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Out of Office: The Challenges and Opportunities of Onboarding in a Pandemic

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COVID-19 has impacted each company and its executives differently. Six months ago, the idea of recruiting an executive who would make a job change without spending considerable time being vetted by way of in-person interviews would have been unheard of. But it is a new day and companies are rapidly adapting to recruiting and onboarding executives in alternative ways, and there is something to be learned from every executive making a job change during the pandemic.

American Omni Trading (AOT) is a rapidly growing, family-owned, international distribution company based in Houston. The company imports, exports, and supplies to wholesalers high quality, value-priced tires through its extensive global distribution network. With increasingly complex operations, AOT’s business has grown ten-fold in the last decade. AOT engaged TAG to recruit the company’s first-ever CFO, resulting in Kevin Brown joining the company in March, shortly before the pandemic hit. We spoke with him earlier this summer.

Tell us about your onboarding experience.

Kevin Brown

I started with American Omni on March 9th. Alerts about COVID-19 were just starting to come in; the markets were dropping; events were being canceled. Within two weeks, we sent the staff to work from home, and senior management began to rotate on a schedule of one week in the office and one week working from home. After a scare (someone showed symptoms but recovered), we quickly realized there wasn’t a reason for any of us to be there and, by early April, we all worked from home.

Coming on board in the midst of a crisis does have its advantages. We had to model out cash flow, run what-if scenarios, and establish systems and equipment to transition employees to work from home. In many ways, it was a good experience for me. One, I was able to contribute immediately. And two, I was impressed that American Omni was on top of things from a preparedness standpoint.

So much onboarding is done through informal face to face meetings. With only a short period of face time with colleagues and your team, how have you continued to develop connections in quarantine?

Our department had an important role in this crisis—modeling cash flow and budgeting—so we were working together intensively toward those goals. My team and I dove right into the work, using daily Zoom calls to keep in touch, and also holding one-on-one meetings. Working remotely has been challenging, but it gave us more time to focus on the crisis at hand.

What working remotely makes more challenging is connecting with all of AOT’s day-to-day operations. In an office setting, I like to get pulled into different things and be aware of everything that is going on. Someone might say, “Oh, let me grab Kevin to listen to this.” Now everything is handled via videoconference and these types of informal meetings don’t happen. I’ve missed out on that, but that will right itself once we're back in the office.

Do you feel you've been able to get a sense of the firm’s culture working remotely?

I have gotten a feel for the culture, but there's a lot I don't know because I haven’t experienced the flow of the office environment. American Omni uses EOS—entrepreneurial operating system—as a business methodology. I’m learning that process. The company also invested in leadership assessments, such as Personalysis, which gave me perspective on various personalities and has been helpful. I am grateful for that.

How are you able to observe and evaluate team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and workloads while you are all working in separate locations?

Again, it has been a challenge. I have probably done more myself than I perhaps otherwise would have. It has been harder to assess how busy people are, or whether changes are in order. One unique challenge of working remotely is that everyone feels that they're extremely busy, but without being present, it's difficult to know if people are working on the right things. Without the daily interaction and seeing the process flow, it has been difficult to truly assess the team and fairly develop my thoughts for moving forward.

How has AOT’s large international footprint influenced remote work arrangements?

Very little. Travel was put on hold, but we were already effectively working remotely with the teams in China and Thailand. We constantly encounter all sorts of tasks that arise around the shipping lines, shipping routes, ports closing or staying open, and dealing with our suppliers and credit terms. But, because people in that part of the business were accustomed to working remotely versus in person, it did not change much.

Because you joined the company during this crisis, did you learn the business processes and systems faster than you might have during normal business operations?

Yes and no. With respect to budgets, cash flow, and other financial processes, yes, I learned quickly. I believe that I was able to dig in and figure out what's important in my role. On the other hand, I don't necessarily have all of the smaller things that I would normally work through to see the bigger process. For instance, I don't always know who to go to for different items; it likely took more time to learn who does what than would normally be the case. And in terms of the rest of the company, there are still a lot of gaps for me, as I have not yet worked with the entire team.

What do you think has worked best for building relationships while working remotely? What has been most effective in getting to know your colleagues’ personalities?

Working from home has worked better than anyone anticipated. The daily calls have definitely helped in terms of working with the team. Senior leadership brought me on to manage specific things, so I’ve been able to jump in and accomplish these things regardless. I was initially concerned about getting information from various sources within the company until we began having our daily meetings, where the staff talked through issues and solutions. It has been very effective.

A silver lining for me has been the ability to come in, and in the middle of a crisis, become part of the team from day one.

Did the company experience a business slowdown due to COVID-19?

We import and market tires for both the commercial and passenger segments. The passenger market paused and orders slowed down for a month or two. In the commercial segment, business trucks and companies like Amazon kept moving. In addition, farming and agriculture did not slow down as farmers prepared their equipment for normal spring plowing. Approximately half of our business is in the passenger / light truck market. Miles driven is the number one indicator, and with people postponing vacations and not driving to work when the virus hit, the business took a short pause. Now, driving has replaced flying, so we have been receiving record orders in this space.

What are the unique challenges of executing a 90-day plan remotely?

I didn't put together a traditional CFO 90-day plan (laughs). It was baptism by fire. Normally I would have laid out a specific plan of what I wanted to accomplish. Financial models, budgeting, and cash flow plans would have all been part of that 90-day plan. If anything, that was accelerated—it was all done well before 90 days.

What have you learned about yourself as a leader as a result of experiencing this crisis? What new skills have you added to your toolbox?

I know how to log into Zoom and Microsoft Meetings now (laughs). I actually had a year-and-a-half test run of working from home after Hurricane Harvey impacted Houston with a previous employer. When I was in private equity, our building had mold growth so we worked at home for about 18 months while new office space was built out. I learned a lot about myself then; I discovered what I was good at, and how important communication is. That's one thing I tell people: based on my experience, you have to over-communicate in this situation. I think it's natural for people to assume that if they are getting the work done, there's no reason to call or give updates or take additional steps. I believe that the opposite is true—you must communicate so that people do understand and know what you’re working on and accomplishing. I've created several tools and checklists to ensure I'm following up appropriately with people. I've gotten much better about scheduling meetings and thinking ahead, as I can't just stick my head in someone’s door to check in.

It is nice to not have the commute in the morning, which allows me to be more efficient from that standpoint, but I like being in the office to better communicate with the team and know what's going on.

What has been positive about starting a new role during a crisis?

A silver lining for me has been the ability to come in, and in the middle of a crisis, become part of the team from day one. I have been able to take a lead on certain aspects when it otherwise probably would have taken a lot longer for me to contribute meaningfully. I was also able to quickly see the stress reactions of my co-workers and get a feel for the company’s culture in a crisis.

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Jean Lenzner

Jean P. Lenzner

Managing Director