challenges of operating a remote workforce and what strategies do you use to overcome them?
The challenges of working from home or in a distributed team:
- Isolation. It can be lonely. Make sure there are weekly zoom video meetings with every direct report in 1-on-1 fashion, and weekly team meetings. Set the expectation that cameras should be on — it helps with connection.
- Loss of Human Connection. Connection can be lost without seeing people in person. Leverage psychometric-based HR tech tools that leverage AI and APIs to surface personality, work styles and behaviors of your teammates in your email, calendar, and virtual workspaces like MSFT Teams, Zoom, or Webex. This can help you better understand your audience when writing, meeting, or collaborating. This increases trust, authenticity, and leads to deeper collaboration and higher performing teams.
- Home Office Distractions. This is tricky but can be avoided by hiring right. It took us two cycles to hire right and find people who are NOT distracted by working at home. Try to hire people who have already worked in a remote environment successfully, and who answer questions in detail about what motivates them to work from home, and why they do not like an office environment. This will give you good insight.
- Fewer Spontaneous Conversations. Encourage teammates to call each other when they have a quick question and NOT just email or Slack it every time. Verbal communication is 10x’s more enriching and engaging than an email. And I think we all can agree…we don’t need more emails!
- It can be difficult to collaborate — practice makes perfect. Find your rhythm, cadence, and way of collaborating remotely, and do it over and over, until it feels right. Like any new skill, it takes practice. Set that expectation for you and your team and give it time. Get feedback and do a pulse survey every so often on people and see where the process is failing. Then course correct.
- Career advancement takes extra work. The annual feedback cycles of semi-annual reviews and annual reviews, in personal 1-on-1 meetings, with documenting performance against MBOs (management by objectives), with KPIs should continue to happen.
- Learning & mentorship opportunities. Continue to have brown bag lunches and training opportunities in your remote environment. The plans, curriculum, and process to engage employees with learning opportunities should continue with the same energy and budget as if you were in office. Identify entertaining and engaging ways to do it in a remote environment. Here you need to do some research on different approaches because you cannot just lift and shift current in-office training programs to a remote environment.
Which tools do you utilize to help run a remote company?
I consider the following must-haves for running an effective remote company and distributed team.
- Virtual workplace collaboration platforms like MSFT Teams, Zoom, or Webex
- Emailing platforms like the G-Suite or MSFT Outlook, and chat like Slack or MSFT Teams.
- Project management platforms like Monday.com, Smartsheet, Zoho Projects, Workfront, Asana or MSFT Project
- Finally, psychometric-based extensions that plug into these collaboration platforms for virtual workspace, emailing, and project management, like Humantelligence. These tools sit on top of your platforms, and easily get turned on within 24 hours for hundreds or even thousands of employees to communicate and collaborate better, at scale. This plug-in improves human connection and collaboration which shows itself in tangible productivity from the team.
What strategies do you use to find, attract, and hire remote talent?
We leverage LinkedIn to find talent in any city in North America or Colombia. Our strong client list and awards help attract those candidates. As a startup, we entice candidates with equity ownership in the company, so they have an opportunity to build significant wealth upon an exit or sale of the company — something many companies only give to senior executives. We believe in giving significant equity to all employees, no matter what level.
From here, retention depends heavily on hiring people who believe in the vision, the project, and mission of the company and leadership. If they are motivated to their core about the essence of what the company is trying to achieve, people stay focused and interested, even when times are bad or slow — which inevitably happens in any company.
In addition, ensuring that your employees are constantly learning, challenged, and have decision-making power keep them content and un-poachable. In fact, with these strategies, we have not had any turnover and have kept the same high-performing team (yes, 100% of our employees) for the past 4 years!
What are your 3 main tips for leaders who want to build a geographically dispersed workforce?
- Minimize micromanaging & trust people. No good can come from micromanaging and trying to be in control of everyone’s areas. When you build a distributed workforce, that means you have an opportunity to pick talent from anywhere in the world. Find the best talent. Hire them. Then let them do their thing. Yes, there might be mistakes and issues, but those are learning opportunities for everyone. Empower distributed workers to make decisions and be their own boss.
- Hire the right people who can work remotely. Find people with successful experience working remotely, who truly believe in the vision/mission of the company.
- Constant cadence of contact, invest in the right tools. Look for technology that is designed to enhance human connection and, in effect, make work more human. Invest your time and resources in via video meetings with teams, groups, and 1-on-1’ and then use plug-ins for your communication tools that can enhance efficiency, productivity, and collaboration because those are the things that will drive results.
We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
Adam Grant, the well-known professor from Wharton Business School (my alma mater), is a thought leader and researcher around the topic of organizational culture and leadership.
Why? This past summer, at my Wharton MBA reunion in Philadelphia, he spoke to an audience of over 1,000 people, answering this question: What is the most powerful way to create a high performing culture at any company? He answered: “Give everyone at the company a User Guide — kind of like those we use for learning about a new tech gadget like your phone, TV, or other device — so that everyone in the company can understand each other — essentially a user guide on each other’s behaviors, motivators, and work styles. This would be the most powerful way to build a culture of collaboration and performance.”
I nearly fell off my chair. Right as he said that my phone started blowing up with text messages from all my friends in the room, because you guessed it, that kind of user guide already exists. It’s what we have built at Humantelligence — a solution for how employees can work together more effectively, integrated right within one’s workflows, kind of like Grammarly. I would love to have lunch with him and show him how his vision is now a reality.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!