Communication has become much more convenient thanks to digital connection and innovation. As workplaces expand and grow, how can technology accelerate the development of inclusive teams? Joining Josh Hotsenpiller is Adam Chen, Chief Marketing Officer of The Amenity Collective, who discusses how to become an intentional leader in a digital community where everyone is welcome and accepted. He explains how to make modern digital tools into channels for inclusivity and prevent them from getting off the rails. Adam also talks about the powerful impact of emojis in allowing leaders to be more expressive, making them vulnerable and relatable to their respective teams.
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The Power Of Intention For Inclusivity With Adam Chen
Adam, what's going on?
It's going well. Thanks for having me on.
It’s emotionally pleasing to see Denver behind you. I had mentioned before we started I grew up there. It's fun to see that. I'm excited to share time. I got to start by saying this, the power of digital connection fascinates me. Here's why. I got on the Zoom and I'm like, “Adam, I can't remember. I don't know how to change my background.” You're like, “Don't worry. Go up to Zoom.” Right here, digitally, two cities across the world. Two people come together. Somebody has domain knowledge that somebody else doesn't have. Instantaneously, there's value and utility created. This is what fascinates me about the digital world.
I hear many people say, “I can't wait to get back to all in person. Let's get rid of this digital world.” I firmly believe we're in an end world. We're in a world where physical will never go away. It's powerful and digital. For me to experience right now the power and utility of mind sharing and domain sharing instantaneously in a digital world, I thought it was a cool way to start off. Literally, you're helping me do this before we get started. That's the power of what fascinates me about this category.
Here's what I want to talk about. As we start to launch into the digital world, we have many of our clients saying, “With the recession, with the digital world, we need a community.” We talk a lot about inclusivity in the physical world. I want to talk a little bit about what does it mean and what are some thoughts about how do we create inclusivity in a digital world? What are things we need to be of? It's a different animal.
It is a different animal in some ways. Having been in marketing my entire career, there's always been this digital team within a marketing department. In the world that we live in now, digital is ubiquitous. To carve that out as a separate, distinct thing is almost perpetuating this idea that a digital approach is different than an in-person approach. The core tenants that make building a community, enacting into change initiative, the ingredients are exactly the same, whether it's digital or in-person. In digital, while those tenants are the same, the approach on how you bring those things to life might be a little bit different.
You need to be a little bit more intentional about how you do it. I'll give you one example of something that I'm conscious of. You still have large meetings, committee meetings, team meetings in-person in the office. Everyone can admit that, at times, there can be a dominating personality that dominates the room. The thing about being in person, though, is at least everyone is within an eyeshot. Everyone can see each other. Everyone can read the body language that people have. Sometimes, the body language says more than the words coming out of people's mouths.
Take that same meeting onto a digital world, onto Zoom, whatever platform you’re using. There are only so many boxes you can realistically have on a screen at any one time. I would even say that the preparation people have and preparing materials for a digital meeting maybe are a little bit lower than what they were in-person. There’s no more, “We need to have handouts for everyone so everyone can follow along,” or we have a presentation screen. It's a lot more informal, whether that's how people show up and present themselves or the materials that you're going through.
The unstructured ness of some digital meetings is good to help replace some of the camaraderies you might get right around a water cooler in an office. Ensuring everybody has a voice in that meeting is exponentially more difficult. You're not able to read body language. You're not able to see everyone's facial reactions on the screen.
As a presenter, if I'm presenting something, now my screen's taken over by what I'm presenting. I'm no longer reading and being able to adapt my talk track based on the responses in the room. There are some unique things that you need to do with the intention to engage and build that inclusive meeting culture, community, whatever it is in a Zoom environment. Ensuring that you call on the people that aren't speaking. That is a common thing inclusive leaders do, whether it's digital or in-person, but ensuring that you're calling on people and giving them a voice.
Whether digital or in person, inclusive leaders must ensure that they are calling on people and giving them a voice.
When you get into a physical room, there is an aura and domineering. There are magnanimous people that think quickly. Let's talk even like the broader digital community. Do you think that there has been a balancing of hierarchy now? Have you ever noticed on social media that people who are introverted and don't usually say a lot all of a sudden have an opinion on Facebook or Twitter, whatever it might be? Outward personality is less meaningful than maybe even your ability to intellectually express through the written word, too. Is there a value there, too, in leveling the field or maybe not? I don't know.
Leveling, I'm not sure. In my experience, I see a greater divide and more of a gulf. In a physical meeting, there might be side conversations. How many times have you sat in a room and leaned over to your colleague while somebody else is presenting to hash out an idea or whatnot? You can't do that in a virtual meeting. Maybe on the walk back to your desk. It takes carving out time on your calendar to maybe have that follow-up meeting. For those introverts, maybe they're uncomfortable. Literally, it's about creating the space right for them to then express themselves. In a meeting with a dozen other folks on it, there's nothing you can do to make them comfortable in that environment.
You have to give them the time outside of that. The challenge that I know I run into, I'm sure you do as well, is I'm sitting in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting eight hours a day. There isn't even the time in the day to then have those sidebar conversations. How do you create a safe space where folks that might be hesitant to share their thoughts and opinions feel comfortable doing so?
Even as a manager of people, I found that the nature of even my one-on-ones has changed significantly moving into the digital things. Now we're talking about a community of two, the relationship between two. When you have to preschedule the time to have the one-on-ones, you can't do drive-bys by people's desks anymore.
You still want to talk about the tactical work that you need to do. Often, that overtakes from the needs because time is valuable. You forgo some of the other stuff that is the softer things that, as a leader, help those under your care, help them grow their careers, help create that path for them. Some of that stuff takes a back seat because we're fighting for each other's time that we have to preschedule. We don't have the natural thing.
You said something at the outset. That's what makes building communities a success. You need to combine both the digital community and the in-person community to see the full effects because some of the mediums are naturally bringing out certain things. It's that much more difficult to bring it up. You need both is the recipe for success in building a community.
You brought up a word, which is not focused on enough, but it's powerful, especially in inclusivity, is intentionality. What makes a great leader is an intentional leader. If we weren't intentional before, I'm hearing you say it's even harder to be intentional now. What are some ways that you found to be an intentional leader in a digital community for the purpose of inclusivity?
It's interesting. A leader needs to have a certain trait within them. They need to be self-reflective and aware of at least the bias that they carry.
Some of the tactics that I've done is I remind myself. I read up on this stuff. I try to stay up to date, but there are two kind of forces that are making this more challenging. You've got the challenges of interacting in a digital format is one massive challenge that we have to obviously overcome, but also the nature of people is changing in an accelerating pace and what people need right.
Obviously, whether it's the #MeToo Movement or any of the other things that are in pop culture right now, expectations of employees are changing. As a leader, we not only have to overcome the challenges of the tool sets that we have and the challenges of operating in a workspace but also keeping pace with that expectation changing from our employees.
As a marketer, I twist that around to say it's the same concept of consumer expectation. Consumer expectation is changing with the advent of digital tools. People want immediacy. People don't have patience for those things. That is also what we're seeing in employees as well. They want to join an organization and have everything that they're used to in their personal lives. They want to analog to that in the work environment. How do I, as a leader, provide them the tools to do that? Also, be self-aware enough and not overconfident enough in my approach that I'm willing to adapt and change to meet those evolving expectations and then do that on an individual basis.
Ultimately, that's what makes an effective leader or leader of building a community, whatever it might be, is understanding that there isn't a one size fits all approach. We're dealing with people at the end of the day. People are what makes a community. People respond to different things. My job as a leader is to adapt and meet them where they are and provide maybe even redundant tools so that it's intuitive for end users.
A couple of thoughts I had. One was I was thinking about meetings and inclusivity. It's funny. We have a guy on our team who’s got an answer or a thought for everything. They're good, too. It's not like it's bad, but no matter what, he's got an answer and a thought for everything. It's interesting on our meetings now, and I had worked with them in the physical for a decade, now we're in a virtual and he lives 20 miles this way. I haven't seen him in however long. It's funny, you see him every day, but it's interesting now when we're in these meetings and you have to raise your hand. As the leader, you get to decide who you're going to activate.
Some of those basic things that are cool too, whereas normally, in a meeting in the physical, he wouldn't have put his hand up. I wouldn't have called on him, but now there are almost some controls where you can go, “Here's how I'm going to run this meeting.” With some controls and cadence, “I haven't heard from you yet,” even though I see, we'll call him Jim, Jim's hand up again on this little Zoom. I'm not going to say yes to that. We're going to have a holistic conversation.
There are some value efforts where you can go, “I can control this meeting a little bit more now than I ever could before,” which is interesting. It's good for us to remember. There are some controls. I wanted to ask you one other thing, different cultures and different ethnicities, oftentimes this is something that we've got to keep working to break the cycle.
Birds of a feather flock together as the same. I do a lot of work on inclusivity. You go, “This ethnicity is hanging out together, eating together, weekending together.” We assimilate often, even if we say we're not doing it. What I find interesting is it's not an ethnicity or a culture that is using this technology platform and one is using this one. We're all using the same tech stack to interact. It's almost this unique thing where you can't, in a digital environment, Twitter, Facebook, your own internal tools segment off into your own little world. You do have to coexist.
There's a powerful medium there that we go, “We're all here. This is the place that we interact.” We can't go, “We're all going to go to our place of faith here. We're all going to go to our restaurants here. We're all going to go to our weekending here.” No, we're all here. How do we begin to say, “I want to learn from the things that you're doing? I want to interact because we can't segregate out of here. We're all here together.” There's a value in that. How do we maximize that value since we can't segregate? We do have to assimilate into this environment of digital. Where's the big value proposition as individuals? What can we gain from that?
It's interesting. Maybe we're at the point of adoption of some of these digital collaboration tools, communication tools, where we have the opportunity to do exactly what you're saying. I do think we don't take it seriously now, and I give you a lot of praise for even having this conversation because even talking about race in the modern day is taboo.
Let's take Slack, for example. We're a company that uses Slack. They're acquired by Salesforce. It's flexible enough to serve different organizational needs. There's a fine balance between any time you launch a new tool, you have to worry about adoption. How do you make it relevant and easy to adopt for your user base, which probably exists on a spectrum?
If you don't give it enough governance, it can go off the rails easily. You're talking about segmenting, maybe even self-segmentation. You can create channels. You can create private channels. Everyone that has the ability to access Slack is going to have the ability to create their own little segment. It's an organization's duty when you roll out new tools like this to provide some governance structure to make sure that we don't go into that rabbit hole of hyper-segmentation but still giving it open enough to where people can self-select into certain things of relevance. Where that balance lies is the biggest challenge. That's going to be unique to every organization.
What gets me excited and I think about our own Slack and I've seen and shared things in Slack with people I've never met. There's a young lady that works for us on a project. She got assigned to the CEO on this project. I've never met her. We've been working together for 6, 8 weeks. I was like, “Jessica, it occurred to me, I've no idea where you live. I know that you're married. I know that last weekend you guys went out and got a wine night together on Friday.” She showed up and she had her hair all done. I was like, “Jessica, what's going on?” “Me and my husband are going on this wine night tonight.”
I'm like, “That’s fun.” Weeks later, I'm like, “Where do you live?” All of a sudden, there are all these abilities to work with people, know things about them, share emojis on Slack, cheer people on, and realize like, “I don't even know where you live.” The upside of that is I would've never had a relationship with you. I would've not been able to know these things.
Obviously, the downside is there are things I don't know, but there's so much opportunity if we lean into these more quick connections and say, “I'm going to get to know you. I'm going to encourage you.” People say things to me and send emojis to me that if we were sitting in a room and I were their CEO, I don't think they would do that.
I don't fire emoji. They almost become more expressive and vulnerable because there are these bridges of expression. That's one of the cool things that we can think about. I like what you're saying about there's governance, thoughtfulness, and intentionality. I almost feel like you need a playbook of, “Guys, we want to be inclusive. We want to be vulnerable. We want to be expressive. We think that's the future of human connection. We're going to champion that from the top down by doing those types of things.”
That's it, top down. All those attributes you said, whether it's inclusivity. What the story you told was certainly intentional. You realized something. In the digital world, you ask her outright where she lived. Kudos to you as a leader who is now modeling the behavior you want your team to embody. The single thing that leaders can do with intention is to model that behavior. It takes somebody to take that leap of faith first. That has to be the leader, whether that's a vulnerability you shared, whether that's me sharing something about maybe an insecurity or a challenge that I'm facing in my personal life and kicking off a team meeting with that.
It signals to everyone else that this is a safe space where you can do the same. Everyone is struggling with the same thoughts, whatever that is, on some different grade. It doesn't matter what tier of the hierarchy you might live in, in an organization. Humanizing some of that in a digital world is difficult. Your example of using emojis and things like that, it does exactly that. It disarms people. It makes things a little bit more casual. It humanizes people in a certain way because now you're able to express it.
An organization does need to determine what place emojis have in their culture, in their environment, and how to use that. The other benefit, the use of emojis in business has that's positive is it helps bridge the communication divide between generations as well. Digital tools are bringing people together in those ways.
I'll hit on it again. You repeated it. It's about an organization providing enough governance so that those tools are used effectively because they can easily go off the rails. Look at MySpace and social media. Social media versus Facebook. MySpace was incredibly successful a decade plus ago, but they had little governance. What ended up happening is you had a ton of performance issues and content issues going out there. People ended up abandoning the platform.
Facebook provided some more guardrails. Look how successful they've been now, regardless of how you feel about any of their underlying business practices. It's that same concept, though. The organization's duty is to provide these tools to help bridge these generational divides, communication divides but still provide enough governance so that they have some level of control about the outcome.
As we close out here, I'm going to close out with this. This is my big takeaway from this. If you don't have a framework in governance for how digital will create inclusivity, it will have the ability to create exclusivity or irrelevancy. You've got this asset and opportunity right at your fingertips. It has great power to increase productivity and vulnerability. Our job as leaders inside of our organization is to go, and I'm going to bring it back to where you started, where digital was a channel of marketing. No, this is the whole kit and caboodle.
Digital is the way the world is going to function going forward. Now we got to begin to say to ourselves, what is our vision for how digital will be used to accelerate culture and inclusivity? What do we want for that? We have to spell that framework out and then model it within our organization. Not just go, “That's a tool. That's a way we communicate.” There are more relationships forged and gorged on digital than in physical now. We have to take this thing and say, “This is a tool to accelerate where we want to go.” It's good thoughts.
That's 100% it. Historically, technology is the responsibility of maybe an IT team, a small group within an organization. Technology is the duty of every leader and employee in every organization nowadays. You can't skirt that. The positive outcomes you're trying to deliver about bridging divides and building inclusivity do not happen by happenstance. It takes leaders to model that behavior and provide that structure to change culture. Cultures don't change on their own, but it still comes down to people at the end of the day. The tool only enables what the people want it to do. A technology is not a Staples easy button that delivers the outcome.
Technology may be the responsibility of an IT team, but it is the duty of every leader and employee in every organization nowadays.
I still think the number one accelerator of inclusivity is vulnerability. Even for me to get on here as the host of this thing and go, “Adam, how do I do this background?” You're like, “Go up here and do that.” Immediately you go, “We get what this is now. This is a safe place of human beings to solve problems together.” As leaders, the most powerful thing we can do is go, “How do I do something? I don't know something. Let's have a collective and do something.” Thanks for making time with us. I appreciate it. It's always fun having conversations about where the world's going.
I love this kind of stuff.
I appreciate it.
About Adam Chen
Adam Chen currently holds a dual role as the Chief Marketing Officer for The Amenity Collective as well as the Chief Experience Officer for AmenityLinc. The Amenity Collective is a group of companies that facilitate amenity management services in Aquatics, Fitness, and Concierge for multi-family residential properties. AmenityLinc is a SAAS-based property technology platform that bridges the divide between our service delivery and the property management teams at client sites.
Adam embodies a people-first mentality as a team leader and focuses his efforts on process improvement, systems integration, data-driven marketing campaigns, and communications programs that drive internal and external change. His professional career has spanned industries such as IT, finance, marketing, events and hospitality, consulting, and federal government contracting. Combining managerial and technical experience helps Adam lead successful strategic digital transformation initiatives for the companies and the clients he serves through his day job and through his consulting work.