Inside Aperian Global: Anja Stentoft
In our monthly interview series, Inside Aperian Global, you will get to know the passionate people that drive Aperian Global’s mission and values in day-to-day operations, find out more about their background and see what their typical day looks like. In March, we spoke to our Chief Operating Officer, Laurette Bennhold-Samaan, based in Washington, D.C., USA, and this month we are shifting our attention to our Learning Operations & Engagement Manager, Anja Stentoft, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Q: Prior to your recent position change, you had been Aperian Global’s Director of Program Management since 2008. What led you to the cross-cultural field and Aperian Global?
I grew up in a small village in Denmark and I always felt drawn to the “bigger world”. After spending some years travelling, working and studying abroad, I really wanted to explore the options for continuous engagement in a global environment. It is the human interaction across cultures and the constant challenge of developing my interpersonal skills on a global scale that drew me to this field. I have a Masters Degree with a focus on the development of cross-cultural competency. Aperian Global stood out as a great provider of cross-cultural learning solutions where I could continue to develop myself and apply my experience in the field.
Q: In your position as Global Director of Program Management, you had up to 12 remote team members. Since you were working virtually yourself, you were managing every single member of your team remotely. In hindsight, what were your biggest challenges when leading a virtual team?
Because of the virtual nature of the team, in combination with the individual approach that I have towards each team member, there are a couple of challenges that stand out:
How can we ensure we are all on the same page and moving in the same direction? Having the time to actually check in with each team member is challenging, so you have to be able to rely on a structure that will help everyone stay on track, including the shared systems, processes and technology that apply to the whole team. It requires clear communication to achieve alignment, which can be difficult to achieve since each team member may have a different work-style and approach to projects or client interactions due to personal preferences, regional or local ways of doing things, etc.
Time zone challenges: When the team is truly spanning the globe and stretching across 17 time zones, I think there is great value in the connections that come with regular meetings. However, I am also painfully aware that sticking with a set, recurring time means some team members are always paying the price of working odd hours and may not be as productive as they are during regular working hours. With a team spanning so many time zones, someone always has to work outside regular hours. Sharing the burden is a great idea, however, though it’s one that is very difficult logistically to honor.
Providing the right balance of support and direction: I have been fortunate to recruit wonderful young talent during my time heading up the Program Management team, which can present some interesting challenges in terms of how to keep talent motivated and engaged when you are not always readily available. Within that challenge also lies the ability to effectively manage and leverage local hierarchy or relationships that is the everyday reality of your team member, often much more visual and present than you. Understanding when to support and when to direct in that environment is a real challenge and not always just dependent on the skill sets or level of engagement of your team members, but also the needs or hierarchical structure of their nearest environment.
Q: You have developed a wealth of strategies over the years for your virtual work as well as the management and leadership role you had to fulfill. What were your top 3 best practices? What specific tools were you using to keep everyone engaged?
Use of webcams: It may seem simple, but I have found the use of webcams for meetings, whether individual or group meetings, to be highly effective when it comes to building relationships across the globe. The importance of this practice became obvious when the entire team met last year after several years with no group face-to-face meetings. Everyone felt quite comfortable with each other already due to the use of webcams on our virtual monthly meetings, even with newer team members. You get a better feel for one another when you’re able to have visuals as well, i.e. to read body language. I would highly recommend this to everyone that has the option to use one, even though sometimes internet connectivity and the timing of calls may make it a little difficult. You have to set clear expectations and be a good role model yourself.
Virtual meeting rooms: To me, good virtual meeting technology and meeting culture are important. In terms of technology, sharing webcams, screens and documents is essential, and if you have the technology to create polls, chat discussions, etc., you can create a very interactive meeting. Make the most of the actual meeting time by preparing well, especially by sending out agenda items, questions to consider, and pre-work. Get agreement on what will be discussed and on expected outcomes, and take the time to follow up with more introverted team members to get everyone’s valuable input.
Cloud-based solutions for global collaboration: There are many great solutions out there for cloud-based collaboration tools and I find them key to effective global teamwork and the ability to “work with the sun,” so to speak. Whether it’s a CRM tool or some kind of project management software, it’s essential that you spend some time adjusting and organizing systems according to your needs. It’s also important to have internal alignment on version control, and roles and responsibilities in the process. Information has to be easy to access and apply or it starts to form a life of its own on individual computers.
Q: Now that you are transitioning into the role of Learning Operations and Engagement Manager, would you tell us a bit about your new role and responsibilities?
I am stepping into an exciting new role in a new department in the organization where I will be primarily focused on the infrastructure of how we get our learning solutions to our clients, as well as the manner in which we engage. There are a lot of great initiatives underway which I believe will help us reach our audience in a more effectively. I am really happy to become part of a new team that’s dedicated to this goal.
Q: Finally, if you don’t mind, share something we don’t know about you yet!
I would love to one day be able to visit our sponsor daughter/sister and her family in Zambia with my entire family. This would of course be a wonderful and exciting cross-cultural learning opportunity for my kids as well.