Welcome to Culture Champions, a blog series where we dive into the minds of exceptional individuals who are driving positive change in their workplace. In each installment, we’ll be speaking with culture-focused managers and contributors who care about making a positive impact on their team.
Our guests come from a variety of industries and positions, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for building and maintaining a positive work culture. We’ll hear from managers, team leads, and other experts who are dedicated to creating a workplace where employees feel supported and empowered.
Throughout each interview, we’ll explore the various methods our guests use to build a strong and inclusive culture. Our Culture Champions will share their insights on what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a healthy and productive work environment.
To kick our series off, meet Liz Leary – a self-described events and experiences designer that builds team connections through intentional, unique events. She works in her company’s Events and Connections department and makes their “Team Anywhere” policy possible by creating global gatherings that bring teams together, no matter where they are in the world.
Keep reading to learn from one of the brightest minds in the world of workplace culture!
Culture Champion Tips & Tricks
1. Tell us about your favorite team-building activity or tradition.
“The first thing that comes to mind because I’m a total foodie is breaking bread. There is nothing like having an IRL dinner with people and sharing a good cocktail or mocktail. I’m very thoughtful about food and being mindful of dietary restrictions. I love to curate events so it’s specific to everybody and everybody gets the same kind of experience, no matter what their tastes are. I think there’s nothing more unifying than being able to share a great meal together and have a good conversation. It’s a natural conversation starter to be at a table with a whole bunch of people and share in a great meal.”
Another honorable mention for Liz? Competitions!
“I’m a really competitive person. I think bringing people together on the same team and having to work together towards a common goal is a great thing for a team to do. You could do a cornhole tournament or mini golf – anything. You can go so far with that competition! It doesn’t even have to be sports because you’re going to have teams that don’t want anything to do with being physical. I started organizing trivia nights, which have become a really big thing at the New York office. I break people up into very specific teams – you get to know people you haven’t met before, but that competitive nature comes out and your teammates get to bond over over those things. Good friendships have been formed over those competitive feats.
2. What’s one thing you do to build a positive culture for your teammates?
“Connecting people to people – everybody talking is the big thing. It’s so easy to get siloed at work, especially within your teams. You can even see it when you go out for those nice big dinners. If you don’t have somebody thinking about putting different groups of people together in a very calculated way, you are going to have pockets of people that are always together. You’re never going to get the team to really collaborate and connect the way you need them to in order to see your product just soar.
That’s one of the biggest positives about where I work. One of the things I learned the most from being there from the very beginning is there were all these different teams and pockets, but they all connected. We would purposely plan for the marketing team to come to New York at the same time the sales team was coming, and make sure that they met up at least once.
You can cross-pollinate and that’s the only way I think you’re gonna have a really cohesive, genuine team. That’s the biggest thing I do – get everybody talking, whatever way that means.”
3. If you had all the budget and time in the world, what’s the first thing you would do for your team culture?
“Hands-down, a non-work retreat. Why spend time going through annual planning and budgeting when we have the opportunity to all see each other face-to-face? We know how to work together remotely – we’ve been doing it forever. But when you’re in-person, you get to connect and really bond with your team. People don’t talk about how important it is to give people downtime.”
For Liz, making retreats unique, fresh and fun is really what drives productive collaboration and innovation.
“When somebody says ‘offsite’, I feel like a lot of people imagine being in a conference room for four hours, somebody’s talking at them instead of with them, and the team has dinner together before going back to their room.
Flip that perception over. Completely surprise your employees: bring them there, and have zero talk about work. When people who work together are put in a room without having to talk about work, they end up talking about work most of the time anyway because you want to find common ground with your people.
But now you’re not talking about what we’re going to do for roadmapping. Now you’re talking about your passion project, or you might think of a good feature that you want to tell the engineering team about. All of a sudden, you’re coming out of this retreat with a completely new PowerUp or product feature.”
4. What’s one thing a manager has done for you that made you feel like you were truly part of the company culture?
For Liz, working at a startup gave her the opportunity to create her own role thanks to the autonomy and trust-focused culture at her company.
“When I joined my company in their early startup days, I came on as an executive assistant. All of my managers and the team that I was supporting were my same age. We were all trying to just figure out how to make our product work. They told me, ‘We know we need you as an executive assistant, we just don’t know what you do. So show us what you do.’ And that was probably the best thing.
I am who I am today because they gave me the autonomy and trust to create my role.”
Liz’s unique past and experience with a variety of industries shaped her passion for building great experiences tailored for fostering connection at work.
“I was an executive assistant for a very long time, but I worked across very different industries. My first kind of foray as an executive assistant was actually working for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas for three years. I was kind of just a jack of all trades. I came in there and essentially took care of their family. That’s where the love for event planning and organizing people’s lives and taking care of them came from.
I sought stability and structure, so I ended up going into the nonprofit world and that was a very traditional executive assistant role. I built my skills here, and I saw the opportunity to merge what I learned from the Douglas job with my traditional EA role and see what comes of it.”
Liz’s company allowed her to use the skills she gained from her vast experience, but also gave her the chance to focus on the thing she loved the most: planning events that build moments of human connection in the workplace.
“The thing that always stuck with me is that I love events and bringing people together. I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I built my own adventure essentially, but was also given the license to do that.
I teetered between doing traditional EA tasks like putting together our town halls, but there were a lot of connection-based tasks I extracted and decided to take one step farther.
For all the executive assistants who are listening too, this is something that your role is capable of. You’re supposed to be a jack of all trades. Executive assistants are like Chiefs of Staff at most places, in a way. You have a lot more autonomy than you think.”
5. If you could share one piece of advice for building a strong work culture, what would it be?
“Always assume positive intent. Think about how we communicate. We’re doing it through Slack, we’re doing it through email. Everybody is dealing with their own things behind the scenes. And sometimes when a person replies to you, you’re going to think they’re maybe coming at you from a bad place.
Communication can get so lost if you don’t go in with an open mind. Be open with people, be vulnerable. Most of the time people are good and you just need to talk through it and dig a little deeper.
When you’re on your next Zoom call, instead of going straight into the content of that meeting, talk to these people! Turn on your camera and interact. Even if that meeting doesn’t go the way you want it to and you end up just making small talk the entire time – that’s where the gold is. That’s where real human connection is made.”
What’s Next for Liz Leary?
Liz is currently on a 2-month sabbatical. In her time off, she’s focused on herself and her family – as well as a personal side project of hers.
“This has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve taken a lot of time to just not be a human doing, and be a human being because my brain is constantly working. By doing that, I wasn’t taking care of myself. And I needed to really take a very big step back and look at my self-care. It’s so important to just be introspective and aware of your tendencies to be unhealthy. Especially in the tech world, we’re going through all these layoffs and it feels like a dark cloud over everything. And you just have to kind of take a minute to take a break.
I’ve been doing a whole lot of nothing, which has been amazing. I’ve been present with my kids, coaching my son’s basketball team. And for the last couple of years I’ve been working on my own brand and kind of going out on my own.
It’s called Gather with LL and my website will be launching April 29. I’m going to be concentrating on all things employee experience and connection. IRL isn’t the only way for us to connect – and a lot of people are burnt out in the virtual world right now. Connection can be done intentionally, and it can be well done. There are other things to do than just these awkward Zoom icebreakers. I want to help others be creative and thoughtful and intentional about all the things that you’re doing for your teams.
I also want to touch on the fact we are going through kind of an unprecedented time in tech where people’s budgets are small and we really have to be fiscally responsible about what we’re doing. In spite of that, there is still an opportunity to connect, whether that be IRL or virtual. You can still really keep your team top of mind because you’re going to lose them if you don’t make them feel seen, heard and appreciated in this future of remote work.”
More Than Just Culture Champions: How Airspeed Can Help You Build a Cohesive Team
If you enjoyed reading our latest installment of Culture Champions, you can access our other blog posts and interviews here. Read helpful tips, insights and best practices to help you create a stronger, more engaged team at work.
Would you like to be featured as a Culture Champion? Let us know here.
And if you’re looking for a simple and effective way to build culture at your company, check out Airspeed’s suite of Slack apps. Airspeed is a free all-in-one platform that can help you create a more connected team. You can introduce new colleagues, encourage watercooler conversations, celebrate milestones, recognize your team’s hard work, and see where your coworkers are located – all without leaving your team’s Slack workspace! Start creating your remote work culture with Airspeed today.