Leadership in Uncertain Times, Part II: Advice From the LA Tech Scene

March 24, 2020
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Running a company is difficult enough when things are going well. In the midst of a global crisis, it’s harder. Much harder.  

In Part II of our series on leadership in the era of COVID-19, we talked to five LA tech leaders about how they’re adjusting to the uncertainty of the moment. From relief efforts to work-from-home considerations, here’s what they’re prioritizing, as well as broader thoughts about the road ahead.  

 

 

Marisa Peters
Chief People Officer

VideoAmp’s Chief People Officer Marisa Peters is hoping to anticipate the needs of her people ahead of time. To start, the company is providing employees with remote work amenities including office gear, fitness equipment and access to online mental health and productivity resources. Here’s what else Marisa is working on.   

 

As a leader, people are looking to you for answers. Where are you finding the support you need? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

My advice to other leaders is to take things one day at a time and keep the bigger picture in mind. Keeping up face-to-face connection is important, so find ways to check in with staff using video conferencing. As crucial as it is to keep a business up and running, it’s just as important to keep employees’ (and your own!) mental wellness at the top of the list.

I also encourage leaders to remember that there are many people struggling in ways many of us can’t fathom. At VideoAmp, we’ve redirected funds that were being used to provide in-office benefits toward a donation of 50,000 meals to Feeding America. We’re always looking for additional ways to help. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

We used to have a handful of offices — with dedicated gym facilities — and a scattering of remote employees. Now, we have 200-plus home offices across the country. We’re anticipating that many of our people might feel isolated, anxious and restless. We’re in for a marathon, not a sprint, and people’s mental well-being needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

We’re providing office equipment to make home offices more comfortable; we’re shipping gym equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells to ensure staff can maintain the level of physical activity they are used to; we’re hosting daily virtual workouts and meditations via Zoom; coaching and nutritional appointments are being scheduled; we’ve unlocked modules on LinkedIn Learning about mental wellness and remote work best practices; and our Culture Club is in full force, promoting a sense of community no matter how far apart we are.

And we’ve only just started. My aim is to anticipate my organization’s needs before they even realize them. As a leader, I’m committed to providing our teams with an advanced level of engagement and daily encouragement to support them through this.

 

Beyond your team, what advice do you have for the LA tech community at large right now? 

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in everyone’s plans, and now we find ourselves in a new paradigm. Thankfully, the tech industry is no stranger to finding novel ways to solve problems. We all have to start looking at our roadblocks from a fresh perspective, and keep in mind that great ideas can come from anyone, so encourage open dialogue and look at the data. 

 

Chien Chou
VP of Engineering

With employees working from home and business priorities shifting, now is an interesting time to be a VP of Engineering. Chien Chou, who heads up Flexport’s engineering team, talked to us about tackling the crisis head-on, including the company’s approach to employee wellness, and the challenges (and surprise benefits) of running a remote technical team.

 

As a leader, people are looking to you for answers. Where are you finding the support you need? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

To other leaders, I’d say stay calm and know that all this uncertainty is normal. Many of the things that are happening right now have happened before in history in different formats. In addition, with all this uncertainty, there are also hidden opportunities. Beyond reacting to the problem, we should step back and work with our teams to see where the opportunities are. For example, if the global economy is slowing down, we should take the time to clear up our technical debt and prepare for the next phase of hyper-growth. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Adjusting to a remote work model has been our biggest challenge. That said, we haven’t seen productivity drop, and have actually seen unnecessary meetings fall away. 
However, based on the lessons we’ve learned over the past few months from our Asian offices, a longer remote work policy causes significant stress for our employees. They need proper engagement and support. Our teams are implementing virtual lunches and coffee breaks, keeping cameras on during meetings so they can see each other and sticking to regular daily routines. Hopefully this will all help us get through these unprecedented times. 

 

Beyond your team, what advice do you have for the LA tech community at large right now? 

In this time of uncertainty, we can help each other out by sharing our thoughts and solutions. Supporting each other is critical in this time, and we should use this community as a sounding board. 

Working in tech, it’s important to have a buffer in place. In the last ten years, there has been an illusion that there is unlimited money in the market, but this is not true. When the money stops flowing, those without resources in place will be left out in the cold. We need to return to the basic business model. Does my service or product create value? Can the revenue cover the cost and provide margins? 

 

In a time when so many companies are being forced to change the way they do business, CEO Erik Huberman wants to be there to help them adapt. Erik opened up about leading his company, Hawke Media, and the many customers they serve through this period of change. 

 

As a leader, people are looking to you for answers. Where are you finding the support you need? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

The more you hold back, the more money you’re going to lose. So pivot and try new things. Change what you’re doing, find new avenues to make money and drive new customers to your business. The landscape is as competitive now as it ever was. It’s about being nimble and acting accordingly. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Our team has risen to the occasion and is doing a great job working remotely. Still, team culture and camaraderie are important, and we’re trying to do things to keep our people engaged, including a virtual St. Patrick’s Day party. Building community is one of our core values, and we’ll continue to build, both internally and with our broader community. 

We’ll also focus on being what we’ve always been for our clients: a voice of reason. Business owners everywhere are being faced with making an extreme pivot, and our job is to help them adapt. 

 

Beyond your team, what advice do you have for the LA tech community at large right now? 

Staying positive is big. Try to think of realistic, positive outcomes and then really focus on them. Everyone needs to have positivity that this will end and we will return to our normal lives. 

For now, keep pushing ahead. It’s going to be exhausting and stressful, but as a leader and as a founder, it’s time to lead your people forward and see it through. 

 

Fintech company Dave is doing what they can to meet the moment, including supporting local food banks and maintaining open communication with anxious customers and employees. CEO Jason Wilk explained how the company is adjusting to this new normal. 

 

As a leader, people are looking to you for answers. Where are you finding the support you need? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

Every day, we receive reviews with stories from our customers about how Dave has helped them out of a tight financial situation. These are the stories that keep me and the team motivated, especially now. 

I would recommend that leaders remain connected with their customers during this time of uncertainty. Lead with empathy to understand the changing needs of your customers and adapt with them. The same should go for your employees. This is a trying time for many, who are balancing conflicting priorities across work, family life and health. This is a time to be exceptionally kind to one another. 

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Dave has been fully remote for the past week and the team has responded readily to the change. Over the next couple of weeks, we expect to field the same concerns as others in the tech community — the question of when normal business operations will continue. 

One of the ways we’ve remained consistent in addressing questions is by hosting remote all-hands meetings every week, where each squad and department shares updates and everyone has an opportunity to ask questions of Dave’s leadership. 

 

Beyond your team, what advice do you have for the LA tech community at large right now? 

I think the tech community has a huge responsibility during this time, not just to our customers and employees, but to the world at large. We should be sharing resources — whether that’s money, time, ideas — outside of our immediate circles to support wide-scale efforts to help those in need during this time. 

Dave recently expanded our philanthropic partnership with Feeding America to help food banks struggling with the impact of COVID-19 and we encourage others in the tech community to contribute to those on the front lines of combating this pandemic. 

 

Cameron Weeks
Chief Executive Officer

Communications platform Edify sees an opportunity to help its customers ride out this period of remote work and social distancing. CEO Cameron Weeks explained some of the steps he and his team are taking to rise to this challenge.

 

As a leader, people are looking to you for answers. Where are you finding the support you need? What advice do you have for other leaders who are walking into a world of uncertainty?

This situation is certainly unprecedented in our lifetimes and it’s been challenging to navigate. What helps me the most is conferring with my leadership team, who is based in various places across the country. This varied perspective helps us look at the situation from different angles — geography, family structures and associated needs, remote work circumstances, local mandates and more. I also rely on my investors and the larger VC community to add value by sharing how they see founders and leaders managing their organizations in this new territory across industries. My best advice would be to huddle up with your trusted colleagues, listen to your employees and make decisions that will keep you ahead of the curve. This can be tough, but just know that what may seem extreme or overly conservative today may not be quite enough tomorrow. It’s better to prepare for the worst and come out ahead. Trust your gut.

 

Over the coming weeks and months, what concerns are you anticipating from your team? How are you addressing them?

Our team moved to 100 percent remote work last week. We are focusing on getting everyone comfortably set up in their new home offices and being mindful of family challenges and personal uncertainties. However, we have also clearly communicated that now that we are all safely at home, it will be largely business as usual. Companies need our technology in even more ways than they may have realized before. We have an opportunity to help businesses connect with customers and connect employees with each other, even when every person is remote. That means we have an opportunity to shine and continue to grow our company in the midst of this uncertainty. It’s on all of us to seize that opportunity. By staying focused on that, leading by example and communicating with our people often via multiple channels, I think we have a solid plan for keeping people comfortable, productive and engaged. 

 

Beyond your team, what advice do you have for the LA tech community at large right now? 

As technologists, we have a unique connection to one another at a fundamental level. Having a community of like-minded people band together can be very powerful — especially because we understand how much technology can help all of us cope while day-to-day socialization is at an absolute minimum.

To our industry, I say: People are looking to those who think like us to lead. It is our duty and privilege right now to show others how to continue moving forward with the help of the tools we create and the mindset we live by. We can be examples of perseverance and strength across the business world while also being human. No one has all the answers, especially not right now. Together, let’s acknowledge that and continue to do what we can to help our people, each other, and the world get to the other side of this. 

 

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