Sean Kramer of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Maintain the Pulse of the Organization — Without connecting with individual team members to understand what’s happening in their lives, we formed a sunshine committee to celebrate life moments. For example, we learned recently that a team member had a close relative in the hospital. The sunshine committee immediately worked to send the family a small basket to let them know we were thinking of them. When another team member adopted a new puppy, the committee sent a box of puppy toys. Small but meaningful interactions help with employee retention. Equally, as a leader, I, along with the rest of the leadership team members, will reach out with check-ins to see how the team are doing and if there is anything they are lacking or see areas for improvement.

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 Sean Kramer, Chief Executive Officer of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation.

Sean has been a prominent fundraising leader for some of the most respected and highly recognized nonprofit organizations, particularly in the health area. Prior to his current role with the DRIF, he was senior vice president and chief development officer for Parkinson’s Foundation’s Miami and New York offices, where he directed a nationwide development team and increased revenue almost 60% in two years.

Previously, as assistant vice president for Baptist Health South Florida, he led the major philanthropic efforts that established the Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute and Miami Cancer Institute, surpassing the campaign goal by 55%.

With deep roots in South Florida, Kramer has also held executive management and fundraising roles at American Cancer Society, Barry University, Florida International University, and American Red Cross. While he has focused his career in the nonprofit sector, he spent time in the for-profit sector at Palm Beach life insurance firm Jones Lowry, where he developed new business relationships with ultra-high net worth individuals.

Kramer received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida International University and a master’s degree in business administration with honors from the University of Miami. He resides in the Miami area with his wife, Anna McConnell, M.D., and three daughters, ages 14, 13, and 11.

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?

Mybackstory starts as an eight-year-old child watching Jerry Lewis movies with my father. We loved to sit and watch and laugh till our bellies hurt. When the Jerry Lewis telethon came on, we would watch together for hours. I was so inspired to help the kids that I began going door to door on my own at eight-years-old to ask neighbors to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association. That experience motivated me to a career that I knew had to be rooted in helping others. I wasn’t quite clear on the exact path but knew it had to be something where I could wake up every day and feel good about what I was doing for society as a whole. My high school days, as well as college, were filled with volunteering and educating others on the issues most pressing to our communities. From environmental issues, to hunger and homelessness, it was and continues to be important for me to continue to work to engage others in lifting up communities whatever the issue at hand may be.

During my time as an undergraduate at Florida International University in Miami, I became active in the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG). The group focuses on environmental and consumer rights issues and I immediately was intrigued when I was invited to travel to Tallahassee as a freshman to lobby our state legislature on passing recycling laws. It was so inspiring to be surrounded by other dedicated and likeminded individuals who also saw the opportunity to make change. It truly was the motivation I needed to continue on my path of involvement in non-profits. Upon graduation, I was asked to stay at the university and coordinate the efforts of the community service program on campus. I was responsible for service learning programs, and leading groups of students during spring break to volunteer their time instead of heading out to party on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale and Panama City. It was a truly emotional experiences that continue to define what I do on a daily basis.

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

On 9/11 in 2001, I was working as the Director of Volunteer Resources with the American Red Cross. Our entire team watched in horror as the planes collided into the twin towers. I immediately thought of my sister who was a student at NYU at the time. As many attempted to do that morning, we could not reach her as the phone lines were either jammed or down completely. Being a part of a disaster relief organization, we knew we needed to act. That afternoon, our team developed a plan to mobilize volunteers to support blood collection efforts along with fundraising efforts in South Florida. I had never seen a team come together in a more cohesive and collaborative way to get things done. A truly amazing experience. So when the call came for team members to travel to Ground Zero to support relief efforts, there was not a moment of hesitation to go. Five days after the attack, I was the sole person on a flight from South Florida to New York City. It allowed me to be there for my sister, for the Red Cross organization, and for the incredibly brave women and men working on the front lines at Ground Zero.

I was given the opportunity to work at the headquarters in Brooklyn, mobilizing the thousands of volunteers who were pouring into the city to assist, as well as work at the respite center adjacent to Ground Zero. Seeing the firefighters come in from the pile completely exhausted with boots that had melted soles from the molten steel they were walking on. Never in my professional life had I been more proud and honored to be in a position to help others when they needed it the most. What has always stuck out to me during that time was getting on the subway after walking past the flyers of the missing put up by loved ones, stepping onto the train and commuters standing and applauding me and my co-workers. We were honored to be there and honored to help. It will always remain as a shining light of what people are capable of when they come together to change the world despite our differences.

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

“Don’t let your studies get in the way of your education”. This is a quote that I heard early in my time as a college student as I was trying to make my way and find myself. While sitting in class learning about the constitution, it occurred to me that the education I was getting by lobbying our state legislatures, by educating students about the environment, or by volunteering at a homeless shelter was so much more than just simply reading about it. Life is about experiences and I needed to get out and experience it for myself. It was that quote that has pushed me to truly go out and see the world and find my place in it.

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 have had the opportunity to have mentors along the way that have pushed me to where I am today. There are so many that I would like to mention in my response as they have all had an impact on the person I am today. The one person, though, that truly has influenced my philosophy and raison d’etre is my father. My father was a traveling salesman who sold paint and sundries up and down South Florida. Every day off of school, he would take me with him on his route to hardware stores. What I learned watching him interact with his customers were some of the defining moments of my life. Everyone loved my father. His genuine nature, the way he made people feel was what I took from seeing him in action. I learned the key to sales was in the relationship. People do business with people they both relate to and like. He would say make yourself interesting but not in a strange way. Get to know the person behind the counter, they have a story to tell. It has remained with me as my most important lesson.

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?

Nothing can replace the energy that you feed off of being in the same space physically together. The ability to read body language while being together can drive business decisions. Equally the ability to gather quickly to make decisions cannot be replicated virtually. Finally, as a leader, one of the most important aspects of leading a team is being able to “walk the factory floor” and connect with team members. It’s a critical aspect in being able to lead a team to have the pulse of the organization and understand what is going on with all levels of the business.

Teams don’t operate in isolation. They’re made up of individuals, and individuals have stories. A good leader should understand what is going on, not just from a work perspective but also from a personal perspective. You know how your team is doing and feeling, how their parents are doing, how their kids are faring at school. Those types of conversations are very difficult to have if you’re just not in front of somebody. When you’re remote, you tend to focus a lot on simply the work function, versus the camaraderie aspect of being a team. People work best when they work with people that they like and appreciate and understand, and being able to understand that is equally an important aspect.

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?

The inability to walk the factory floor certainly makes it more challenging to lead the team. Lines of communication are not as free flowing as when everyone is together in the same space. The inability for the water cooler talk makes keeping a team connected a challenge. Virtual conflict resolution and the inability to look into someone’s eyes to apologize is equally a challenge.

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.)

Communication is the key. The first challenge to overcome is to eliminate the appearance that there is an inability to communicate. As the pandemic hit and we went remote, we immediately moved to daily all staff meetings. We met every morning at 9 a.m. for 15 minutes to discuss topics of the day and relevant business information. As the time went on, we found that 9 a.m. calls were impacting those families with children who were being home-schooled, so we modified to a 9:30 call. We continued to evolve and now have settled at meeting three days a week with one meeting extended to 30 minutes to dive into specific business topics or training sessions.

Maintain the Pulse of the Organization — Without connecting with individual team members to understand what’s happening in their lives, we formed a sunshine committee to celebrate life moments. For example, we learned recently that a team member had a close relative in the hospital. The sunshine committee immediately worked to send the family a small basket to let them know we were thinking of them. When another team member adopted a new puppy, the committee sent a box of puppy toys. Small but meaningful interactions help with employee retention. Equally, as a leader, I, along with the rest of the leadership team members, will reach out with check-ins to see how the team are doing and if there is anything they are lacking or see areas for improvement.

Know your Culture — When we found that there was conflict on the team, we developed a Core Values committee to help the organization understand what we wanted our culture to be. The committee has focused on not only compiling the core values, but have implemented training to ensure that we are all living up to the values that we espouse.

Provide the Tools to get the Job Done — To be an effective member of a team, you need to have the required tools to do your job. When one of our team members working remotely wasn’t able to print needed accounting forms, the team ensured that a printer was delivered to their home. The same can be said of ensuring that team members’ internet access or phone lines are up to par and able to connect effectively. This notion is paramount for a team member to not only complete their work to be able to excel at it.

Transparency is a Must — Not being in the same space can lead to rumors spreading quickly via text or email. When a team member was recently let go, we immediately convened a call to discuss what took place and allow time for questions and answers. It’s an important element of ensuring open lines of communication that builds and maintains trust with the team. They need to be able to understand and trust that the decisions being made are for the betterment of the organization as a whole. Not communicating openly about what is going on only festers rumors and innuendo.

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?

We certainly faced communication issues early on as we were learning how best to go from in-person to remote working. Many of us were dealing with multiple children at home and family members also working from home, thereby slowing down internet speeds and ability to access either files or engage in virtual meetings. We moved to have our IT team reach out to each of the staff members to address and solve for their specific issues. When one of our team member’s internet access was so slow they couldn’t take meetings, the organization ensured that the equipment was upgraded for them.

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?

We are fans of Zoom as that has been our primary tool for coordinating meetings. We will equally utilize Google docs and Microsoft Teams to help with meetings and meeting efficiencies. When we need immediate notification to team members, we will frequently utilize WhatsApp.

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

For me, what would be amazing from a business aspect is some kind of virtual reality system that allows you to walk through and tour our facility, without all of the goggles you have to add. Simply being able to have a system where you are remotely walking through the institute. For us, the work we do on a day-to-day basis, finding a cure, it’s the highlight of the organization. So what is critical for us is being able to have individuals see the actual impact of their philanthropic investment on the research and the researchers, that they can actually engage in dialogue with them. I have been advocating for virtual reality tours of the institute for a while now, and the pandemic has slowed us down a bit. But that would be the most ideal thing for us.

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?

It’s absolutely changed our need for it. We’ve gone from a system where we pick up the phone and speak with somebody, just conversing with them, to the point now where you have the need to see whatever it is that they’re working on, whether a Word document or a particular file. You need the ability to not just see that, but to be able to comment, edit, and work on it in an efficient matter. If you were sitting in a room together, you’d be able to point out and comment and make changes right there. Remotely, you need to have that same ability to influence whatever the particular topic is that you’re engaged in. I go back to the donor side of this. If I’m talking with a donor, have a meet the scientist event. We have a need for the donor to see that the work that the researcher is doing, and that they have the ability to show the work, whether that be from a static PowerPoint or a dynamic video presentation. Those things are absolutely critical to be able to effectively communicate what our point is, whether to a colleague or to a donor.

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?

We’ve actually purchased a robot that will tour through the institute itself. So you, from the safety of your home, will be able to drive the robot. It has an iPad at the top of it, and you can two-way communicate with the researcher and the Foundation team, so that you can actually witness and see what is going on from the safety of your own home. So we have definitely advanced the Foundation in terms of looking at what the challenges are, e.g. getting people into the building during a pandemic. Nor do we necessarily need somebody to fly, say, from Australia to the Diabetes Research Institute to see it first-hand. We will be able to do that virtually.

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

The only thing that still concerns me is that it’s hard to build a relationship through the computer. I can’t physically shake your hand. The work that we do is all relationship based. So for me, what concerns me is the inability to engage one on one with the individual, and to be able to build that relationship. You will never replace the face to face interactions with technology. Technology can help to foster relationships, but you’re never going to close a major donor or a major client through the computer. It’s just not the way that business is done. People do business with people they like and that they trust, and it’s very difficult to figure out if I trust you just by seeing your face on a screen.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

The majority of our work is being done virtually now. We’re fortunate that with the vaccine starting to roll out now, a number of our donors and board members are being vaccinated and feeling more comfortable with getting together, still socially distanced, in-person. But 99 percent of our interactions are still done virtually, and that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future. For example, we have had in person board meetings for years, which there’s a significant expense for folks to fly in from wherever they are. But this past year, we’ve found that our board meetings are equally as successful as they have been in person. So we may look at going to one board meeting a year that’s in person, and the other two or three might be virtual. We’re going to end up with a kind of hybrid system at the end of this. But it’s definitely impacted our ability to engage with our donors, for sure.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

The first recommendation is to provide the feedback over an on-camera meeting and not via telephone or email or text. It’s important to follow some basic rules for providing that feedback. Including: focusing on the situation and not the person, maintain the person’s self-confidence, lead by example. Equally, it may be useful to roleplay the discussion with someone prior to engaging in direct conversation

I’m the beneficiary of a really great training program, where I learned those basic principles of focusing on the situation and not the person, and maintaining self-confidence, etc. Being remote, it certainly is a challenge. But at the end of the day, the thing that we have to focus on is that we are all employed to get a job done. You can’t not provide feedback to somebody who’s not doing the right thing, whatever that not right thing is. So having a mechanism for having to do that, I’m thankful for the fact that we have the technology available now to be able to Zoom or FaceTime to be able to see the person, because I can’t imagine giving somebody feedback, challenging feedback, remotely where you’re not able to actually see the response and garner what their thoughts are.

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

For me, it has been all about communication and open, honest, transparent communication about what’s happening. You’re not in the same physical space, it’s hard to get a read for what’s going on with individuals and throughout the organization. For example, we went from a monthly all staff meeting to a daily all staff meeting, where we, every day, got on a call and just for 15 minutes touch base. Big topics, big issues, important news we need to talk about. Other days, we play a fun game so we can have fun and laugh together as a team. It’s important to create those kind of experiences, even when we’re not physically together. We acknowledge events, like if there’s a birth, or a new puppy, or a birthday, things like that. It’s connecting people in ways that resemble, as best as possible, how we would be if we were all together. You can still create a team experience, and still feel like you’re connected, but it’s about making sure that you are talking and communicating regularly, that you’re open with the communication as to what is happening both organizationally and personally. For example, we did a virtual baby shower for one of our team, and it was a fantastic team moment. Those are things, creating experiences as a team, that you need to have.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement that I would create is, for me, about compromising.

Unfortunately, compromising has gone out the window. In many ways, compromise has become a dirty word. And it has prevented us from being able to move forward and address really large issues, societal issues, whether it’s a discussion on healthcare or a discussion about the environment, or societal inequities.

It’s about having a dialogue and a discussion that says we all want things that we are both interested in, there has to be a middle ground that we can both achieve. I’m never going to get everything that I want, and you’re never going to get everything you want, but together there have to be things that we can reach in the middle.

What has been missing for me in society is the ability for people to understand your perspective and other people’s perspectives, and then find that middle ground. Healthcare is a good example. We need people to have quality appropriate healthcare so that when you get sick, you can get treated. But at the same time, others will say I’m not interested in paying for everybody’s healthcare out of my taxes, and then my taxes go up. Well, what’s the middle ground? Where do you find compromise amongst the issues, whether that’s on healthcare or otherwise.

Achieving compromise would be a world wide movement that could help and benefit people, because we’re just not seeing much of it these days. People on all sides are embedded in their particular camps, and can’t move beyond what they want, and that’s not the way that we have built societies. We have built societies on the fact that we can understand that we are all connected and inter-connected, and by doing things together, we can certainly look at achieving more.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow me on Facebook, Twitter and via my website:

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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