Remote Career Development: Sam Underwood Of Futurety On How To Advance and Enhance Your Career When You Are Working Remotely

An Interview With David Liu

David Liu
Authority Magazine

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When it comes to sensitive topics, email can be a great divider. We’ve had several major misunderstandings because of someone’s word choice in an email.

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 Sam Underwood.

Sam Underwood is VP of Strategy for Futurety, a Columbus, OH based data analytics firm. He manages client strategy and relationships, in addition to coordinating a team of 14 fulltime employees working on data analytics and digital marketing projects. He also supports special projects for Futurety Real Estate, a sister company that manages several commercial and residential properties across two states.

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 started as the first fulltime employee at Futurety in 2017, having previously worked in digital marketing for a small agency and in consumer research for a Fortune 500 financial services firm. In my role here, I get to do a little of everything — client strategy, client relations, HR, benefits, property management, new business, and so on. I’ve been featured in national media such as NPR for my approach in managing employee retention and satisfaction. I live in Columbus Ohio with my family, including 2 kids under 3 and a maniacal black lab.

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

I graduated from college in the depths of the Great Recession, and applied to nearly 200 jobs with no offers. I ultimately began my career working as a day laborer for a landscaping company, working 20 hour shifts shoveling snow and picking up trash at the mall, just to make ends meet. I finally landed a “career job” 9 months later, in which I suddenly found myself as the digital marketing decisionmaker for many of the same companies where I had been the trash guy just a month before!

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 was originally turned down from my first agency job, after being told I just wasn’t the right fit. I applied again 2 months later and got the job. I promptly showed up to my first day of work with the tag still on my new dress pants! In the 4 years I worked there, I won an employee of the month award nearly a dozen times and sobbed when I ultimately left for another opportunity.

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

In a season of major decision-making in college, I was once told by a mentor to “Major in the majors, and minor in the minors.” At the time, this applied to faith-based decisions, as my following of Jesus is central to my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized this applies in many more contexts, too — never lose sight of what’s really important, and make sure the little stuff, stays little stuff.

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

There’s no “secrets” to helping your employees thrive. It really comes down to doing the hard work, daily, of genuinely caring about your employees as people and thinking of them before yourself. No one is ever going to be perfect at this, but employees can tell when a boss really cares for them and puts their interests before their own. You can’t really overdo it on asking how someone is doing, how their kids/family is doing, how their weekend was, and so on.

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?

Speaking personally, we appreciate the opportunity for our employees to work remotely because it gives them more time with their families and in their communities. An employee who commutes to work daily has that much less time to play with their kids, volunteer on a local civic association, and other really good things. All of these involvements make for a better employee, and most importantly a better person and community.

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

  1. Onboarding. We onboarded 3 new employees entirely remotely, and it’s really hard. There’s just no good way to convey a culture to someone who only works from their living room, and generating buy-in to encourage someone to go above and beyond requires much more dedicated focus and patience to show them that their presence is valued and that their extra work is worth it.
  2. Engagement. We frequently find that there’s a general correlation between an employee’s years of experience and their engagement in a remote world (with plenty of exceptions). A younger worker may have more trouble staying focused and collaborating, than an older worker who has had a few years to create their daily routine.
  3. Communication. When it comes to sensitive topics, email can be a great divider. We’ve had several major misunderstandings because of someone’s word choice in an email. We’re big fans of avoiding “meetings that should be emails” but in a remote world, we’ve learned to err on the side of a short meeting to ensure tone can be understood correctly, to save time in the long run by avoiding mistrust.
  4. New business. We rely heavily on relationships (read: events and networking) to build our new business pipeline. When everyone is remote and events are virtual, it’s nearly impossible to build a solid relationship-based pipeline to sustain new business growth, at least in our experience.
  5. Small business growth. At the risk of overstating it, we see a culture of remote work as a threat to local, small businesses. When everyone is remote, the small, family companies lose their edge and familiarity, and start to struggle to recruit and retain high talent employees. We’ve seen this as a consistent trend amongst our peer group of startups and small businesses, all of whom are seeing their employees now recruited by fancy East/West Coast firms.

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?

One of our existing strategies, even pre-COVID, was to connect our work to a greater purpose. We intentionally work to add clients to our portfolio that do mission-driven work: Healthcare, poverty, education, and so on. When we were separated during the height of COVID, we made a point to emphasize how our work was impacting real people’s lives, beyond just giving each of us a paycheck. This seemed to help, from both an employee morale standpoint and really just from a perspective of helping all of us have something meaningful to focus on throughout a season with a lot of bad news.

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?

The most important thing is working to replicate the casual interactions that tend to happen in-person. I don’t think this necessarily needs to be “water cooler talk” about your weekend or your fantasy football team; it’s more about being intentional about asking someone older or more experienced to share their tips or ideas with you on a regular basis, and absorbing their general mindset when you can’t watch them in-person. Maybe this looks like a monthly virtual coffee, or asking a senior person to mentor you with a certain skill or project.

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

One of our strategies to help with career development is to help our team learn for themselves what they want out of their careers. Practically speaking, this means giving a standout employee the chance to work in a variety of different roles and projects, so they can start to separate what they think they want to do, from what they actually enjoy doing. These are often different things when reality hits, so our goal is to give especially early-career employees the chance to try a few different roles so they can see what they enjoy the most.

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. :-)

One of my personal beliefs is that without gratitude for what you already have, you can’t hope to achieve much more. I’d love to inspire all of us (myself included!) to go through each day focused on gratitude. Studies consistently show that people who approach daily life with gratitude are more kind, friendly, generous, and flexible, as they approach daily situations from a place of plenty rather than a place of lack. My faith in Jesus conveys the same idea: “Be thankful in all circumstances” is a key saying that is just as applicable today as it ever was.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://futurety.com/blog/ or my LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/samuelunderwood/

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