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Tracee Aliotti of CBT Nuggets: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

Don’t skip the small talk: We’re busy professionals. We’re known for cutting to the chase and gettin’ down to business. And there are times when maybe we’re on a tight deadline or in some kind of crisis when that is absolutely necessary, but let’s be honest, those times are the exception and not the rule. Take the time in your remote interactions to just connect as humans. Honestly, it doesn’t matter as much what you talk about as much as that you do talk. Give people the time to share about their weekend, kids, hobbies, dog, plants, dinner plans, or what’s up next on Netflix. You’re not wasting time, you’re making time. And, chances are you’re still probably spending less time than you were when you were commuting.

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 Tracee Aliotti.

Tracee is a strategic marketing and brand design professional with more than 15 years of experience serving and leading marketing and design programs. The majority of her career has been in education and technology market spaces in both for- and nonprofit organizations. Tracee currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for the online IT training brand, CBT Nuggets. Her team of 16 began working remotely in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a previous role, Tracee was a part of an international organization with a distributed workforce and led her team remotely for 3 years.

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?

Oh goodness. Where to start. Well, I grew up a country kid. My dad was a farmer, but he also worked at a mill and sold Christmas Trees in December to help make ends meet for me and my four siblings. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “wow, she’s going waaaaay back!,” but just bear with me. From a material standpoint we didn’t have a whole lot, but I felt full. It wasn’t that I didn’t want things — I did! But I think not having all the things was okay because I knew I was loved. I knew I belonged. And this love and belonging came from connection and relationships. The value of human connection and relationships was instilled in me from a very young age. It’s not the stuff. It’s the people. And so, after a short stint in college majoring in biology, I started studying marketing. Why? Because marketing is the manifestation of human connection and relationship building in business. (I mean, actually “marketing” applies in all aspects of our lives — but it’s weird to use that word outside the business context, in my opinion.) Marketing isn’t about the stuff. It’s about the people. It’s about fostering human connection and that’s why I love it.

In the early years of my career I worked as an account manager at a boutique design firm. It was in this role that I began to deeply understand and learn to apply brand design as a foundational strategy for all aspects of a business. I took what I learned at the agency to my next role at an international edtech nonprofit. I started there as the director of marketing, was later promoted to senior director, marketing & brand management, and finally stepped into the CMO role after four years. My time in edtech is where I really learned about being a leader and developer of others and honed in the skills needed to set overarching vision, to advocate, empower, and run interference so the experts on my team can do their best work each day. After eight years with the nonprofit I accepted my current role at CBT Nuggets where I’ve been able to fully execute on my brand design, leadership, and strategic skills while learning a new market and industry. It’s been equal parts fun and challenging and I’m enjoying every moment.

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

One of the most interesting things that happened to me was the process of learning that the skills and characteristics that got me into leadership roles were not going to be the same as the ones that would make me successful in them.

It was shortly after my 32nd birthday that I was offered my first C-level role. I’d been leading teams for four years at this point, but much smaller and with more focused area of accountability. This was my first time leading an entire division with multiple teams who weren’t naturally focused on the same goals. It was going to take effort to get everyone aligned and working toward a shared vision and I was acutely aware that this was on me to make happen. So, I rolled up my sleeves and I got to work. I met with everyone in the division one-on-one. I took copious notes. Looked for themes and analyzed the feedback. I disappeared for several weeks and then reemerged with a beautiful plan. Voila! I couldn’t wait to share it with the team and get their feedback and questions. This plan presentation was going to be an epic division meeting where people felt heard, energized, and motivated about where we were going and what we would do together! I shared the plan before the meeting and asked everyone to come with questions. And then it was the day. And . . . nothing. A mostly silent room. No questions. No feedback. No energy and optimism. And I was like, “Huh?! What happened?”

I decided my expectations were too high and that we just needed to get to work and I would work hardest. I wouldn’t force anyone — I’d lead by example. No task was too menial. I set up all our meetings and even took the meeting notes and assigned action items. I was always ready (and usually first) to share my ideas. I was the most positive, supportive, happy CMO that ever lived! I kept being what I wanted everyone else to step up and be . . .but no one was stepping up. Why?!

I was a few months into the job and decided if I really wanted to hear from my team it’d need to be anonymous. I started working with an executive coach who performed 360 interviews. I’ll never forget the day my coach covered the findings with me. It hurt. It wasn’t all bad. My team liked and respected me. They felt I cared for them and trusted my skills and expertise, but they didn’t feel empowered. They weren’t sure I really wanted their contributions because it seemed like I had it all figured out. If the leader comes with everything done, that doesn’t leave a lot of space for others to lead.

And that’s when it hit me. I was not going to be the best leader by being the best employee. The things that got me here, would not keep me here. The best employees have answers, execute the vision, and go first. The best leaders have questions, articulate the vision, and go last. It was a profound turning point for me.

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

My personal motto is “start with love.”

It stems from the thinking that you can’t ever know someone else’s full experience. You don’t know what they are facing or have faced and you don’t have to — just assume everyone is fighting a battle and meet them where they are with love. I use this moto as much in my personal life as I do in my work.

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?

I’ve been fortunate to have many people who helped, encouraged, and mentored me throughout my career. And many of them still do! There are two who immediately come to mind though. Anne Marie Levis, president and creative director of the design firm where I held my first marketing position; and Deborah Mersino, the CMO I reported to and then was later my predecessor at the edtech nonprofit. Both of these incredibly talented marketing professionals taught me what it means to be a strong woman leader without my even realizing it and well before I understood just how important and profound the lessons they were teaching me would be later on in my career. From Anne Marie I learned to be resilient, adaptable, confident, and exude grace under fire. From Deborah I learned the power of belief, communicating strategy, relationship building, and mastering emotional intelligence. Even if I go months without connecting with these women, I know I can always reach out and they’ve each been for me a support I strive to be for others.

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?

There are lots of upside to being in-person, but the two that come to mind as major benefits are connectivity/community and innovation/creativity.

All humans thrive on connectivity and community, but let’s face it, some of us are naturally better at it than others. And when we add the additional barriers that are just inherent with remote, it can get real tough, real fast. When we aren’t in-person it takes extra effort to achieve connectivity and community that would otherwise happen organically within an office setting. We just need to accept that fact. Those casual encounters at the coffee machine may seem insignificant, but it is from those small encounters that relationships are built and trust grows over time. Those strong relationships and trust lead to improved productivity and quality in our work as well as overall job satisfaction.

In the same way that connectivity and community seem to more organically thrive in in-person spaces, the same goes for innovation and creativity. Impromptu brainstorming sessions and those “hey you got a sec?” moments are just easier when I can pop my head around your computer screen. The dialogue, laughter, and energy those moments create can motivate and inspire all within earshot.

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?

Some of the challenges are for sure seeing less connection and community and diminishing levels of innovation and creativity — not because they aren’t possible in remote environments, but because they don’t happen as naturally and take more intentional effort.

Communication and context is also a significant challenge. There’s a Sesame Street book my kids love called “There’s a monster at the end of this book.” Well — in remote work there’s this thing I call “there’s a monster on the other side this Slack message” (or email, or text, or IM, or no-video conference call, etc.). When we communicate with digital tools it’s easy to lose our humanness. We add context that isn’t there and miss context that is. And, the truth is, like the book — what’s really on the other end is someone who is a lot like us. Not a monster. Just a person trying to do a good job.

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. Don’t skip the small talk: We’re busy professionals. We’re known for cutting to the chase and gettin’ down to business. And there are times when maybe we’re on a tight deadline or in some kind of crisis when that is absolutely necessary, but let’s be honest, those times are the exception and not the rule. Take the time in your remote interactions to just connect as humans. Honestly, it doesn’t matter as much what you talk about as much as that you do talk. Give people the time to share about their weekend, kids, hobbies, dog, plants, dinner plans, or what’s up next on Netflix. You’re not wasting time, you’re making time. And, chances are you’re still probably spending less time than you were when you were commuting.

2. No agenda? No problem: You know you’ve done it (I’m guilty!), “I don’t have any agenda items, do we need to meet?” Um, yes . . . in the remote world you do. In the office you could still count on those casual encounters, but you have to be intentional when you’re no longer in-person. Leaders, especially, need to keep your team check-ins. If you’re cancelling all the time, your team will start doing the same. So, if someone says they don’t have any agenda items, you say “no problem, I’d love to just hear how you’re doing.” A daily standup can be a great option for creating a standing, no agenda, time to connect.

3. Keep those goals on repeat: This is actually really important when you’re in-person as well. But, in-person, you have more opportunities to reiterate and repeat the overarching goals. People feel anchored and united when the goals are clear and repetition of those goals helps keep them top of mind. Leaders will do themselves and their teams a solid by taking every opportunity to state what we are ultimately trying to achieve and ensuring individuals are clear about their role in helping us get there. The more autonomy we have the more clarity we need in order to stay aligned.

4. Choose the tools and use those tools: Building a thriving remote community and culture requires leaning heavily on communication tools. It’s not enough just to say, “here are the tools, have fun.” You need to take the time to establish how you’ll use them. People need to know where to watch for what and need to be able to trust they’ll get a response in a timely manner. It’s tempting to just let different groups use whatever tools they want and however they prefer to use them. Resist this temptation. Over time it leads to more silos, isolation, and patchy communication. Even if the tool being used isn’t your favorite (and believe me, I’ve experienced this first hand), lean in and suck it up for the sake of building connectivity and community. It’s worth it.

5. There are no monsters, just people: Earlier I mentioned the book my kids love called “There’s a monster at the end of this book,” and how in the remote world that can manifest as “There’s a monster on the other side of this Slack message.” We have a tendency to villainize those on the other side of our digital communications, or sometimes become villains ourselves. It’s easy to do in an increasingly digital world where the moments that humanize us are constantly being minimized if not stripped away completely. You’re going to slip up from time to time. You’re going to overly read into that comment in your Google doc or be a bit short in your email response and others are going to do the same. It’s not because we’re monsters. We’re just people. Be quick to give grace and forgiveness to others as well as to yourself.

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?

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?

Really any tool that allows for easy video conferencing is a winner. Our organization uses Slack and Google Hangouts. I do enjoy the ability to add emoji responses to comments as a simple way to make, otherwise mostly text communications, more fun and emotive.

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

The ability to instantly send someone a fresh baked cookie or cocktail with the hit of a button.

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?

I’m not sure the pandemic has changed the need for it as much as just the sheer demand for it. We’ve always needed ways to communicate in a more unified way. The need becomes much more pressing when millions of workers are sent to work from home indefinitely in a matter of weeks.

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?

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

As our world continues to become more and more digital or virtual real human experiences will become more and more scarce. I believe our desire for authentic experiences will continue to rise, but it will be increasingly more difficult to discern the difference between that that is real and that that is artificial. I suppose my concern would be for us not to lose sight of the beauty and growth that comes from our real and imperfect experiences. I’ll also say that I do believe one of the most important skills of the future will be one’s ability to understand, appreciate, and plan for human complexity and the less time we spend together the less adept we’ll be at it.

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. :-)

Well it’d be “Start with love” of course! Love can come in so many forms and be shown in so many ways. Every moment you have with another person is an opportunity to lift them up. Closing the gaps that exist between us is rarely done by proving someone wrong, judging them, being hurtful, or just plain hating. Love builds bridges. Love shines light. And even if it doesn’t seem like it was worth it, I promise it was. Even if your extending love did nothing more than keep your own heart and mind happy and healthy . . . that’s worth it.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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.

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