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The keys to a successful remote work strategy with Mike Soldan

Mike Soldan is the Chief Experience Officer at Shmoop, a digital publishing company that provides comprehensive test prep resources and certified online courses.

Before Shmoop, he was formerly the VP of Pluralsight’s Professional Services & Solutions Architect teams, and prior to that, he was a founding member and product leader for one of Verizon Communications’ largest product and new business innovation arms. He has a background with the focus on enhancing education and training programs, and on building high performing and innovative teams.

 

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Luis:

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. I am Luis, your host in this podcast that’s all about building and leading awesome remote teams. My guest today is Mike Soldan. Welcome Mike.

Mike Soldan:

Thanks Luis. Happy to be here.

Luis:

Happy to have you. So, Mike is Shmoop’s CXO and formerly the VP of Pluralsight, professional services and solutions architect teams. Overall, he has a background with the focus on education and training. Before that, he was a founding at Verizon’s product and new business innovation arms. Mike is all about improving the experience of education and training so I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about that. But Mike, how many names did I mangle on that introduction? Did I get your last name right?

Mike Soldan:

You got my last name right, you got some difficult company names right so I’m impressed. Well done.

Luis:

Okay. Thank you. You know, I have to tell you, Shmoop is like the best company name ever.

Mike Soldan:

Right. Right, yeah. The background, it’s an old Yiddish phrase. It’s really, really cool roots. I’m happy to go into that later if you want to hear more about it.

Luis:

You know what, I want to hear about it now. It’s just fun. And you know, that is actually something when I was researching for this interview, I actually went and spent quite a bit of time on Shmoop’s website. And you guys have really good writing.

Mike Soldan:

Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s an amazing company. I’ve been here since July. The company’s been around for almost 10 years. Founded by an absolutely amazing couple named David and Ellen Siminoff. If you get the chance, google them. You’re going to see some of their really, really impressive career history and backgrounds. But Shmoop kind of started as a passion project. A lot of our content, our voice, the way we’re kind of edgy is all from Dave so absolutely amazing. He called his dad shmoop growing up as kind of an endearing term and it means basically to move forward.

Luis:

Nice. So shmoop means to move forward, that’s so cool.

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Yeah.

Luis:

Nice. All right, so seeing that apparently I didn’t make a mess out of my introduction, let’s just right into the remote work part. How has remote work made Shmoop possible or helped to make it better?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. In its early days … Remote work is interesting because really the situation, the maturity, I would say, of the company is what makes it more effective, less effective. How much you can or cannot do. In the early days of Shmoop, things came together well because Dave and Ellen were able to take advantage of people in different places, take advantage in a good way of their talent. And so Shmoop had a very diverse workforce originally. Now when I joined, a good friend of mine, Andy Rahden who’s the CEO now, started a few months before me. And we’ve been on a bit of an effort to co-locate in some areas and keep some things remote in others. And I’m happy to go into that strategy a little bit. But as a company matures, your strategy around remote work should move with it, whether you do or don’t organize.

Luis:

What areas of the company did you feel that being remote affected the most?

Mike Soldan:

Interestingly, we’re now headquartered in Scottsdale, in Arizona, in the U.S.. We had formerly kind of founded in the Los Altos area in California but things kind of naturally grew in the Scottsdale area. When I joined the team, part of my negotiation is that I wasn’t going to be able to make that move. I’m really deeply in love with the area that I’m in, in Salt Lake City, Utah. And so Andy at the time, our CEO, agreed to that and we started to be able to take advantage of some of the amazing skillsets that are happening in what’s being called the Silicon slopes in Utah area in Salt Lake Valley. Really kind of a booming tech space.

Mike Soldan:

And so we actually started to grow the team here. Since July, we’ve added the content teams over to the Salt Lake City area. We’re starting som of our engineering hiring here. We’ve got a front-end engineer here. And then our product team is here now as well. So, head of product as well as UX/UI designer.

Luis:

So cool. Please go on.

Mike Soldan:

Go ahead please.

Luis:

No. How has the back and forth with … As that part of the company grows, there around Salt Lake City, how has the back and forth with headquarters developed?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. A great question. A lot of this, I would say, falls on the executive. If you want to make a decision to split workforce like this, because our technology teams, our engineers, are based in Scottsdale as well, it’s really on you to drive that culture. And now because we’re in early stages, I’ve got about 20 people totally inside of the experience team, which makes up product engineering and content, it’s a small enough team that co-location can actually have a positive impact. As teams grow, it becomes easier to not be as co-located.

Mike Soldan:

So my commitment to the business is that I’m on a plane at least once a week moving back and forth between Scottsdale to ensure that strategy, communication and the teamwork is there. And my teams have also made commitments too. So, my CTO that’s in Scottsdale, my head of product that’s here in Salt Lake, are also going back and forth several times a month. So it’s really on you as the decision-maker in the early stages to help close those gaps.

Luis:

Do you recall any particular challenges that you had? Any stories that you can tell?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. We’re really heavy here and I’ve got a background from a good friend of mine at Pluralsight who’s the CXO there, in really tight co-located teams around product and engineering. And the benefit of that when you’re in the software world in the SaaS space, is that you create amazing products. So we do work where we include our engineers and customer interviews, so they’re talking to our customers. And they develop together with product teams versus more old school waterfall requirement. It’s documents and type of experiences.

Mike Soldan:

Now, that is hard to do when your product manager and your engineers are in different cities. So we’ve had to really commit to how those work together so we’re really tight on the daily standups, how they communicate. Slack has been an absolutely amazing tool for us. I’m really a big fan of Slack and that being an enabler of culture growth in separated teams. So even just down to a specific situation like how we would do a customer interview, we’ve been very intentional about how our rooms work and how our product managers set up the calls and making sure that engineers are on the phones and engaged, and how they work together and what pieces they play in the interview process.

Luis:

Got it. Got it. So tell me a bit more about those standups. What’s your standup technic? Do you have daily standups? How does that work? Do you have standups with everyone in the company regardless of the location or do you have the standups in the separate locations separately and then the team leads connect? How does that work out?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah, yeah. A good question. The way that we work is that we’re moving into what you’d call a distributed architecture which means there’s co-bases by experience or feature. So to give you an example, with Shmoop specifically, we have a kind of monolithic old code base that’s where the old application before I came here. And then we’ve separated our test prep product, as an example, into its own code base. So there are specific teams that work on those code bases and they have their own daily standups. And it’s all about kind of old school SCRAM methods in some of them. Go alphabetically by name, talk about what you’re working on, bring up any blockers and then the teams work from there.

Mike Soldan:

And what this allows to do from a team structure format working in each one of these what you’d a bounded context, is that they’re not going to 15 different standups. They work with their team in a specific standup, in a specific code base through that day.

Luis:

Yeah. So what I’m wondering is … I guess we need to go back a bit. So, you have two major nuclei of the company, right?

Mike Soldan:

Right.

Luis:

And the people who work, let’s say, in Salt Lake City, do they share an office? Is there an optional office? Or do they all work from home? How is the setup? And then, I guess that … So when you have a standup, I guess that … Are teams split between locations or is there a Salt Lake team and then there’s another team on headquarters? How distributed is the distributed structure? Do you have two nodes in the company or do you have people actually split and working from home? How does that work more and how does affect the standups?

Mike Soldan:

They are primarily split between the Scottsdale office and the Salt Lake City office.

Luis:

Yeah.

Mike Soldan:

We do have all of product in Salt Lake City and then we have a split of engineering between Scottsdale and Salt Lake. We have a couple of remote engineers that have been really key to our workload over the last 10 years but for the most part, they’re split between those two.

Luis:

Okay. So just to be clear, then you have a Scottsdale engineering team who does the standups right in Scottsdale. And you have a Utah, a Salt Lake City engineering team that does the standups in Salt Lake City. Is that correct?

Mike Soldan:

That’s where they work but no, it’s not how they do the standups.

Luis:

Okay.

Mike Soldan:

So the teams are cross-functional between those two locations. So the locations while they do present difficulty in not being co-located, the team still works together across locations. So as an example, if you took our identity context, which is how a user authorizes and authenticates into the platform in what they have access to, that team consists of a designer and a product manager in the Salt Lake City office and a set of engineers in the Scottsdale office. So those daily standups happen virtually.

Luis:

So where do they happen? Is it the Zoom call, is it Slack? 

Mike Soldan:

Zoom call.

Luis:

Okay.

Mike Soldan:

Zoom call, that’s right. And then everything’s supplemented by Slack. So now that team has a group channel in Slack where they can do their day to day work. Slack’s an amazing tool because it’ll send notifications for the standups so nobody misses them. If somebody’s traveling or out for the day, they can put notes about what’s happening from their standup notification and Slack as well.

Luis:

Awesome. So considering these tools, what is your typical day like? Take me through your typical day, or maybe your typical week if you’re feeling adventurous.

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Yeah. Let’s back up into typical week because I think it’ll have more relation to the DistantJob concepts here. So my typical week consists, Monday generally in the Salt Lake office and we also really are high on working from home as a part. So my entire team across product, engineering and content has two work from home days as optional, on Wednesdays and Fridays. So if they feel the need, if they’ve got appointments, whatever it may be, or they’re waiting for packages, those set work from home days allow them the autonomy to schedule around them without having any kind of guilt of where the team is. And then it keeps us productive on co-located days, on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Mike Soldan:

So, I’ll usually spend my Mondays and Tuesdays heading out to Scottsdale. I usually catch a Monday morning flight from 8:00 or 11:00, depending on what kind of meetings I have. And I’ll head home Tuesday afternoon. And then the rest of my week is spent in the Salt Lake office. I’ll occasionally take advantage of the work from home days on Friday if the team is not around. And then in between that, primarily meetings, customer visits. I actually don’t attend our team standups intentionally. My goal is to have those virtual settings where they’re getting together, be autonomous and self-driven without a lot of activation work coming from the top down. But that’s a typical week.

Luis:

Awesome. So tell me why did you … I mean, since you were starting the Salt Lake part, more or less from scratch, why did you decide on actually having offices with flex days and not just going fully remote?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. There’s a healthy mix between these two things. And I always say your ability to have full remote teams depends on the function that you operate, the function that you lead as well as the maturity and size of the company. In early stages, co-location is extremely important. If I compare my time with Fortune 100s like my time at Verizon, my time at large small-cap tech like Pluralsight. And then Shmoop has a little bit under 50 employees so it’s a much smaller type of organization.

Mike Soldan:

The management of the people, the engagement with the people, the building culture and everything that’s about the people, becomes extremely important and a larger piece of your day as an executive in the smaller company. So, having that said, it was actually risky for us to open the Salt Lake office and have me join the team versus moving to Scottsdale. And it was a really big negotiation point when Andy and I were coming to agreement on me joining Shmoop. It’s something that ended up being a walk away point. If it didn’t work out, I wasn’t going to able to move to Scottsdale for several personal reasons. And so we came to agreement that we would make this happen. And hence, my commitment to travel every week and spend a huge piece of my time in building culture.

Mike Soldan:

But it was definitely a risky thing. Once we made the decision to do it though, what I take on is building that culture between organizations, keeping people connected. And as the teams grow, that becomes easier and easier because you get to use your work really is like two separate nuclei across those and you’ll start to have cultures develop inside of each office, and then your objective and your job is to tie them together so that they don’t get dramatically different, but they’re healthy. When you look at what the culture of an office is, it’s really the sum of the personalities that live inside that office. And then mission, goal, strategy that overlays itself.

Mike Soldan:

It was really high risk but we’ve committed to do that and we know that difficulties around keeping the teams tied and engaged is a point in time problem. And as it grows, that becomes easier. Does that make sense? I want to talk about the structure of the teams and why it matters for some teams versus others as well too.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Look, at the end of today, no one has hard and fast rules for how this works. I have a lot of interest in how hybrid and flexible models work. So, I’ve actually never worked in a situation where there was an office and then you could go home some days. For me, it has always been either/or. I was working in a place with an office or I was working in a place without an office. But I’m curious, let’s say that just for some reason, knock on wood, but for some reason you can’t access your office. I don’t know. I saw on some funny websites a couple of months back that a whole team couldn’t enter their WeWork office because someone left an umbrella on the  and the umbrella fell into the security sensor or whatever, and then the door would not open. So, that company’s team wasn’t able to access the office for one week. Let’s say we have a ridiculous situation like that, how would your teams adapt? How would you manage the situation?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. That’s the amazing thing about this. And ironically, we’re in a brand new gorgeous WeWork space in Utah so maybe that could happen.

Luis:

Be careful with your umbrellas. I guess, that’s the lesson.

Mike Soldan:

Right. That’s exactly right. No, that’s what amazing about this though. A lot of folks would look at the way we do flex, so work from home if you want to Wednesdays, Fridays, as more expensive given we have a great space in the WeWork, an amazing corner spot with beautiful views and it’s one of the largest spaces in the office. So hey, if you’re already home two days a week and that’s what your people like, why would you go that direction? But in my mind, that’s painting with as broad of a brush as saying everybody wants to be in the office. One of the biggest perks you can give employees today, work-life balance culture, those things have changes. You’ll see so many articles on LinkedIn about what work-life balance is.

Mike Soldan:

And the truth is, they’re more synergistic in technology companies today. There aren’t hard and fast brakes between those things. There are plenty of nights if you’ve got releases, deadlines, where you’ve got engineers that work late. And not because you’re mandating it but they know that’s the nature of the business. And then you’ve got maybe an engineer that needs to come at 11:00 because they set an appointment that morning and that’s just fine.

Mike Soldan:

At the end of the day, this model only works if you’re really committed as a leader or as an executive to autonomy and results-based environments. And that’s what we are at Shmoop. That’s what I had as a team at Pluralsight. And we’re really, really committed to that. And what that means is that I’m not going to micromanage your schedule. I don’t care if you’re coming in at 11:00 because you have an appointment that morning, as long as we’re achieving our goals. And so, we’ve got an amazing structure on how we set objectives and key results on that quarterly cadence and it breaks down from my level into activation at my executive level that works for me. And then the teams go and self-drive their results. And if you can really commit to that, like I said, and really care about autonomy, that flex environment is the best way to supplement it.

Luis:

Okay. I guess there’s a habitual impact there. Let’s start by objectives and key reasons. How do you feel that considering your situation, and again, let’s say that you had to do without the office for a while, how do you track them? How do you set them? How do you keep your pulse on how the teams are doing? Since, as you said, you avoid actually going to standups, that’s probably the more practical way to do it. How do you keep your pulse on how the teams are doing and how do you track all of that?

Mike Soldan:

So this depends on what type of organization you have. My shift to Shmoop was interesting from Pluralsight. Pluralsight, like you said in my introduction, I had a services team as well as a solutions architect team. And there’s verbiage we used then that I haven’t introduced at Shmoop but it’s a concept of transactional work versus non- transactional work. And your transactional work, let’s say you’re a solutions architect, is how many demos you’re doing in a quarter, how many customer engagements you have, how many meetings you’re going to.

Mike Soldan:

And it’s the day to day work that’s core to your job that’s not necessarily changing the nature of work or progressing it forward, but it’s those kind of core pieces. Now, transactional work should be measured by KPIs and that would be, again, a metric like number of demos that you engage with if you’re a solutions architect. And those KPIs are simple to measure. As an example, at Pluralsight, we used Salesforce like most. I mean, we built into the CRM site, their ability to track, what demos they’re doing on a customer account and then pull that into a data warehouse and have a dashboard, and then you could manage that on a day to day basis. And that’s really important on KPIs because then I don’t have to go check in with my director team and my director team doesn’t have to have daily check ins with their solutions architect team. Because anybody could go see that dashboard at any time and you address behaviors as they happen, where they happen versus broad brushed engagements that just slow the teams down.

Luis:

Nice.

Mike Soldan:

Now, on the other side of that, when you have non- transactional work, this is things like building intranet so setting new process or changing in the same situation what a demo flow looks like. These are tasks that have to have happen in a given timeframe, weeks, months, quarters, whatever they may be, that are outside of that day to day transactional work. And this is where OKRs really come in.

Mike Soldan:

So depending on the structure of your team, you should be setting transactional metrics, KPIs and OKRs or just OKRs. So at Shmoop, where I’ve got content, engineering and product, there are day to day things that happen. There are commits and things like that on the engineering side of the house. But measuring an engineer on commits as if it were KPI, is not a healthy behavior. That doesn’t prove flow efficiency across your teams. So instead we look at OKRs.

Mike Soldan:

So, the first week of every quarter, I take my team offsite, my team of … The CTO, head of product and head of content and I have them spend the week before making a list of everything they would want to accomplish. And we do an exercise with Post-it notes where we list everything out by group that we would want to accomplish and we whittle it down until it becomes feasible work. And we set a verbal agreement with each other that that’s what we’re going to accomplish. We document it and then I track with them in biweekly one on ones progress to make sure there’s no surprises. And we look at what there are for risks and what we’d have to push. And then we have a review at the end of the quarter before we reset OKRs again. So, depending on the structure of your team, KPIs versus OKRs are crucial elements that allow trust and autonomy and no surprises at the end of the quarter based on performance.

Luis:

Got it. Yeah. So I want to drill a bit more into the trust and autonomy part because I think it’s so important when working with remote teams and especially working with remote where it’s much harder to be a micromanager and to be on top of the team, but at the same time you do want to keep some contact. So, I guess that the proper question is, how do you set the limits of the autonomy that you are willing to give to your team? When do you know? When is a decision point when you go, “Okay, this is something that I can let the team sort by themselves and this is somewhere where I actually need to intervene.”

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Yeah. Good question. So, a lot of that should be happening as feedback from lower levels. So the way that we look at team from a breakdown perspective is at the very top, Andy, our CEO, is responsible for financial health of the business. We don’t have a CFO today, we have a controller that works for him. He’s responsible for broad KPIs that show effectiveness of the business work relationships. And then it moves down a level.

Mike Soldan:

So between me and Andy, I’m responsible for strategy. So we have a decision-making framework that’s clear about what executive is responsible for what. And then from my team down, from strategy it moves into what I call activation. So, I’ll make decisions on what kind of strategy we do, what type of product we should build, whether we should play in the market. The activation point happens between me and my CTO or me and my head of product or me and my head of content. And those activation layers will turn into OKRs and then they move into execution at the next level down. And depending how big your organization is, those become broader, more smaller and they need to be managed tighter or less. And that’s really the key.

Mike Soldan:

So, if there’s an execution issue happening between, for my CTO and engineer or between my head of product or a product manager or UIUX designer, I don’t want or need to be involved with that. That’s how you start to get out of autonomy until they need help. So I give total trust, based on the OKRs that are set at the beginning of the quarter, for them to go accomplish those things. If there’s a risk, we have those conversations in a biweekly basis. If they ask for intervention at that time, I’m happy to intervene. It’s generally more management, more people issues, things of that nature. So it’s not about the day to day execution. But me getting involved with a commit is not a healthy use of time for myself, the CTO or an engineer.

Luis:

Of course. Yeah, I guess that makes total sense. So, I want to … I actually think that working from home, working remotely, requires a certain skillset, right?

Mike Soldan:

Yes.

Luis:

We can’t just assume that because someone is proficient because someone is a good employee in an office setting. There are also going to be a good employee when they’re working flexibly, when they’re working from home. Now, obviously you have an easy solution for this in your company. If it turns out that people aren’t good at working from home, you can just tell them that, “Hey, maybe you should just stick to the office.” That’s definitely a good way to do it because remote work isn’t for everyone. But I wonder if you take this into consideration when you’re hiring. When you’re hiring, are there any characteristics, any skills, any traits, that you look for thinking that, “Oh, I want to make sure that this person is also really good when they decide to work from home.”

Mike Soldan:

Yeah, absolutely. The way that I like to ask my teams to interviews is a little different than most. So we kind of flip things on their head in a way. A lot of people still do really old school interviewing where you’re sitting in the chair and you’ve got the guide complex because you’ve got the opportunity to grant someone to come work for you. And it’s a different reality now. Top performers don’t want to be treated that way and top performers probably wouldn’t accept a job offer to follow an interview in that fashion. So, our interview process is actually very conversational.

Mike Soldan:

Even before as an example on the engineering team, we have a meeting with the engineer before we do something like a code test. And yeah, it takes more time but we come in with the assumption that the engineer will understand and have read and know what languages we use front end or backend or architecture, whatever it may be. And we’ll do a code test but it’s more about trusting and verifying later and we’ll have the conversation upfront to make sure that it’s a good culture fit.

Mike Soldan:

And in that conversation, instead of just asking a bunch of questions about how they work and drilling them because anybody that can screen together a sentence could tell you something that may not be true or not depending on how much they want the job. We’ll also spend a lot of time talking about how the work happens. When you’re a 50 person company, some of it is selling good people and some of it’s explaining what that work was going to be. If you tell someone that they’re going to working autonomously, they could be working from home or they could spend two days a week at home, but also let them know they’re going to have OKRs that are potentially tied to compensation or their ability to continue to work at the company, and nobody’s going to micromanage them but they need to hit those every quarter. If they can’t do that, they’re going to weed themselves out anyways and the conversation starts to end.

Mike Soldan:

A realistic view of what the work is as part of the conversation versus just drilling the interviewee on questions of how they would respond to the scenarios, is a much healthier way to find out how really someone feels about it.

Luis:

Got it. Got it. When you’re doing that, when you’re having those interviews, are you conducting them mostly in person or do you do them through the internet or is there a mix?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. It’s a mix and it’s a stage thing. We wouldn’t make an offer without having met someone face to face for sure. Depending on the job, depending on how many candidates and how many we have to fill, a lot of those first conversations would be phone screens just because from a logistical perspective, it’s about all you can do. We prefer them to be video, obviously. We like to see how people react and you take somebody through how we set OKRs and what they’d be responsible for and their face says a lot about what they really mean there. So a lot of times it’s phone screen but we’ll always have a face to face, even when we’re hiring engineers in Utah. Although Bob, our CTO, is in Scottsdale, we’ll have him come meet our head of product here so we get a good feel of how they are in a face to face setting too.

Luis:

Got it. I wonder what the conversation is like if you’ve ever had this conversation. What is the conversation like when you notice that someone is actually performing better when they’re on those two days from home? Or the opposite when you notice that when someone takes those two days to work from home, the productivity drops. What is the conversation like if you’ve ever had it? What do you try to fix, where do you try to locate the problems? Is this a scenario that you’re familiar with?

Mike Soldan:

It is. Yeah. And I’ll use an example for my team. This is painting with a broad brush because there are roles where the more minute a view is probably more effective. But I want to zoom out because based on what I’ve seen, a lot of folks that listen to this podcast, probably have hire skilled workers like I’m talking about on my team. So, I would actually zoom out and not look at weekly productivity or something like monthly productivity. Because what you really care about in a team like we have, is a flow efficiency meaning what are total outcomes coming from a team across a quarterly biannual or yearly basis.

Mike Soldan:

Someone’s effectiveness in weeks, looking at something like that is more of a resource efficiency measurement. And a high skilled worker, it’s a really myopic view to say, “Over this one, two, three weeks maybe they went a little bit slower because of this.” And it’s much more effective and creates a better culture and experience for the employee if you zoom out and look back at maybe those quarterly OKRs. Did they hit what you agreed to at the beginning of the quarter even if that meant a slow week here or an unproductive Friday. And more, did they accomplish what the business asked of them?

Mike Soldan:

And that’s really the question. That total flow across a little bit larger of a view. Again, you look at what work is today and it’s very different than punching the clock 8:00 to 5:00 in the mid 90s or late 90s because you’re attached to a mainframe or something like that. It’s just a different world. Work’s going to come and go and you may not always see what that employee is doing at seven o’clock at night. How much time is an engineer doing? What are they reading? Are they learning a new language?

Mike Soldan:

So to look at a productivity metric from a highly skilled worker on something that’s a myopic view like were they productive on Wednesday versus Friday because they were in the office or not, is not the lens that we would want to paint. And the most effective cultures that have mixed environments are looking at a more of a broad-based on what are the outcomes that are coming out of a larger lens. Does that make sense?

Luis:

Yeah. Absolutely. It does make sense. But the thing that I’m looking for here, and maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, but I’m wondering really if you notice … How do you notice, if you notice at all, any shift between the dynamic of the people working from home and the people working in the office. 

Mike Soldan:

Yeah, definitely. There’s a behavioral side to that too, which is the less fun side. Absolutely. And it’s easier to look at these when you have teams that have some of that transactional work in KPIs that you could watch on a day to day basis. And candor is everything in those situations. There’s a double-edged sword to it that turns into micromanagement quickly. And my conversation from a performance perspective is always that if we have to micromanage, the tenure of the role probably won’t last very long. We will never have a team under my leadership where we have to micromanage for more than a quarter or two at a time. If you find yourself in that situation where there’s not productivity and you can’t come to a solution.

Mike Soldan:

And the solution there Luis, to your point, may very well be we got to cut down work from home time and you got to spend more time in the office. But that’s probably not really what the issue is. If you’ve got an employee in a highly skilled role that is not effective because they’re home, they’re probably lacking commitment or their OKRs are too light. If at the end of the day, it truly is a personality thing where they just can’t stay focused, maybe the solution is work from home. But the solution is more of a job fit thing than saying, “I’ve got to come micromanage you in the office.”

Luis:

Yeah. I guess for sure. And the opposite might happen. You might notice that people are actually more productive when they’re working from home. There’s also the reverse of the other face of the coin there, right?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. I’d argue more likely than not honestly in that case.

Luis:

Yeah, exactly. Okay. I want to shift the questions a bit to some more broad questions. I call them rapid fire questions because they’re rapid to ask but you don’t necessarily need to answer quickly. Feel free to take your time. If you had $100 to spend with each person working for you, what would you give them? And there are a few rules, you can’t give them the money and you can’t give them whatever would be the best fit for that person in particular. You need to get a bulk gift for everyone working with you. So, what would you give them?

Mike Soldan:

It would some kind of experience where you spend time together. There’s actually been a lot of amazing studies recently that have shown that just giving, if you just gave that $100 bill to each employee, it would mean less to them from a job satisfaction and a fulfillment experience than if you took them to something or did something with them.

Luis:

Oh yeah.

Mike Soldan:

Not every employee loves that experience, not everyone wants to go give their Thursday night to go to Topgolf with me or whatever it may be. But if you have an environment where they can be comfortable and be themselves and be who they are and have that autonomy, they’ll also want to probably blend that reality a little bit more. Generally, if somebody doesn’t want to go to that Christmas party or whatever it may be, or the holiday party or the team building event, it’s because they’re uncomfortable in their skin outside of work being with the team. And if you’ve got a good healthy culture, those walls start to break down a little bit and maybe they are comfortable having a couple of beers with you and things like that, whatever it may be. So if your culture is good, the ability to go create an event with the team is significantly more effective. So I would say whatever event you could afford that makes the most sense for the group.

Luis:

All right. So what about yourself? What purchase, what thing you have bought, has made your work-life easier or more productive in the past year? And it doesn’t need to be a physical object, it can be software or tools or whatever, but just something that you have bought for yourself.

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. I would say an investment in a comfortable home office space is really critical. So I’ve got an amazing setup at home with multiple monitors and a really high quality docking station and it’s quiet. I’ve got a room against the back of the house where the sun doesn’t come in so I’m never dealing with glare and those headaches. So a really comfortable office space is an amazing thing. You’ll find yourself not hating those night hours as much if you’ve got to log in at night and it’s comfortable. You find yourself more productive. Make it a space that’s creative. I’m a huge exotic sports car guy and so I’ve got a lot of racing memorabilia in the space that’s very comfortable and a nice place to be in.

Luis:

Nice. Wow. So, what book or books have you gifted the most?

Mike Soldan:

It’s interesting. So this is going to come off the wrong way so I’m going to clarify it.

Luis:

That’s fine.

Mike Soldan:

I find that broad-based programs where you choose a management book or a principles’ book or something like that, and you give them to bulk to a team, is even if you don’t put a program out or you don’t have a reading day or a day where you come back together as a team and spend your first 20 minutes talking about it, I really don’t like those experiences. I haven’t like being on the other end of them. Where you’re at in a professional experience level is different for everyone. And a lot of times, a broad-based look can be more offensive, less offensive, whatever it may be.

Mike Soldan:

And so I don’t really like doing it in a professional setting. Now where I think it is in a one on one mentoring session where you can find out where somebody’s at and recommend some things from there. And so it’s always a different response. A lot of times even more than recommending a book, I recommend people to follow on LinkedIn or recommend individual one on one conversation. And I find that to be impactful. I think there’s a-

Luis:

Can I get your favorite people to follow on LinkedIn? Can we do that?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. I mean, there’s a bunch. And a lot of them are personal connections too. There are some local guys, I love their leadership team. There’s a company called Lucid that’s locally that created a product-

Luis:

Loo.

Mike Soldan:

Lucid, L-U-C-I-D.

Luis:

Okay.

Mike Soldan:

They created a product that competes with a … Visio, it’s a diagramming tool. And they have a lot of other cool stuff. They’ll say I’m selling them short on that. But their leadership team is really amazing to follow. There’s a lot of great startup guys that have a lot of really, really good advice. And so I like that local interaction quite a bit too.

Luis:

Awesome. Sounds good. So LinkedIn is the way to go.

Mike Soldan:

I love LinkedIn. Yeah, you’ll find me all over it.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah. Some people don’t like to say, “I don’t really read books.” Actually, that’s absolutely fine. There are other ways to gather knowledge, but I do want to try again. If you don’t give books, do you have any books that have influenced you the most?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. I really like … I have a reputation of being quick to thought, which is good and bad. Occasionally, the original thought that comes to mind needs some more stewing. And so the book that was recommended to me actually later in my career, this was just a couple of years ago, Thinking, Fast and Slow was really impactful to me. An amazing guy, Peter that I worked for, for the last couple of years before I came to Shmoop recommended it to help kind of smooth that out. And so, there are times to think quickly and there are times to think slowly and there are 9,000 other amazing things from the book that help you through that. But that was … It was cool to see a concept later in career that was that impactful.

Luis:

That one has actually come up a couple of times. I should give it a go.

Mike Soldan:

Definitely. I highly recommend it.

Luis:

All right. So final question, let’s say that you are hosting a dinner at a Chinese restaurant. You will see why this is important later. You’re hosting a dinner at a Chinese restaurant where you are inviting very heavy decision-makers from top tech companies. So, it’s hiring managers, CEOs, CTOs. During the dinner, there’s going to be a round table about remote work and the future of work. Since you are the host, and it is a Chinese restaurant, there are Chinese fortune cookies involved and you get to pick the message. What is the message that is going to be inside the Chinese fortune cookie?

Mike Soldan:

Oh man, it’s good. I love this. I would say it would be something about trust your people or grant autonomy or something like that. And the reason why is at a smaller organization, you’ll find that that trust and autonomy comes really naturally and allows for things like remote work and these flexible schedules and granting people the trust to just go complete OKRs on a quarterly basis. Everything we’ve talked about comes much more naturally in a small company but I cut my teeth and spend 12 years in Fortune 100 and I saw this swing back and forth. And they have a lot harder time continuing to allow that to scale and it becomes more difficult but I’ve seen it work in really large teams and it creates amazing results.

Mike Soldan:

And there are countless examples of this so you’ve got R&D groups and labs teams and Fortune 500s that aren’t tasked with anything specific and don’t have daily metrics that they’re being grilled on. And that’s where all the innovation comes from, that’s where all the goodness comes from in Fortune 100s and Fortune 500s. So if they could find a way to give that autonomy more broad-based, they would have better outcomes, better employees, better cultures and they wouldn’t lose to  providers like they do because that’s what’s starting to happen. The culture of how long a Fortune 100 lasts or how long someone sits on the S&P 500 is shrinking, and that’s a big reason why.

Luis:

Yeah. I never thought about that. That’s a very good point. I guess that the other side of the coin, and I think it comes back to hiring and culture fit, right?

Mike Soldan:

Right.

Luis:

Because if you hire people who are just there for the job, who are just there for the paycheck, and I’ve been that person in past lives. Sometimes I don’t think whoever is doing some work needs to absolutely love that work. It’s okay a lot of the times to have your work and your work is what you do as a means of sustenance and you have your other passion outside of work. That’s okay. But I do think that if your work is not passion, if you’re not all in on the culture and on the company, I don’t really think that freedom is a great catalyst for growth. I mean, I don’t know if you would agree with this or not but I really feel that in order for that to happen, for that freedom and autonomy to pay dividends, the people who work there must be really having the time of their lives.

Mike Soldan:

Absolutely. I agree 100%. And not everybody has … There’s not enough jobs to fulfill everybody’s passion and not everybody’s passion is going to allow them to pay their mortgage. And it’s just unrealistic. There are a bunch of amazing companies with great visions that fulfill that. I mean, Shmoop is a perfect example of that. I’d much rather be building products that improve the emotional health of seven through 12 graders across the U.S. than I would writing a mobile banking application. So there is a lot of ways to fulfill that. But just because you’re writing a mobile banking app doesn’t mean that you can’t absolutely love your work and love your people and love the environment, and have that balance between reward and what you put into it.

Mike Soldan:

And so anybody, regardless of the vision of the company or if you are or aren’t changing people’s lives, there’s a way to create that and I think the root of it truly is that autonomy. People want to have some control over their destiny and people want to know where the guidelines are and people want to choose when they do and don’t put effort into that now. And they want to work with people that are like that and that’s where I see things shifting and that’s why remote work is so important because it’s a big lever if you have the ability to do that or not.

Luis:

Yeah. Absolutely. Look, Mike, it was a pleasure having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for being a guest. I would like you to say to the people listening, when they want to continue the conversation with you, if they want to learn more about you, if they want to engage with you, if they want to learn more about Shmoop, where can they go?

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Absolutely. LinkedIn is the best place to find me. It’s easy to search me with the option to write down an email address and it’s a much better way to grab me. So search for me on LinkedIn, it’s Mike Soldan. I’m the only one. You’ll see my picture come up, CXO Shmoop currently. But happy to engage with anyone that wants to talk more. Make sure your subject doesn’t sound like a sales pitch because I get 200 of those a day. So, other than that, I’m happy to chat.

Luis:

Yeah. Okay Mike. Again, it was a pleasure. See you around and by the time this is published, we will have been over the holidays but if they still haven’t gone yet, happy holidays.

Mike Soldan:

Yeah. Likewise, Luis. I appreciate the time.

Luis:

And so we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That can be great. It’s how we reach more listeners, and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast indication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode or any episode really and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form. And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally. Not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. And to help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate 40% faster than the industry standard. And with that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of DistantJob Podcast.

More ways to listen:

As more and more companies adopt flexible work practices, developing a successful remote work strategy is necessary to operate remotely efficiently and effectively.

In this podcast episode, Mike Sultan offers strategies and best practices on how to manage the challenges that may come up along the way in a remote setting and how to help set up your remote team for success. He believes:

''As a company matures, your strategy around remote work should move with it, whether you do or don't organize.' Click To Tweet

What you will learn:

  • building a culture of collaboration in the workplace
  • tools you need to successfully operate as a remote team
  • managing your remote workforce without micromanaging
  • why you should be setting and tracking transactional metrics

Book Recommendations:

 

This interview is part of the DistantJob podcast. To hear more from leaders and successful entrepreneurs on how to build and lead winning teams, check us out on Anchor.fm and on our website.

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