Sheila Stafford of TeamSense On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

Jason Hartman
Feb 28 · 16 min read

Humans are creatures of habit. Creating new habits is very difficult. Leverage the new habits and technology adopted during COVID to propel your business forward vs reverting back to the old once COVID is over. For example, many of our customers are looking at ways to keep the communication channel with frontline workers via their mobile devices open in the long run.

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Stafford.

Sheila Stafford is CEO of TeamSense, an employee communications start-up focused on revolutionizing work for frontline employees. Prior to Co-Founding TeamSense Sheila was a business leader and executive at both Fluke Electronics, a subsidiary of Fortive Corporation, and at Whirlpool Corporation.

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 like to say that I “grew” up in corporate innovation. I worked for a large consumer durable products company that would go to market with the same functional product across multiple brands ranging from value to luxury. I was responsible for bringing the same product to life across all of these brands. In order to accomplish this goal, it was imperative that you listen to customers and understand their needs beyond the surface “job to be done.” This product development experience taught me how to really understand customers, ask insightful questions and hone in on underlying motivations and ultimately their drivers of various behaviors.

After my product development experience, I moved into a business development/ innovation role where I was responsible for opportunity identification and then the development of a new to the world consumer durable product. In this role, I fell in love with the idea of a start-up. I was so proud that all of these team members had meaningful work because I was able to identify a need, build a business case, and then was granted the privilege to lead them in the creation of the vision. It was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time — I was hooked!

My career then took a strange twist as I was asked to lead the supply chain integration for a $1B+ acquisition in Europe. My family and I packed our bags and moved to Italy. I had absolutely no experience in supply chain, but I already possessed all the tools I needed to be successful. Remember the part above about understanding motivations and underlying behavior? Well, it turns out the supply chain is simply the middle man, you have customers on both ends — the factories that need to move the goods and the customers that need to receive them. Just like product development, different customers and different factories have different requirements. Once we were able to wrap our heads around the various requirements on each side, the puzzle was much easier to solve! Coming out of this experience I had gained confidence in my ability to lead a team in which I was not a functional expert and made the realization that my product development skills were leverageable well beyond product.

I continued to progress my career as a business leader, taking on responsibilities for the entire P&L vs just product metrics. I cherished “owning” the business unit from front to back. At this point, I had left the consumer durables company and had joined a B2B business focused on industrials.

After having experienced owning the P&L in a broader business, I was ready to take on the next step and truly, “own it all.” I was tapped to be one of the first employees, and founding CEO, for a new model in Corporate Innovation, a Corporate Venture Studio. TeamSense was born shortly after.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Just one? When a new customer comes on board, the first thing TeamSense sends is a “Welcome to TeamSense’’ message. This message serves two purposes. First, to catch anyone who may have the wrong contact info in the system, and second to provide a heads up that our program is starting at their facility the next day. We had just completed our welcome message coding and were very excited to deploy it for the first time at a brand new site for one of our largest accounts. That morning, the welcome message went out to their entire staff, and then it went out again, and again and again. 15 times in total over the span of 45 minutes! By the time we realized something was wrong, it was too late. The messages had spooled up on our server and were in queue to be sent. We discovered an error in our code that caused our servers to re-spool the message. We offered our sincerest apologies to the customer. Luckily the customer took it in stride and commented “now there is no way the team can say they did not know TeamSense was starting, it became a bit of an inside joke!” You can bet that the next welcome message we sent out, we were holding our breath!

Our relationship and trust built over time with this customer helped us recover quickly from the mistake and helps us to laugh about the situation now.

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?

I am indebted to all of the women that have come before me. My entire career path has been making my way in male-dominated fields from majoring in Mechanical Engineering, to working at General Motors, to corporate leadership, and most recently as a tech Start-up CEO. I am used to being the minority, but I am certainly not used to being the first. I have had the opportunity to learn directly from many of these women who were the first. My favorite, and most pronounced example comes from my very first job out of university, as an engineer at General Motors.

When I started at GM, I was placed under the mentorship of a woman who had worked her way from joining the company as the first woman on a factory maintenance team, to earning company-sponsored tuition for engineering school, to finally a position in engineering management. The role of our team was to oversee the design, and construction of new equipment to support the assembly plant. At peak times during the project, we would be responsible for hundreds of skilled tradesmen (and a few tradeswomen) as they brought the designs to life. The construction crews were especially difficult to earn the respect of, they were not used to a woman in charge nor were they used to the typical “office etiquette” that we were afforded back at HQ.

Despite the difficulty of the role and requiring to break through stereotypes, she earned the respect of her peers, her vendors, and her crews. This respect was not provided on day one but was built through excellence on the job, work ethic, and integrity over the course of years.

When I arrived, she was determined to help me succeed. She leveraged her personal brand to prop me up and to pass on her goodwill by vouching for me as a young engineer to all of these same vendors and crew. It provided me with a great start to quickly garner that same respect that had taken her years to build. Beyond helping me get started, she began an effort to help to propel my career forward. In leadership meetings she nominated me for tasks well beyond my years, touting my proficiency and potential. Behind the scenes, she pushed me to believe in myself, to take those challenges head-on, and then coach me as I navigated rough waters.

Despite retiring nearly 20 years ago she still keeps in touch and continues to follow my career. I am incredibly thankful for the mentorship, and for her willingness to help me pick up where she left off so I could continue to climb. I think about her often, and use her as my model when mentoring young talent.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am obsessed with “How I built this” by Guy Raz. I am an entrepreneur at heart, ever since I was a young kid I have been figuring out ways to make money. For example, growing up I had generic shoes from K-Mart or something, but I really, I mean REALLY wanted Nike shoes. Instead of just saying “no — you K-Mart shoes do the job just fine,” my parents came up with a compromise. I could have Nike shoes, but I would have to pay for half. At 10 years old, I was determined to have Nike shoes, so I got creative. I grew up less than 1 mile from where the Buffalo Bills played and created a few businesses leveraging the crowd. First I collected cans, turning each can in for the deposit ($0.05). After a few rounds of collecting by hand in the garbage bags, I built a trailer that connected to my bike from a refrigerator box, chicken wire, and some metal tubing to streamline the collection and redemption process. I could just set the trailer by the entrance, and I was free to do something else while it filled up. I then started selling candy to the fans. Eventually, I had a multifaceted business going, and I was bringing in a few hundred dollars for each home game! I bought those Nike shoes, and then bought a 1963 Volkswagen Dune Buggy (before I could legally drive) too!

In either case, back to the question, I am fascinated by the stories of other entrepreneurs and I love the way that Guy Raz digs into the childhood of the entrepreneur and links their upbringing and experiences together with the personal journey of building a business.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

At TeamSense, we are focused on revolutionizing work for frontline workers. We believe that, when used right, technology can play an integral part in improving culture, engagement, productivity, communications, safety, and more.

COVID-19 put frontline workplaces in the spotlight when it came to having a cohesive communications strategy. Despite some ups and downs in getting organized, when it came down to it, what really mattered was how employers were able to maintain open lines of communication with their employees. Offering information, support and empathy. Employees valued the companies that were able to demonstrate that human element right away. The employees felt as though the company was open, and transparent so that their teams felt like their company really valued them as part of their community and they were doing everything they could to keep the workplace safe.

Communication to these workers is hard. We also recognize that there are inherent challenges with large, hourly workforces, the rate of change and employee turnover, and the blend of languages spoken within each team. During a discovery call with a large manufacturing company, they shared that their employee to supervisor ratio was 120:1. I know that I have a team of 10, and I do not feel I have enough time to ensure each of them know they are valued, understood, and developed; let alone a team of 120! We immediately turned our attention to developing tools to make that manager more efficient — stopping the mundane shuffling of papers that often consumes their entire day- and providing more time to actually manage their people.

TeamSense was built to connect the dots in organizations- to give frontline employees the chance to use technology to help them feel more connected to the business (and in their preferred language), while also giving managers and business leaders the ability to share information in a new way: training materials, safety reminders, important announcements documents and more. TeamSense also recognizes that most of these workers prefer a solution that does not require an app download. We built TeamSense to enable all of this functionality without requiring an app or corporate email address to access.

That same ah-ha moment we had on the discovery call was later confirmed with data via research from Emergence Capital where they reported that frontline/deskless workers represented 80% of the global workforce, yet had only received 1% of Software Venture funding. A huge disparity, and at the same time, a huge opportunity to leverage technology to keep workers safe, informed and engaged.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We’ve had the privilege to work with customers who really want to innovate with us, and together we’ve identified some big opportunities to help frontline workers and their leaders be more effective and engaged. For example, consider the challenge of communicating important information to thousands of factory employees who work across three shifts. These employees don’t have a corporate email and don’t receive corporate announcements; in fact, they typically only find out about important information through a bulletin board or directly from their manager. Organizations are left wondering if everyone saw and understood the information, and employees are easily left in the dark. To combat this frustration, we just released a new beta feature that enables organizations to use the TeamSense infrastructure to craft and send messages to all their frontline employees with the click of a button. Already customers have used this infrastructure to send messages ranging from benefits enrollment reminders, to alerts of a COVID-19 outbreak, to severe weather alerts.

As we look ahead, we see endless possibilities in how this could be used to solve problems ranging from distributing safety training or engagement surveys to publicly recognizing employees for their amazing work. Beyond that, we are working with customers to develop a text-based call-off system, where employees can easily report that they’re not coming to work and TeamSense can automatically notify their manager. Such a system would replace the typical phone-based systems, which are often fraught with manual work and are unable to compile the information for managers.

All in all, our customers continue to show us opportunities for innovation that will cut down manual work, improve employee engagement, and make their jobs easier, and we’re excited to continue working with organizations to solve these challenges.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation sounds really fancy, as if magically you move from technology laggard to cutting edge overnight. Transformation in business and in life simply does not and cannot happen overnight. Instead, transformation is achieved one step at a time, a slow progress of small changes that when taken in the singular are not that meaningful but when added, and are continuously built upon, they can yield profound changes over an extended period of time.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

All companies should constantly be evaluating how they can improve their people, processes, and systems/tools. We find that oftentimes the employees are frustrated, they say “we knew there was a better way!” — but they are never afforded the time to search, review and evaluate solutions. Just like companies should seek customer feedback on how to improve their product, it is just as critical to seek feedback on how to improve your company. Ask them for ideas on how they would improve, and then give them the opportunity to discover, test, and implement a better way.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

We’ve been amazed and encouraged to hear how TeamSense has transformed the way our customers work and engage with their teams.

What many people who work office jobs need to realize is how much they rely on their corporate computer to connect to their company. Important announcements, employee surveys, learning corporate processes and standards, or even requesting vacation — all these things typically require your corporate computer or email.

Imagine you’re an hourly worker. You don’t have a corporate computer. Maybe you have a corporate email but you don’t really have any way to access it. You’re cut off from your employer, and your manager is cut off from you. Employers desperately try to fill the gap with manual or paper-based processes, but those are time-consuming and often still don’t reach everyone.

These issues have existed for decades, but COVID-19 exacerbated the issue. For example, we talked to one employer who had an outbreak at their facility and needed to notify employees not to come to work. The only way they could do so was to individually call every employee!

When you think about this environment, small steps toward digital transformation can have an enormous impact.

We’ve seen TeamSense eliminate costly, manual screening processes that were tying up resources for hours each day. Multiple organizations have found that TeamSense is the easiest way for them to see if someone is coming to work or on-site, which has helped them set up shifts with confidence — knowing that the right individuals will be at work. Our communication infrastructure has enabled organizations for the first time to rapidly share critical information with hourly workers, like a COVID-19 outbreak notification, a reminder of the deadline for benefits enrollment, or a severe weather alert. We’ve heard from customers how TeamSense has increased engagement between employees and their managers, given them a space to share employee recognition, and has elevated a culture of safety.

Overall, we’ve seen organizations use TeamSense as a digital enabler for connecting with employees on a new level and eliminating the cost, time, and uncertainty of manual processes. And we’re just getting started! There is so much opportunity here to empower hourly workers and their leadership with better tools to do their jobs and build stronger relationships between employers and employees.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

One of the biggest challenges we have witnessed are companies protecting their own beliefs about technology adoption across the workforce without ever directly testing or asking the workforce directly. “Our employees will not use their personal phones” “our employees do not want to be ‘bothered’ with company news” “the next thing is they will want to be paid for the time spent reading texts”

In our experience, many of these projections are simply not true. The team has simply never asked nor ran an experiment to see what percentage of the workforce really feels that way. It turns out that hourly employees are like any other type of employee, they want to feel safe, connected, and informed.

In order to resolve these concerns, we offer free trials of our service so they can run that experiment and answer the questions with data vs opinion. We urge our potential customers to jot down in advance clear measures of success (adoption rate, time savings, cost savings, etc). This way when the trial is complete they have an easy business case and ROI ready to go.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Humans are creatures of habit. Creating new habits is very difficult. Leverage the new habits and technology adopted during COVID to propel your business forward vs reverting back to the old once COVID is over. For example, many of our customers are looking at ways to keep the communication channel with frontline workers via their mobile devices open in the long run.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

In order to create a culture of innovation, you first have to create a culture of experimentation. A culture of experimentation gives permission for team members to try new things and an understanding that sometimes those new things may fail. Experimentation also implies the most fundamental building block to innovating: learning. Regardless of the result of the experiment, it is the knowledge gained that propels you forward.

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

“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Over the course of my career, I continue to be humbled by the people that I have had the opportunity to learn from, grow with, and especially those I have had the opportunity to lead. I strive to give my very best day in and day out, to my team, my customers, and my investors. In the end, that is all that I can ask of myself, and all they can ask of me. I too, like RBG, hope to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent I have to do my work to the very best of my ability.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn or follow our progress as we revolutionize work for frontline workers at: www.teamsense.com

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