Richard McLain of INE: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Make time for intentional interpersonal interactions. Remote work can be really isolating and lonely for people. In an office setting, you can gauge the morale pretty easily by walking around and talking to people. In a remote environment I’ve found I have to be really intentional about reaching out to people on an individual basis. I try to reach out to people who I don’t have regular contact with through meetings, just to check in and talk about anything but work. It may feel counterproductive to take 30 minutes just to shoot the breeze, but I believe it lets people know that as a leader, I’m invested in them and I care about them — not just the work they are producing.
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 Richard McLain.
As CEO of INE, Richard McLain’s vision is to develop tomorrow’s IT experts through a savvy approach combining practical hands-on training with videos and assessments. Graduating with an undergraduate and graduate degree in Software Engineering along with an M.B.A. from Auburn University, Richard has honed his business and software leadership experience across various technology sectors. Since beginning his INE journey in 2010, Richard has focused on creating an IT education platform that has trained students worldwide and continues to drive client value through new and innovative learning techniques.
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?
There’s not a moment in time I can remember that I was not obsessed with technology. As a kid, we had the original Atari and Commodore machines. Our first computer was a Compaq 8086 and in fact, my parents had one of the first Macintosh computers with Steve Jobs’ signature on the inside. I taught myself about hacking at the age of 13 and became insatiably curious about technology. I grew up surrounded by and immersed in technology, and never even considered doing anything else professionally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
RM: The most interesting story in my career probably revolves around the evolution of INE from a company that was scraping by day to day, to the successful multi-million-dollar company it is today. When I started with INE in 2008, there were maybe 14 people on staff. Half of them were related to the owner, a college classmate of mine, and every day felt like the last day the company would exist. We were literally on the verge of shutting down every day. It was a scary time, but set up a certain mindset for me that if you don’t fight, you’re dead. So every day, I was fighting for the survival of the company and my job, working 20 hours a day, answering support tickets overnight and doing sales during the day to keep the business afloat. It turned my passion for technology into a rabid determination to make good on the promise we were making to deliver quality training to students. That mindset is still with me today, and it is why part of our mission statement at INE is “We operate like a startup.” INE has grown into a very successful company, but it is so important to me that our employees still wake up with passion, excitement and creativity every single day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
RM: I don’t know that it is a quote, but I generally operate under the principle of “create more than you consume, and when you do consume make sure its adding value to your life.” I don’t keep apps like Facebook on my phone. Adding friction between yourself and endless scrolling is the only way to remain sane! My advice is to spend time doing what you love.
None of us are 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?
RM: I’d have to say one of the key influencers in my career was my advisor at Auburn University, Dr. Homer Carlisle. I remember sitting in his office one day after I’d earned all the credits for my Ph.D. in Software Engineering, and he encouraged me to go a different path. Up until that point I don’t know that I had considered an alternative to pursuing a dev job, but ultimately it was because of Dr. Carlisle’s influence that I shifted gears and entered business school. He pushed me to explore areas outside my comfort zone, and I owe a lot of where I am today to Dr. Carlisle.
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?
RM: Even though INE’s training platform has been 100% virtual for a long time, as a company we have traditionally put a lot of value into in-person team collaboration. When we were all in the office together, we did a lot of team-building events and activities to keep people engaged and happy. We got to know one another beyond colleagues, and began to understand what made each other tick. Those building blocks helped us understand each other better professionally, and helped the company as a whole operate at a high level of collaboration and unity. Whether it was happy hours, team lunches, trivia nights or holiday events — we always tried to make the office environment a place that fostered camaraderie and support.
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?
RM: One of the biggest challenges is trust. When you are working in the same physical space, people can see what others are doing and know that work is getting done. In a virtual environment, you really have to trust that your co-workers are pulling their weight so that the entire team can produce results. If team members can’t trust each other, there can be big problems in a virtual environment. Fortunately for us, INE’s traditional emphasis on team building had created such strong bonds within the ranks, that going virtual felt almost seamless. Like many companies, we rely on video conferencing apps, Slack and email. But we also know each other very well and there’s no doubt that has helped us in a virtual world. Another challenge is onboarding new employees. INE has grown tremendously over the past year, which means a significant number of employees have joined the company without ever setting foot inside the office or meeting a single colleague in person. Having a system in place to help integrate new employees into the team effectively has been critical to INE’s success as a growing organization. We organize meet-and-greets and take intentional steps to make sure new employees feel welcomed and are fully embraced part of the team, so they can perform at their highest level while also feeling invested in the success of the company as a whole.
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 — Develop a clear delegation of responsibility. Take intentional steps to make sure communication is flowing through the proper channels. You also need to have trust and faith that the managers you put in place throughout the organization will execute their roles. In this regard, I see video chat platforms like Zoom as both a blessing and a curse. As the CEO, I am now so accessible and hands-on that if I’m not hyper-aware, I can have my entire day filled with back-to-back video calls. We are still trying to find our way in this respect, but making sure all employees have a clear picture of what they are responsible for can cut through some of the clutter.
2 — Establish virtual boundaries — In an office, people walk away from their desk all the time — to go for a walk, talk to a colleague or get a drink. But in an all-remote environment, I think a lot of times the expectation is that you must respond instantly so people know you are working. Ultimately, people end up sacrificing a lot of time they might otherwise spend brainstorming or just reflecting. As an organization, we are beginning to take real steps to set more realistic expectations for replying to messages. Not every question needs an instant response, and problem-solving can be a big confidence booster for people. The challenge and adrenaline of tackling and solving an issue can be exhilarating! Without boundaries, you can lose these moments, which can add up to big wins for employees and for the company.
3 — Make time for intentional interpersonal interactions. Remote work can be really isolating and lonely for people. In an office setting, you can gauge the morale pretty easily by walking around and talking to people. In a remote environment I’ve found I have to be really intentional about reaching out to people on an individual basis. I try to reach out to people who I don’t have regular contact with through meetings, just to check in and talk about anything but work. It may feel counterproductive to take 30 minutes just to shoot the breeze, but I believe it lets people know that as a leader, I’m invested in them and I care about them — not just the work they are producing.
4 — Make team-building a priority. Honestly — this is really tough in a virtual environment. Our employees are based all over the world, so even before the pandemic forced us to go all-remote, INE had worked to establish some great “watercooler”-type tools for colleagues to interact. We have really active non-work-related channels in Slack for people to chat about video games, their pets, what they’re having for dinner — that kind of thing. Since going remote, we’ve replaced our weekly in-person trivia matchups with a Slack version. And we’ve created channels exclusively for positive shoutouts. It doesn’t replace those in-person watercooler moments, but having dedicated places to share parts of your life with colleagues helps create those bonds that ultimately make the company stronger.
5 — Elevate the cheerleaders. I love to identify those people who really have a passion for the organization and goals, and give them the microphone. This doesn’t have to be department leaders — it can be anyone within the company who has the potential to be a brand champion. Not long ago, I was meeting with an employee who mentioned to me she was really struggling in her current role. She wasn’t happy, but she was a great employee and I knew I wanted to find some way to keep her within the organization. Together we came up with a creative solution that involved moving her to a different department. She’s thrilled with her current position and it was a huge win for the company because she’s a great brand cheerleader. I think empowering those positive, passionate people to speak up can also reach people who may be feeling stray. By hearing a strong message from a colleague rather than a boss, those on the edge can start to buy into the brand and begin elevating their own performance.
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?
RM: We moved pretty rapidly into the remote environment. Most employees either took their company-issued laptops home, or were issued laptops if they used desktops at work. We do a lot of studio production, which of course all had to be shifting to remote. Several department leaders really got creative when it came to quickly equipping people with cameras, microphones, lighting and other instruments they would need. I felt that getting the team up to speed from home as quickly as possible was critical, and we really spared no expense to make sure people had the tools they needed to thrive at their job from home.
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?
RM: Most of the tools we use today are a double-edged sword. Slack and Zoom are great and offer huge communications benefits. But the drawbacks are the constant interruptions. You can’t work for 5 minutes without Slack dinging, or sometimes an entire week is jammed with video calls and not enough time in between to dig into projects. I’m a huge fan of technology, obviously, but I think in hindsight maybe we should have set more stringent limits out of the gate to get the most out of the great communications tools we have access to.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
RM: I think the tools already exist. What’s missing is the right kind of boundaries to use the tools effectively. There are plenty of ways to “meet” and communicate virtually, so I see the issue as more a lack of boundaries than a lack of choices. One industry that has really managed to harness the power of virtual communication is competitive E-sports. It’s grown exponentially over the last decade, and has found a way to work together as a team in a virtual environment very effectively. When they have 20-person teams, communication is crucial and they have unlocked the key to successful execution. I think we as a tech industry can learn a lot from that, and utilize some tools they use like Discord servers that keep the team engaged and on voice 100% of the time.
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?
RM: Even now, a year later, there are a lot of communication challenges. The biggest problem today is that you’re not walking around the office and gathering teams. You are relying almost exclusively on a combination of live communication tools like cell phone and video chat, along with email, instant messaging, text messaging and screen sharing. So you’re scheduling Zoom calls and maybe forgetting someone and now they’re not getting the message. Or sometimes you have to invite extra people or hold additional meetings to have reassurance the messaging is reaching everyone. Then, even if teams DO understand the message you’re trying to get across, sometimes the reason behind it gets lots. So they understand WHAT they’re doing, but not really WHY they’re doing it. Figuring out ways to communicate the WHY is critical. Earlier this year we announced a major pricing model shift that I knew would require buy-in across departments for a successful rollout. I set up an All Hands meeting and was very intentional in explaining to the team not just WHAT we were doing, but also WHY it was important to the organization. There were differences of opinion within the company of course, but I think knowing from the beginning where I stood and why we were taking that route helped get people on board quicker.
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?
RM: There’s a lot coming down the pipeline that I’m excited about. I’m most hopeful for quantum computing. I think in the short term augmented reality could be an amazing tool if it can rise past the “gimmick” status it is in right now. I was one of the early users of Google Glass, and even though that never really caught on, there was something transformative about that technology in terms of always having a camera on your head. I have so many moments of my daughter that I could never have captured on my phone. Looking ahead, as we look into data science and machine learning, all of that will be part of our lives. Especially as the Starlink project Elon Musk is pushing gains traction. That has massive potential in terms of getting the internet everywhere, and can unlock doors in every industry. I think about autonomous vehicles and drones — there are so many technologies on the horizon. It’s a really exciting time to be alive, and especially to be immersed in the tech industry!
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
RM: Privacy is obviously a huge concern, as society depends more on technology and automation. I think algorithms will surge ahead and be able to very accurately predict every aspect of our lives. But the downside of that could be an over-reliance on predictive behavior. Predicting likely scenarios is not the same as seeing those scenarios play out in reality, and I don’t want to see people or organizations punished for actions they haven’t taken. I think that’s a really dangerous, really slippery slope that we as a society need to be aware of.
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?
RM: INE’s training platform has been 100% virtual for quite some time, so our interaction with customers has changed very little. Fortunately when the pandemic hit, we were already in a position where we were comfortable and very skilled at translating the feel of in-person classes to an online platform. Because we have grown so rapidly during the pandemic, we have been relying more on virtual assistants and video calls to handle incoming requests.
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?
RM: I wouldn’t say the remote environment makes these tough conversations more difficult — I think you just have to approach them in a different way. You have to be very direct. Sometimes you have to make decisions and take steps that are confrontational like putting someone on a performance plan or giving less-than-stellar feedback. It can be a difficult conversation but a remote environment doesn’t really change that. I just try to be as direct as possible, and operate by the principle that being clear with someone about your expectations is always the best policy.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
RM: This is so important! Shortly after the pandemic forced us into remote work, we began hosting a monthly virtual “Town Hall” meeting open to all employees, in addition to monthly “All Hands” meetings. While the “All Hands” meeting is meant to inform employees of what is happening within the company, the “Town Hall” format is designed for employees to have a platform to ask questions to upper management. We find this keeps virtual doors open, and the secret to our success here is that we genuinely value what our employees say during these meetings. When and if there are concerns raised, we take steps to address them immediately. It started as an opportunity to give employees a chance to be heard, but in reality has morphed into a very useful tool for management to continue growing the company in a way that the team can embrace and have ownership in. And — our Slack Trivia Thursdays are pretty epic.
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. :-)
RM: Education has always been a huge part of my life. As the son of two physicians, studying, good grades, and college were all expected. Society, especially here in the US, puts a lot of pressure and expectations on our youth regarding specific paths to success. We tell kids, go to college and figure out “what you want to be when you grow up.” So kids and/or their parents take on massive amounts of debt to figure out what they want to BE. So what’s the top item on my to do list? Revolutionize education. Design and build a platform dedicated to hosting the world’s top instructors, provide hands-on practical training, and a career path that gives students visibility, expectations and aspirations for their career. On top of all the platform and content changes on the roadmap, our team is working on creating new career focused certifications. I see certifications as mental and meaningful milestones in your career journey. Currently, INE has 14 certifications that span across different aspects of cybersecurity. And this is just the beginning. This is not something we are going to do alone. We are talking with people in the industry, and we are also talking with other students who have been successful along their own journey, so that we can incorporate the best of it all into our platform.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
RM: INE has a very active blog on our website, INE.com. I hop in there and post often. You can also find my articles in numerous publications including Forbes and CyberCrime Magazine.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
RM: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.