Maria Elena: Strategic Alignment with Remote Teams
This post was originally authored by Ian Carrick
Moe recently had the chance to interview friend and client Maria Elena about her work creating strategic alignment across multiple oceans. We sandwiched the interview between a brief biography:
Along with her sister, Maria Elena Malpezzi Price co-owns ExperiencePlus!, managing the company her parents founded in 1972 from its US headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado. Maria Elena started her career when she was five years old, helping translate ice cream flavors on an early ExperiencePlus! tour, Bike Across Italy, from Venice to Pisa. Since then, “M.E.” has led tours in more than 10 countries, specializing in Chile, Argentina and Italy and Spain where she has lived and studied. These days she spends most of her time at a desk – although she does still manage to travel to Europe and join a tour whenever she can. In 2011 Maria Elena and her sister Monica were honored to be recognized in National Geographic Traveler’s top 10 Guides in the World list in their May and June issue.
Maria Elena, ready for a tour
Maria Elena holds an MBA from the Leeds School of Business and earned a dual Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and International affairs from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Together these disciplines enable her to insightfully focus her attention on day-to-day operations while maintaining a strategic vision for the business as a whole.
How do you approach strategic planning for your organization?
I have the unique fortune to work in my family business with my sister. We are also lucky in that we strongly align in our vision for our company and although she lives across an ocean half way around the world, we are constantly talking. We have weekly meetings (often more) that are both tactical and strategic, sometimes more tactical than strategic and vice versa. But as we talk short- and long-term planning we are always asking “does this makes sense with our vision and our mission?” I think we are fortunate that we have each other to talk to and although we do align strongly we also have our arguments. We have learned (thanks to some wonderful coaching from Moementum) that those arguments are healthy; we can have them without taking things personally. This constant dialogue, checking in, and even arguing is important in our planning. That said, we also have realized that talking just amongst the two of us isn’t the best way to create ownership in the vision for the rest of our team – and maybe more importantly, they sometimes don’t even know what we are talking about. So our current efforts are aimed at working with our team to make them feel part of the planning and create more accountability in the leadership that works with us.
What are the primary challenges in creating alignment with your team on the future direction and strategy of the organization, considering you have employees that work remotely?
Clear communication is hard enough within one office. We have found that with staff and partners around the world, as well as language and cultural differences, making sure people clearly communicate and understand everything, from their day-to-day needs to the strategic plans of the company, can be woefully challenging. With employees spread around the world we sometimes find it hard to stop the “stories” that start to build in peoples’ heads as they react to different work styles and varying communication methods because they aren’t seeing each other often. This can collectively build on itself as assumptions start to become reality, creating habits or pre-conceived ideas that are very hard to “re-align.” Sometimes those little things add up and can create misalignment not just in daily work but also for larger decisions, creating misunderstandings about why we are taking a certain direction on a strategic level. We try really hard to remind everyone to trust that everyone is doing their best. This is challenging when you can’t be in the same office as your colleagues but sometimes we all need that reminder.
What is the most difficult aspect of strategic planning in your role?
The most difficult aspect is making sure that everyone really is on the same page, that people are truly understanding the vision and strategic plans. Because we are spread out and people often get buried in just paying attention to their piece of the puzzle, it is easy for Monica and I to think that everyone else knows what’s going on. But often that is not the case. We receive feedback about this even when we thought everyone was aware of why certain decisions were being made. In addition to ensuring that we clearly communicate the planning process, creating accountability for everyone else to move the vision forward is incredibly difficult (for the same reason as above, often people get very wrapped up in their day to day work). Taking the time to make sure that our team realizes they are all key to making the strategic plan a reality is crucial to our success. It is especially hard to do when you have people spread across the world.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of strategic planning in your role?
I really enjoy thinking about our industry, the market, our competitors and then analyzing the context we work in to think about how we can leverage our capabilities to continually improve our trips and to continually be the best place to work. We are lucky in that we have an incredible team who – on the big picture level – strongly believes in our vision. Monica and I had a strategic planning retreat with our team about 3 years ago. As the two of us have reviewed those plans and looked at what we achieved since that meeting, we have seen some great strides on many of our objectives. Being able to point to that accomplishment feels great for both of us and for our team.
What strategies do you use to create “buy-in” within your team for the future vision of the company?
We have found that getting people on the same page with each other and with the company is very important for buy-in, so we invest in bringing the team together (including non-permanent staff) to talk about planning and strategy as often as we can. This elevates the trust necessary to create open communication and feedback. These gatherings energize everyone. We take that momentum back to our respective offices as we work to improve ourselves as a team and our trips. We also have started to encourage more cross-office meetings. We try have a monthly inter-office skype/web conference meeting so we can all check in, see each other and give each other updates. This helps prevent people from simply burying themselves in their department and forgetting about who is doing what across the ocean. This seems to remind everyone that they are one piece of a larger puzzle and it helps create the appreciation necessary for buy-in on future strategic decisions.
What advice do you have for other leaders in successfully creating and implementing a strategic plan?
The foundation of any successful planning is trust amongst the team. Once the team trusts each other and the leadership, the actual process of planning and implementing is easier.After trust, I’d say that communicating is the next priority. Ensuring there are different means of communicating with all staff (and field staff) so that everyone feels like they are on the same page is key. We use an internal social network that is open to our guides and our staff. We’ve found this helps keep auxiliary staff in the loop and connected with the home offices from one year to the next.
More than anything, Maria Elena still loves to immerse herself in new places and see the world by bike. Her favorite trip—when pressured to choose—is the Camino de Santiago from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela for its extraordinary combination of everything that makes a bike trek great: history, cuisine, landscape, pilgrims, great cycling and languages galore.