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Rob Ganjon of Cella: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

I couldn’t have predicted this. Everyone is as productive as ever. Our own research found that 80% of teams found that remote work led to good or better productivity. And our culture is going to improve — we’re closer, more unified, and all marching to the same beat. We’re also much more efficient with our spend, and are giving our employees a much more convenient way to manage their work and personal lives.

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 Rob Ganjon, CEO, Cella.

Rob Ganjon joined Cella in 2018 as the company’s Chief Operating Officer, bringing with him an executive resume that reflects experience gained in senior roles ranging from marketing to finance and sales to operations. This breadth of expertise made Ganjon the ideal person to guide Cella through a rebrand, a corporate consolidation and a global pandemic. Following the rapid succession of these accomplishments, he was promoted to CEO in early 2021. Ganjon is passionate about both growth and leadership, and is focused on making Cella the number one creative, marketing and digital staffing provider in the country.

Based in Colorado, he focuses his personal time on his three kids, the Rocky Mountains and Clemson football — with the mountains and Tigers in a heated tie for second place. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School and a BS in finance from Clemson University.

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?

I’m a generalist, and the business growth guy. I’ve held a number of different roles in finance, marketing, sales and operations, but my main focus has usually been toward taking companies through their “awkward adolescence” phases and scaling. This is why I came to Cella. Cella has a fantastic history. We’re a staffing, consulting and managed solutions firm focused on the creative, marketing, digital and proposal development spaces. We’ve won numerous awards, including more than a decade of ClearlyRated’s Best of Staffing(r) awards. That said, we’re also a company that was quickly outgrowing our infrastructure. The life stage of Cella really interested me, and putting the right people, processes and systems in place to bring it to the next level is my job.

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

Leading a business through a global pandemic is nothing if not interesting. I worked in financial services during the great recession, but I wasn’t in the boardroom making the big decisions. Cella’s employees and consultants work for 30% of the Fortune 500. We had to transition our company to virtual during a completely unknown revenue environment, at the same time having to manage how our clients themselves were transitioning. We were managing employees in all 50 states with different mandates — it required and is continuing to require agility and flexibility. And there are still many unknowns.

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

Lucille Ball said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done,” and for me, given the choice, I’d rather regret action over inaction. I would rather say “that wasn’t a risk worth taking” than always wonder “what if.” When this is your default, it forces you to be deliberate about most things. A lot of folks live life in default mode, and go where the currents sweep them. I choose to be deliberate in both my work and personal lives. Even if I choose not to do something, it’s a choice.

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?

There are so many individuals who come to mind, but from an institutional perspective, I am extremely grateful to American Express, the company where I spent my first 12 years after college. If you think about it in years, that’s the same amount of time people spend in school in K-12. For me, AmEx was a leadership academy more than a payments company. Of course I didn’t fully grasp it while I was there. So many of the people I worked with at the time went on to do amazing things in the C-Suite and otherwise. When I’m coaching now, there are things that are embedded in me from an executive presence and training perspective that I know I learned at American Express. Rarely am I faced with some sort of leadership dilemma that I don’t feel well prepared to tackle.

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?

A lot of communication is non-verbal communication and it tends to get lost when you’re not physically together. An energy is there when people are together. It doesn’t happen in the same way when we are remote.

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?

It’s very hard to take advantage of the quiet moments when the team isn’t in the same physical space. On Zoom, when we take a break, we mute the sound and video and disappear. When you’re together and the meeting is over, there’s an energy and a connection in those in-between moments.

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.)

A number of my Cella colleagues have written great blogs that really tactically deal with how to creatively communicate during remote work and how to position yourself as a great remote worker. Rather than get specifically into my 5 things, I’ll tell a story about how and why I changed my mind about the need for shared team spaces and the results we saw.

When I first came to Cella, I was trying to get rid of our offices. Cella has numerous offices across the country and the critical mass shifts from time to time. Really, our office spaces would only work for about 6–12 months before we’d end up either space problems or culture issues. I’m a big believer that physical spaces do have an impact on energy which then impacts cultures. We had different size offices and different level and tenure mixes across the country, essentially creating a bunch of Cella subcultures. I wanted to get us out of our tiny offices, and then the pandemic forced our hand.

What I didn’t foresee was that the aggregate net impact on culture was positive. We blew up the confederation of different geographic centers, and by using the company intranet and messaging platforms, everybody is on a level playing field. People in an office that would never have had face time with the CSuite or senior leaders in the past now get that every day. You have the same access to information as everyone else regardless of where you sit. And we can use our messaging platforms as a megaphone communicating to everyone at the same time — this eliminates the grapevine to some extent.

I couldn’t have predicted this. Everyone is as productive as ever. Our own research found that 80% of teams found that remote work led to good or better productivity. And our culture is going to improve — we’re closer, more unified, and all marching to the same beat. We’re also much more efficient with our spend, and are giving our employees a much more convenient way to manage their work and personal lives.

Eighteen months ago, I would have thought that moving to a fully remote environment would be a big risk, but we’re committing to it. We’re going to be a virtual company. We’ll still keep two offices, but are changing them into an intermittent meeting space. And we’ll reinvest some of the savings into meet ups across the company to address the “in between” moments I mentioned earlier.

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?

Zoom for sure. We were a zoom company before the pandemic, and we’re continuing to upgrade our intranet and using different messaging platforms like GChat.

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

I don’t know. Maybe a hologram? Something like zoom, but where the folks you’re meeting with appear move lifelike and feel like they’re in the room with you instead of occupying tiny little squares on your monitor. I don’t have the slightest idea how to do that in a scalable, cost-effective way, but I’m sure someone smarter than me could figure that out. It sounds like we’ll all be living on Mars soon, so this shouldn’t be too hard compared to that.

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?

Wait, is this what I was just describing above? If so, then yes, I find that very exciting.

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

Only if it means I’ll have to stop wearing pajama pants.

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?

Everything has changed. It is certainly much harder to call someone — do you have their cell phone number or not? And there is definitely a trade off between not being able to meet in person and the time saved from not having to meet in person. Ultimately, am I stoked that my sales guy didn’t have to spend 12 hours on a plane to have a conversation? Yes. Is it a net positive given everything else he was able to do that with time? I think it is. Quality of interaction may be going down, but it’s much more efficient.

There’s also a change in expectations. Nobody is flying out anywhere right now.

That pressure to throw on a suit and come and close the deal? Right now, you’re not getting dinged for it.

Another positive has been around events. We had not done virtual events before the pandemic, but we’re finding that they are so much cheaper and easier to produce. But they are also much easier to attend. Customers and prospects can just block their calendar, as opposed to making a case to their boss for why they should take the time to go to your event.

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 am very deliberate in being direct and transparent and as real time as possible. That doesn’t change regardless of being face to face or through a screen.

I don’t like using the word criticism, even in the “constructive criticism” context. Criticism is a negative commentary on something that exists now or existed in the past. Words matter, so I frame everything as coaching. I’m giving you a suggestion on what to do in the future or what questions to ask to help if this situation comes up again. When you approach someone this way, they have a much lesser tendency to get defensive.

Even Tiger Woods has (or had) a coach. That coach is not criticizing the swing, he’s offering suggestions for improvement. One is forward looking, the other is backward.

As a leader, when it comes to giving feedback, I see my role and actions and activity as coaching.

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

I think it’s really important to take company-level vision statements and break them down into the department or team level so everyone feels like they are part of the mission and working together toward the same goals, regardless of where they sit. For example, Cella’s goal is to be #1 in all the spaces we operate in. What does that mean for the SE Delivery team? We have company revenue goals. What does that mean for the SW Sales Team? Think of it like those Russian stacking dolls — here’s how we all work together.

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. :-)

The pace of evolution and innovation in the business that Cella is in — creative marketing and digital — is so fast. When I hire someone, I’m not particularly interested in their marketing degree from 25 years ago. I want to know what they know about the space now. You can always reinvent yourself in this kind of career. I’d love to be able to provide training to the people who want to advance and learn the new skills in high demand and help them really jump into exciting lucrative career opportunities.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow Cella at www.cellainc.com, as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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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David Liu

David Liu

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