Remote Career Development: Jeff Mains Of Champion Leadership Group On How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely

An Interview With David Liu

David Liu
Authority Magazine
13 min readDec 8, 2021

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Shine. Connect, participate, ask questions, and engage, especially if those feel a bit outside your comfort zone. Team members and managers miss out on your valuable contributions. When asked how to become famous, master comedian Steve Martin answered, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” As a remote employee, this is achieved through exemplary work plus going the extra mile to contribute to discussions, be early, pay attention, and stand out for all the right reasons.

Career development is the ongoing process of choosing, improving, developing, and advancing your career. This involves learning, making decisions, collaboration with others and knowing yourself well enough to be able to continually assess your strengths and weaknesses. This can be challenging enough when you work in an office, but what if you work remotely? How does remote work affect your career development? How do you nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues? How can you help your employees do this? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely”. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Mains.

Jeff Mains is a business growth expert and CEO of Champion Leadership Group where he helps entrepreneurs transform from “engaged operator” to “empowered owner” so that they create a business they’re proud of and a life of significance and impact. Jeff is a bestselling author and keynote speaker where he regularly provides practical strategies that help companies to move from obscurity to market dominance.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I am an entrepreneur at heart, from a young age selling lemonade and candy bars to my teen years rounding up a few friends to mow lawns for jobs that I sold. From small beginnings, the ideas and deal size increased. Over the past twenty years, I have built five companies generating over $200M in combined revenue and sold four of them to Fortune 1000 giants. Each was in a different industry and through that learned that I enjoy variety and learning new things. Each company had a technology component, so many people think I am technical. Far from it! I’m a sales and marketing guy who constantly asks “What if?” and hires super-smart people to bring ideas to life. My role has been listening to clients, creating differentiated solutions, and making irresistible offers to win business against competitors hundreds or thousands of times our size. I captured and shared some of my best strategies in my book Small Fish Big Pond: Building a World Class Business That Swims Circles Around Competitors.

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

With a few successful ventures behind me, I thought I had an exceptional talent at picking winners and began funding early-stage companies as an angel investor. Some had moderate success, a few crashed and burned, and I had the opportunity to hear hundreds of pitches. One memorable pitch was a founder with a unique idea for vending machines; these would distribute DVD rentals. The entrepreneur shared his story, complete with revenue and profit projections based on two prototypes placed in prominent office towers. He asked for a modest investment ask in return for significant equity. Since I had some experience with a vending business while in college, I “educated” him on the difficulties of placement, recommended he reduce his projections to “realistic” numbers, and passed on the investment. Others were more open-minded. Within a year, hundreds of red DVD rental kiosks began popping up across the country.

This was a painful lesson about overconfidence in imaginary abilities. These experiences forced me to become much more financially literate, create a structured way to evaluate innovations, and consistently reaffirm my love of entrepreneurs and the good we do in the world. Expensive and valuable lessons have served me well since.

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?

I’ve made so many mistakes so it is hard to pick. In my early days, I started a new job at a large tech firm. We began with a week-long new hire training. The first day we received a four-inch-thick binder stuffed with all we were to absorb that week. After the day wrapped up, I chatted in the parking lot with some of my new coworkers before heading home. Halfway through my rush-hour drive on a busy expressway, I saw an explosion of white in my rearview mirror. It looked like a giant flock of doves dive-bombing traffic, except some of these doves floated, like paper. Lots and lots of paper flying skyward! Seconds after I realized that I had left my colossal training binder on top of my car, now spewing its corporate guts all over the highway, it went airborne. There was not even enough left of it for a proper burial.

The following day I was the only one without a binder, which was both awkward and obvious. At lunch, I shared the story with a few of my new coworkers. Two of them witnessed the paper storm in traffic but did not know I was the culprit. We had a good laugh, and they stepped up with a solution. A little teamwork and four copy machines got me back in the game. That job didn’t last too long, but several of those coworkers remain friends over twenty years later.

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

“Wherever you are, be there.” As an entrepreneur, work never stops, especially in the startup phase. During the early days of one bootstrapped startup, I juggled a small team at work and tried to be a good husband and father at home. When I worked long hours, I felt guilty about not being home with my wife and kids. When I was at home, I was preoccupied with everything left undone at work. It is impossible to build something meaningful when you are always somewhere else. One of my long-time mentors shared this little nugget of wisdom on me and it completely shifted the way I approached relationships on both sides of the equation. When I work, I am wholly focused there. When I at home, I consciously leave work at the front door to be fully present with my family. This quote was an absolute gamechanger that freed me to succeed on both fronts. The transition to working remotely has actually made that more difficult, and more necessary than ever.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?

Paint a vivid picture of appreciation and hope. Show employees how they are significant and the impact of their work now. This is genuine appreciation. Then, show them what is possible for them in the future. This is hope. Employees who simply do tasks blind to the ultimate value or impact are quickly reduced to “human doings” instead of human beings. We all want to believe our work matters and our efforts make a difference.

As leaders, we must ensure every employee clearly understands the company’s big vision, how their role fits into it, and how they make the world a better place. Vivid pictures don’t develop in a single conversation, a poster on a wall, or an orientation video. They require multiple brush strokes of constant feedback and encouragement to use their unique talents, skills, and gifts. Tell them, tell them, and then tell them again. When you are tired of saying it, they are probably just starting to get it.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunities but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?

One of the great benefits is time savings. Traffic obstacles become stepping over Legos and dodging the dog. That sure beats an hour commute each way. Getting that time back can undoubtedly improve the quality of life. Another benefit is a flexible environment. Employees can live anywhere, even their dream location, or travel for extended times. This too can improve life quality and boost the available ways to rejuvenate and recharge.

Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?

  1. Invisibility. Employees working remotely can easily be “out of sight, out of mind.” Working remote may seem ideal for quiet introverts, more than gregarious extroverts; however it can impede career growth with far less opportunity for management interactions. Both introverts and extroverts may be great performers but because introverts are less vocal and “don’t rock the boat,” they can be much less visible across the remote organization.
  2. Loneliness and isolation. For many, the workplace is a primary point of human contact in real life. We are social beings created for connection. Without social interaction, mental and emotional health suffers, which can cause a downward spiral in physical wellbeing. Business and medical journals have described a “loneliness epidemic” in our culture, and the increase in remote work has intensified it.
  3. Team Unity. Trust and communication are core pillars of high-performing teams. It takes time to build trust and moments to erode it away. Remote work can feel more like a solo mission than a collaborative team effort. New team members may develop slowly as job shadowing and mentoring are more difficult virtually. Employees may be less likely to ask questions, and when they do ask, answers are filtered or come slowly.
  4. Poor boundaries. Without the clear delineation and structure of being in an office, it is easy for the lines between home and work to blur. For some, that means working longer hours, not taking breaks, lousy self-care, and burnout. For others, it means laundry, playing with the dog, taking care of kids, binging Netflix, and similar distractions. For better or worse, you are essentially your own boss. Your mileage may vary.
  5. Groundhog Day. Remote workers can get stuck in a time loop where everyday is the same. It is very easy to get into a routine, attend endless sometimes mindless meetings, and wake up to do it all over again. Employees may wake up and realize that they have been adrift for two years with little meaningful career progress.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?

  1. Shine. Connect, participate, ask questions, and engage, especially if those feel a bit outside your comfort zone. Team members and managers miss out on your valuable contributions. When asked how to become famous, master comedian Steve Martin answered, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” As a remote employee, this is achieved through exemplary work plus going the extra mile to contribute to discussions, be early, pay attention, and stand out for all the right reasons.
  2. Get Up, Get Out. Change your location, change your mental state. Instead of staying chained to a desk all day, work outside, at a park, bookstore, or a coffee shop. Find places and events to connect with other people face to face. Attend local industry or networking events. Meet a friend for coffee, drinks, or lunch. One of the best ways to combat loneliness is to serve others. Volunteer at a charity that aligns with your interests and values. You are guaranteed to meet other kindred spirits and make a difference for others. Charities around you desperately need competent professionals like you. There is no faster way to clear brain funk and improve mental health than serving and brightening another person’s life.
  3. Build Bridges. Get to know coworkers on a personal level. Schedule a virtual coffee or lunch with a coworker and spend some time talking about anything but work. Unity and trust flow out of “know and like,” while disharmony comes from unknowns, assumptions, misperceptions, and stereotypes. Building relationships virtually requires a little extra effort and commitment. Eliminate distractions and treat these meetings like you are in the same room or restaurant. Be fully present with the other person without unnecessary distractions. When we are remote, we are removed. When we are face to face, we see eye to eye.
  4. Good Fences. Structure your day. Create a time-blocked schedule with a set start time, end time, lunch, and breaks. While not everything in your calendar is entirely within your control, many things are. One thing that has helped me and many of my clients is using the Pomodoro method, which uses a timer to break work into highly productive, undisturbed blocks and breaks. Break time does not mean sitting in your chair and checking social accounts. Get away from your desk and do something else. I have found that a fifty-minute sprint followed by a ten-minute break works best for me. My most productive and mentally satisfying days contain at least two of these sprints, along with lunch away from my desk. Take care of yourself first. The work will still be there in an hour.
  5. Keep it Fresh. Look for opportunities to collaborate and cross-train. Seek a deeper understanding of colleagues’ roles in and outside your group. Create ways to collaborate with team members. Listen, learn, and add value. You will be amazed at what you learn and how useful each piece of information becomes in understanding the entire puzzle. Find ways to add diversity to the mundane.

Let’s talk about Career Development. Can you share a few ideas about how you can nurture and advance your career when you are working from home and away from other colleagues?

Talk with those above you about the company’s future plans and likely roles for advancement. Communicate your goals and chart a path for the future together. What interesting opportunities are likely to come up within the organization? What experience will be most valuable in your industry? Most managers and executives appreciate this initiative, and it raises organizational visibility for future promotion.

No one cares about your advancement and development as you do. Companies can be fickle, managers change, and opportunities dry up. Never leave your destiny in someone else’s hands. Take control of your future and map out your own growth plan. Where do you want to be in a year? What will you need to know? What skills need to be developed? How do you need grow personally? Add this self-development block to your schedule and commit to it. Several of my peers have replaced their commute time with daily dedicated self-study blocks. Small daily steps, consistently, add up to big results. Learn a language, finish a degree, get a certification, play an instrument, paint a masterpiece, or read 100 books. The goals are yours. Own it and achieve it.

Can you share a few ideas about how employers or managers can help their team with career development?

Transparent Communication: Remote employees often voice concerns about being “out of the loop” compared to in-office team members. When communication reaches them second or third-hand, it may be filtered or arrive too late to be helpful. Communicate

Pay Attention: Employee growth does not happen by accident or osmosis. It requires focused attention, time, and effort on the part of leadership. Employees perform better when they know leadership is watching. Pay attention and catch them doing something right. Make it a point to compliment remote workers regularly.

Say No to Tetris: Scheduling time with managers should not feel like a game of Tetris where employees try to fit meetings into impossible blocks. Leave time blocks open to meet with your team. Be the initiator, schedule regular appointments at specific intervals. Ensure your team feels like a priority and has the access they crave rather than feeling like an interruption or afterthought.

Buddy Up: Pair up new employees with an existing team member to “show them the ropes.” Doing this connects them with one or more people in the organization who can help them feel welcome, teach them the culture, and help navigate an already challenging process of being the “new kid.” A side benefit is that the current employees perceive this role as a gesture of confidence, trust, and promotion in responsibility.

Virtual “Water Cooler”: Connect employees virtually with no set agenda. We open a virtual meeting room every morning where employees can come and go as desired. Team members miss the casual interaction of being in the office. Some join to interact, some to listen, and some just pop in to ask a quick question. Any interaction among staff members is a plus. Slack, a chat app used by many companies, has an add-on app called “Donut,” which randomly connects two people for a virtual coffee meeting. This is a great way to connect employees who might never meet even if they were in the office. The more connection points and friendships, the more likely employees are to stay with an organization.

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. :-)

A movement of mentoring. I support a fantastic non-profit headquartered in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas called Dare to Serve (daretoserve.org) that connects mentors with high school students in underserved communities. The students plan and participate in service projects within their communities. Within their school, students collect items and manage a “Care Cabinet,” which provides food, toiletries, coats, and more for fellow students at no cost. It is easy to look at it from the outside and think these “underprivileged students” are the ones who need help. Sure, that’s true sometimes. Every single one of them has beautiful talents, skills, and gifts to share; that is true all the time.

When we don’t believe in ourselves, we play small. When we don’t see a bright future, we accept the status quo. Mentors change that. They help the students believe in a future of hope, options, and promise. Mentors unlock and activate the unique greatness inside, so students use their talents, skills, and gifts to benefit others. This key relationship dramatically alters the life trajectory for the student, and the students inspire and elevate those around them. That is what we need more of in this world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow me on social media @jeffkmains on all platforms or visit ChampionLeadership.com

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.

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David Liu
Authority Magazine

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