Episode 365 – Idea stewardship with Melissa Romo

Melissa RomoI thought I was sitting down to write a book. I was not sitting down to write a book. I was sitting down to create idea stewardship. And that’s a much bigger exercise.’

Melissa Romo is passionate about the opportunity that remote working presents – inclusion, access to talent, quality of life, etc etc. But as a remote worker herself, as well as the leader of a distributed team, she also knows it’s not all ‘roses and tulips’. Missing from all the discussion of remote work she was hearing was the emotional fallout she recognized in herself and others: guilt, paranoia, loneliness depression and boredom. If we don’t solve for those, all the fancy collaboration systems in the world won’t help us do our best work and be our best selves. 

The result is Your Resource is Human, a deeply researched and highly practical handbook for making remote work work at the relational level. In this conversation, she tells me what it took, and what it means, to shape and share those ideas. 



Melissa’s site: https://www.melissaromoauthor.com/

Melissa on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melissatromo/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/

Power Up Your Writing workshop at Gladstone’s Library: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-600773689277

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I am here today with Melissa Romo, who earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management, where she studied organizational behavior and leadership, and she’s worked as a remote leader for more than 10 years. She’s currently a VP of global marketing, leading a dispersed team. She’s the author of Your Resource Is Human: How empathetic leadership can help remote teams rise above.

So first of all, welcome, Melissa. It’s really good to have you here.

Melissa Romo: Thank you, Alison. I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to have my book in the world.

Alison Jones: Yay and it is beautiful. Do you want to just, for those on video, like to just hold it up?

Melissa Romo: Here, it is.

Alison Jones: Yes, how beautiful is that? Fantastic. That’s a signed copy. I can see the little extra, yes, nice little sticker on the bottom.

Melissa Romo: It’s been really fun because when I send this around with a signed copy sticker on it, this is what everyone wants to show on social media, that they got a signed copy…

Alison Jones: Oh…

Melissa Romo: …the sticker and you know, they’re really excited about it. So…

Alison Jones: There you go, we’re seconds in and you’ve just picked up a really hot tip people. That’s brilliant.

Melissa Romo: Yes.

Alison Jones: Before I talk, I do want to talk about the writing and the publishing and all that kind of good stuff. And before we get into that, I want to just unpick remote leadership a little bit more because it is, I mean, it’s kind of, it’s the water we swim in now, right?

But there’s so much about it that perhaps we don’t fully appreciate. So just tell us why you wrote the book and what sort of stood out for you.

Melissa Romo: Yes, I wrote the book because I had been working remote for a very long time, as you mentioned, and it had been hybrid for a period of time, and then for six years prior to the, well prior to the publication of the book, fully remote, a hundred percent remote. And even if I wanted to go into my company’s office, I couldn’t because the nearest office is 800 miles away in Atlanta, and then there’s the headquarters in London.

And so I’m not going to just jump in my car and go to either one of those locations. So remote work was a constraint, actually, is the way I felt about it, is it was a constraint, holding me back from feeling engaged and feeling involved and feeling like I’m part of a team. And yet you look on social media and you look at the press and you hear what people say and what everyone says is how great remote work is and how great the flexibility is. And it’s all, you know, roses and tulips.

And I was thinking to myself, is something wrong with me that I don’t feel the same way as the rest of the world? And so I sat down to write the book because I wanted to understand what is it about remote work that’s misunderstood right now? What is it? Because I was feeling and experiencing something that just wasn’t getting airtime in any of the conversations that I was seeing, and I wanted to understand what was misunderstood about remote work because it isn’t ever going to go away.

It’s like trying to… I heard a podcast recently where someone said, it’s like trying to unscramble an egg, like it’s the eggs in the pan, it’s been scrambled, and that’s what we’re going to eat, right? So, it was important to me to surface what I think was misunderstood about remote work and what was misunderstood about it or not even being looked at were its pitfalls, right?

And I don’t want to really, I didn’t want to take the book in a negative direction, but I wanted to surface the pitfalls because I want people who work remotely, and also people who lead them, to see those pitfalls and then see the opportunities in them. And so that’s the way I wrote the book.

So the pitfalls, and at my launch event, I ticked these off and there was a big laughter. I said the first five chapters are guilt, paranoia, loneliness depression and boredom, where I tick those off, everyone in the room laughed and I said, no, go buy it.

Alison Jones: If you recognize yourself in any of these.

Melissa Romo: Right, go buy it. And you know, I feel like I wrote something that is just not in the parlance right now. Like we’re not talking about those five things. Loneliness, people are hearing about, you know, it is lonely to be remote, but we’re not really talking about those five things. And as we record this, they’re running remote conferences happening in Lisbon right now.

And I’ve been watching the social media and the conversations in social media and there are people asking the questions. Who’s helping us with the downsides, who’s solving for the downsides? And so remote workers are asking for help here, right? With paranoia, boredom, loneliness, depression, and guilt. They’re asking for the help.

And so what I hope my book does is demystify those downsides and then immediately gives the reader a route to helping a remote worker sort of neutralize those feelings, and in fact, feel even tighter as part of the team.

Alison Jones: So, so much is interesting there. You are right that this isn’t being spoken about and there’s so much being published on remote work and it all seems to be focusing on how you do it well and systems and processes and you know, of course that’s important, but this emotional dimension struck me as being so, so important in your book.

And the other thing is that you’re coming at this as an author, as a remote employee, and as a leader of remote people, and there’s this sort of seeing it from, it’s a 360 view of it, of the whole situation, isn’t it? Did you notice that informing as you wrote?

Melissa Romo: Yes, I was trying to solve for both, both readers, you know, someone who’s a remote worker and some like me, and someone who’s a remote leader, like me, someone who wants to grow her career to be an executive. I mean, ultimately I’d like to be a CMO of an organization. I love marketing. I’ve always been in marketing, and so I want to get to the top, right.

But how do I manage my personal brand? How do I become a person of influence in an organization that only sees me through a three-inch screen, you know? And, so I was trying to solve for people across the spectrum of careers because I really identify with that entire spectrum.

Alison Jones: And of course it’s in that Venn diagram, you know, most leaders of remote teams are themselves remote. You know, there is a huge kind of overlap there so that makes complete sense.

Melissa Romo: Yes.

Alison Jones: When you were talking to people about this, did you start off with those five things that you recognize yourself and then validate them with others or did your experience mesh with other peoples to become sort of more than the sum of the parts?

Melissa Romo: Well, I did start off from where I am, right. I started off from my own personal experience. And I remember when I created the outline, it was one of the assignments in the business book challenge, was one of the early assignments was creating the outline and well, in like a heartbeat, in about seven seconds, I said, oh, well these are the five things I feel every day, and they’re horrible. And I thought, if nothing else, I want to understand those better so I can make them feel better, right.

So I was very selfishly motivated. And there’s some, Richard Bach, who was a very big author in the 1970s wrote, one of the things he wrote is that you teach what you most need to learn, right. So when I sat down to write this book, I wanted to teach the world the thing I most wanted to learn, and the thing that didn’t exist in the books that I had read, amazing books out there about virtual work and virtual teams and remote work, but I just needed the emotional side of it, and I needed to understand that better for myself.

Now, I was also conscious though, that I’m a sample of one, and so I went to people who are experts in organizational design, human behavior, remote work, leadership. I went to those people and I asked them, I said, well, I’m feeling these five things. You know, can you react to that? Can you either validate or do you want to poke a hole in that or, you know, is there something that I should be feeling and I’m not? So, I really tested those five with the people I talked to, and I also did a lot of research. I mean, it just turned into a huge research project.

They’re over 120 citations in the back of the book. I mean, I’m a history student. My degree is in history. I’ve written a historical novel that’s heavily researched, and so if you give me a topic, I’m going to research it down to the core of the earth basically. So that’s what I did with this, and I researched those five emotions as well.

And it was amazing to me, first off, how the people I interviewed, who are experts at remote work, I could see them stop in their tracks and I could see them look at me and say, huh, we’ve never thought about boredom. And I’m like, yes, how about that? And, you know, there’s an incredible stat that was captured right at the end of the pandemic when people were asked why they had fallen out of love with their company during the pandemic. The number one reason wasn’t because of how my company handled the pandemic. The number one reason was my work is boring and has lost meaning. And this has happened because we’ve been separated from each other and we’ve been remote and we’ve been remote under duress. We haven’t been remote with intention and with planning, and so it’s been remote in its kind of worst iteration, and so when I played these back to people, that the light bulbs were going off even from people who are experts in this space.

And so that’s when I knew I was tapping into something new and the research was validating it too. And I was uncovering all these concepts I’d never heard of, like segmentation preference, right? I’d never heard of this, but workplace psychologists have identified this and some of us prefer home and work to be highly separated or segmented, and some of us don’t mind. And that’s a real thing. And it’s studied by organizational psychologists. And I remember uncovering these things thinking, huh, I wish somebody had explained this to me years ago. Because now I understand, I’m someone with a high segmentation preference. I need work and home to be different places. I need to, in fact, when I was 25 and I moved to New York City, my office was on 50th Street and Third Avenue, and I chose to live all the way on the Lower East Side, and I had 45 minutes subway commute, and there’s no real reason I had to do that. But I wanted to look out of my apartment window and see different stuff, that I saw out of my office window.

So I’m someone with a very high segmentation preference, so remote work is hard for me because of that, and no one had ever spelled that out for me. So I want things to be spelled out for people in that way, so that they feel seen and then the leaders know, well what do I do with that now?

Alison Jones: Which is, so the preference thing is fascinating, isn’t it? Because you’re giving a language, people go, oh, I see, that’s why, you know, I feel so uncomfortable where my husband’s finding it fine. And I mean, and let’s talk as well about the fact that when you say your resource is human, that there’s those different preferences.

There’s also those different situations and the rest of life that’s going on and everybody’s in those sort of different situations as well. But I think your point about bringing these things to people and watching that shock of recognition is so fascinating because yes, people have been researching this. Yes, they might have been living it, but as soon as you validate that experience, as soon as you encourage people to think of something that isn’t unique to them but is systemic, is just a part of this process, it changes everything, doesn’t it? And it makes it much easier for you to objectify it perhaps and therefore to think about it and solution find, rather than just beating yourself up about the fact that you are feeling bored and you need to attend better.

Melissa Romo: Yes, yes exactly. I mean, and it’s, you mentioned the phases of life and phases of career. Remote work is kind of like a barbell. Young people don’t really want it as much, and older people don’t really want it as much. The people who really want it are the people in the middle, the sandwich generation. I mean, I’m Gen X and I have a child about to go to college of two children, about to go to college and a mother about to go to a retirement community. And I’ve got a Labrador and you know, I’ve got a home to take care of and I’ve just got so much going on, and so remote work just helps me on the margins of my day, right?

If I don’t have to be sitting in a car or sitting on a bus, I can, you know, get another load of laundry in, or I can run out and get something for dinner, or I can be at my child’s volleyball game. And you know, these really small things that happen on the margins that normally are eaten up by commuting, right?

 And so for me that’s gold, right? I don’t want to commute, I want to be doing those other things. And so people like me in the middle really want it. It’s just that the people on the other, on the edges don’t as much, right. Especially more senior you know, older people, you know, people, baby boomers, you know, people in the generation before me feel uncomfortable about it.

 And also they don’t have the demands at home and in their life that I do, right. So there’s also not a burning platform for them to need to be, you know, at home.

Alison Jones: And we are a fully remote organization, so one of the reasons that your book won the 10 Day Business Book Proposal Challenge was because you say, you know, you write what you need to teach and Richard Bach’s point, you publish also what you’re really interested to read. So for me this was fascinating and it’s interesting that the people who work at Practical Inspiration tend to be in that situation where they just don’t want to schlep anywhere. They’re highly motivated, they’re very tech savvy. But for us, we are a fully remote organization and that does a lot to mitigate against paranoia and that feeling of being the only person who’s not actually in the room at the meeting and trying to make sense of the jokes through the bad connection and so on. So, yes, really interesting.

Did you, that hybrid thing, do you think that’s harder? Well, there’s a leading question. I think the hybrid thing is harder than the fully remote thing.

Melissa Romo: Yes, you know, I think what’s really hard is being inside an organization that doesn’t know how they feel about remote work or even hybrid work. And, I’ll give you an example that is very common across many organizations right now, and that is the creation of something called a team agreement.

And team agreement really is meant to govern hybrid work, right? It’s meant to say, as a team, these are the days that we’re at home. These are the days that we come into the office so that we can all collaborate in a coordinated way. Now, the principle behind that, I really believe in, like there’s no point in going into the office if you go in Monday and everybody else goes in Wednesday, then you’re not really getting the maximum, you know, in-person time that you could be getting. And the team agreement is meant to define, how we’re going to work as a team in that way.

What organizations miss is the fact that many, many organizations are fully remote in ways that they’re not even conscious of. So for example, they could have people, I call them Covid migrants, who left London or left New York and moved out. Moved out, maybe bought a property during Covid because they could. They were fully remote. So it was a quality of life decision and they’ve moved out.

Maybe they needed, I know someone who was in California and he moved to Hawaii to be closer to his family during Covid and that’s where he is now, right? And so when a company creates a team agreement but is not conscious of the fact that they’ve got a large population of Covid migrants, you’re basically presenting an agreement to an employee that they can never follow. Because they’ve moved so far out of the city they can never follow it. And then you scratch your head and wonder why aren’t people following it? Well, you have to look at the dispersion of your workforce and what has Covid done to dispersing your workforce?

Covid is one reason workforces are dispersed, but it’s not the only reason. The other reason is companies may grow through acquisition. So you could have a global company that over time has grown through acquisition and every time it snaps up a smaller company, well guess what? You create a dispersed workforce. A distributed workforce. And when you do that over many, many iterations of snapping up small companies, you have a completely distributed workforce that isn’t going to go into London because they’re all over the UK, they could be all over Europe, they could be all over the US, so that’s happening.

And I don’t think companies are conscious of the level of distribution they create when they grow through acquisition. And then the third factor is, we’re seeing right now rounds and rounds of layoffs, right? This is happening and the reason that’s happening is companies are trying to become more efficient. Companies are trying to get their workforces to do more with less. They’re saying to teams, okay, you used to be responsible for France. Now we want you to be responsible for France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Now, you know, you used to only do France. Now we want you to do Morocco, Belgium, blah, blah, blah. It’s like a game board.

But what’s happening is companies are just asking centralized teams to do more with less. Now, when you ask a centralized team to be across a broader geographic scope of work, that means, that forcibly means, most of their work will have to be done online. They will have to do it virtually, right? If I’m sitting in Frankfurt and I’m supposed to be responsible for the US well, I’m going to be on Teams a lot, right, working with the US to try to be across that work.

So you can understand the frustration when you tell that person in Frankfurt that they should get in their car in the morning, like in the afternoon, let’s say Frankfurt time and spend an hour or an hour and a half going between work and home when the people they need to work with are in Austin, Texas, right? And those are prime hours for Austin, Texas, which is seven hours behind Frankfurt. So you have to look at the global scope of responsibilities and is asking someone to commute sensible and in that example it’s not, right.

And so I think what companies have to look at is grow through acquisition, global scope of responsibilities, and how has Covid distributed their workforces? And look at those three things really with clarity and then write a team agreement.

Alison Jones: Right. And of course it’s a great thing, isn’t it? Because it means that if you are working in that space where you’ve got the capacity for people to be in one place and working with other people, you get the best talent and they can live their best life. And, you know, it’s all good. It’s just that you need that awareness at the top level and that…

Melissa Romo: You do.

Alison Jones: …empathy from the leaders as well as to what’s happening when they can’t see them.

Melissa Romo: I want to mention while we’re on the point about distributed workforces is, you know, when I sat down to write my talk for my launch event, I was really digging into, well, why did I really write this book? I mean, yes, I wanted to understand my own situation. Yes, I wanted to surface things that would help leaders and remote workers.

But what was underneath that? What was the deeper purpose? And the deeper purpose is connected to something I learned from Matt Mullenweg, who’s the founder of a company called Automatic, which most people probably haven’t heard, but Automatic was the creator of WordPress, and almost half of the world’s internet sites are sitting on WordPress.

And Automatic is a private company valued at $7 billion. And Automatic has 2000 employees around the world that are fully distributed. They don’t have a headquarters, they don’t have a main office, no one goes into a building. They’re fully distributed. And what’s important about that is why Matt Mullenweg did that from day one, in 2005 mind you, long before we really had expanded broadband, he decided he wanted that distributed workforce. And the reason is really important. He said talent is evenly distributed around the world but opportunity is not. And it was important to him that when he created a company and he was creating the value of that company, that it gave opportunity to people who would not otherwise have it because they’re not in the right city or they’re not in the right country.

So, when I think about what this book could do is I want distributed work to be the norm. I want leaders to know how to do it. I want companies to feel comfortable with it and be confident with it. And I want that person in Oklahoma City to work for a Madison Avenue Agency, ad agency, right. And that Oklahoma City location isn’t going to impede them. And that’s success for me.

Alison Jones: I mean, and that really brings it down to that purpose, doesn’t it? I mean, that actually you are changing the world for the better for those individuals, but generally also so that we can access more talent and do better work. Oh, I love that.

Melissa Romo: Or diverse work, right? Yes, Imagine…

Alison Jones: Yes, more inclusive. Yes, absolutely.

Melissa Romo: …diverse thinking you get by hiring someone in Oklahoma City instead of having a bunch of 20 year olds on the Lower East Side, which is my experience.

Alison Jones: This is a huge thing in publishing. You know, most publishers are in London. Very few people without privilege can afford to live in London on a low wage or an internship. Yes, massive.

I want to talk about the writing and we are running out of time, so I need to talk to you about the writing now.

So, you talked about the research and I love that, ‘I’ll go to the center of the earth with it’. Tell me, in that process of writing this book, and I know in the actual book itself, that this was the outline didn’t change hugely. You had a really clear sense of what it was going to be in the proposal challenge and that’s what you delivered. What surprised you in that journey though, in the process?

Melissa Romo: What surprised me was I think the complexity of making sure it was useful, right? When you go so deep with research, you can really start naval-gazing and, you know, intellectualizing so much. And I had to keep bringing myself back to the purpose of the book, which is to make it usable and accessible and really practical. And so knowing what to leave on the cutting room floor was a big challenge. Like, yes, this is fascinating, but do people need to know it to be able to use this book? Probably not. So it was discerning between what was really interesting and what was really going to be really useful was probably one of the biggest challenges.

Alison Jones: And it’s quite ironic, isn’t it? Because when you start off on this journey, you’re like, how on earth am I going to write 50,000 words? And by the time you’re a couple of months in, you’re like, how am I going to keep it to 50,000 words?

Melissa Romo: Right, exactly.

Alison Jones: So much stuff, yes. So knowing now what you know and imagining yourself back on that start line, what would be your top tip for somebody who’s just starting out on this?

Melissa Romo: So my top tip is to know why you’re writing the book and to really, you know, I think Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why is really, you know, genius. It is underneath everything. It’s how I talk to my kids and talk to myself. But ask yourself, why am I writing this? Write it down and then ask yourself, but why am I writing this? And write it again? Because you need to go down about 8, 9, 10 levels before you get to the real why, right? The real is sort of deep in your belly, why?

So know why you’re writing it, and then I’m going to cheat and give two tips. Know why you’re writing it, and also be ready to make a significant commitment of mental resources and time resources to the book.

I mean, my commitment went for really a year to create, to write the book, research the book, write the book, interview with the book, network with people, build a platform for myself, you know, find the influencers. I mean, it isn’t just words on a page, you are going to create an idea and you are going to want to surround that idea with people who also care about that idea so they can help you get that idea out into the world.

And so what I think I probably underestimated a little bit the importance of idea stewardship. I thought I was sitting down to write a book. I was not sitting down to write a book. I was sitting down to create idea stewardship, right? And that’s a much bigger exercise.

Alison Jones: That’s beautifully put. I am completely going to nick that phrase, thank you. But it’s so important because this is just part of the bigger picture, isn’t it? And people need those multiple points of connection to the idea, and you need those multiple points of connection to other people and their ideas and what’s going on because you are part of this conversation. It’s a great phrase. Thank you.

Melissa Romo: Yes, Yeah, course.

Alison Jones: I always ask my guests as well, as you know, for a recommendation, you’re not allowed to recommend Your Resource is Human, sorry, but what business, well, it doesn’t even have to be a business book, but what book would you recommend that people listening should read if they haven’t already?

Melissa Romo: Well, I’m going to recommend the book that if I had not written this book, then I would’ve written a book about business sustainability. And in fact, when I pitched this book to you Alison, I was in the midst of the Cambridge University course around business sustainability management, which is an eight week course. And it helps you learn how businesses can become more sustainable and how you as a business person can be part of making that happen.

And I was so concerned. I am so concerned about, you know, climate change. And I wanted to be part of solving for it, but I didn’t know how. And so I went to do this course, and while I was doing the course, I thought, this really needs to be in a book, right?

All of the stuff I’m learning needs to be in a book that’s accessible for people who don’t have a title of ESG, right, that they’re somewhere, they’re in finance, operations, whatever. So this was the idea rattling around in my brain but Your Resource is Human is the book that I ended up writing, and I’m glad I did because that’s where my real expertise is. My real expertise is not in business sustainability.

Now, my book shares a birthday with a book by Solitaire Townsend, which is called The Solutionist. And our books were both launched on April 3rd and she is an absolute wonder, everything she says, she comes from the agency world. She talks about advertised emissions, I mean things that just weren’t talked about before her and her book, The Solutionist is the book that I would’ve written if I had the time and expertise, and I had neither of those things.

Alison Jones: But that’s okay because she did it and it would’ve been really awkward if you’d published on the same day with the same book, wouldn’t it?

Melissa Romo: Totally awkward, it would’ve been totally awkward. But I do feel there’s a bit of kismet between the fact that my book and her book both launched on the same day. And I’m so excited about her book. And again, it’s The Solutionist by Solitaire Townsend, it’s available on Amazon. I’ve purchased it, it’ll be in my hands on Thursday and her ideas are just so transforming and very easy to access. So I’d just suggest everyone sit down with that book. Everyone has a role to play in climate change solutions and what I think is most important about her stance is she’s incredibly hopeful and positive and, you know, believes firmly, and I agree with her, we cannot fall into the doldrums of despair. And her book, you know, if you’re having one of those dark moments, grab her book, there’s something in it that you can do and it’s going to help you.

Alison Jones: Well, you’ll be very pleased to know I’m going to be speaking to her soon on the podcast.

So yes, I’m really looking forward to that because I’ve skimmed her book so far, but it is absolutely terrific and a real antidote to the kind of existential angst that sort of seems to take hold when you do think about what’s to be done and and how much there is to be done. Yes, brilliant.

So Melissa, if people want to find out more about you and more about Your Resource is Human, where should they go?

Melissa Romo: So the best thing to do is follow me on LinkedIn. So I’m Melissa Romo on LinkedIn and everything about me, including reading a sample of the book is there, links to my newsletter and I’ll share my newsletter anything I’m doing, I share on LinkedIn. So if you want to just keep track of what I’m doing, just follow me on LinkedIn.

I also have a website melissaromoauthor.com, with more goodies and ways to contact me. But I’m always happy for conversations on LinkedIn. So, if you see something, just hit reply and post a comment and I reply to everybody who posts a comment. So, you know, feel free to chime in there.

Alison Jones: You might live to regret that.

Melissa Romo: Yes, today I can reply to everybody.

Alison Jones: Nice bit of future proofing. Well done, good save. Wonderful.

Fantastic to talk to you today, Melissa, and well done on, as I say, delivering the promise that was in that proposal. I’m just so fully realized, I’m so proud to have published the book.

Melissa Romo: Thank you, Alison. I really appreciate that and I’m so grateful that you took a swing for me and that the bat met the ball, so that’s good. Thank you.

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