The person in charge moved to Portland
What do you do when the person in charge of making sure your business functions wants to move across the country and also keep the job she loves?
You make it work.
If you’ve read my book, you know about Amanda. She found Student Maid on Craigslist, and we hired her to answer phones and schedule clients. When we interviewed her, Amanda was upfront about her desire to eventually move to Portland, Oregon—3,000 miles from our headquarters in Florida—to be closer to her family. She didn’t have a solid timeline in mind, but I didn’t think much of it: The customer service position she was applying for had a lot of turnover, and I figured that when the time came for her to move, we would find someone else to take her place. But Amanda quickly worked herself out of a customer service role. Before working with us, she was a world-class archer and archery coach, so she blew us away with her innate ability to coach our team members. Within a year or so, we promoted her to Chief of Student Maid.
As time went on, I was faced with a serious dilemma: Amanda was still set on moving to Portland, but she now held the top position at Student Maid. I couldn't imagine losing her, but I also didn’t want to keep her away from her family.
I knew I had three options. The first was to attempt to convince Amanda to stay at our HQ, paying her whatever salary was necessary to get her to agree not to move. The second was to begin looking for a new Chief of Student Maid. And the third was to figure out how she could make her dream of moving 3,000 miles away a reality and still keep the job she loved.
I chose the third. Amanda loved her job and didn’t want to lose it. And I didn’t want to lose her. So we began to meet regularly to discuss the timeline for her move and create a plan to make her role remote.
Initially the idea was terrifying. How could the person in charge of leading our team live so far away? How would we keep the culture intact without her physical presence? How would our students feel about not being able to drop by her office after a shift? How would we manage the three-hour time difference? I remember one meeting where Amanda and I sat with the rest of our leadership team and listed everything that could potentially go wrong. It was overwhelming.
But when I really thought about it all, here’s what I realized: Fear isn’t a good enough reason to prevent us from trying. I trust Amanda. She’s ridiculously good at her job. She cares about our team members and always makes them her priority. Why would any of that change just because she was moving? The biggest challenge would come from the physical barriers separating us, not from Amanda. I owed it to her to try.
What came next was huge for Student Maid. Instead of hiring someone else to cover the parts of Amanda’s job she could no longer do without being physically present, we created the Ambassador Program, a leadership program that offers our team members the chance to actually run our company. Our team members apply for positions in a competitive process. Should they be selected, they accept year-long roles in operations, culture, training, recruitment, and various other parts of the business. Amanda coaches our Ambassador team from afar, helping them learn tangible leadership skills that would take them years to learn elsewhere. A network of cameras and screens makes it possible for Amanda to connect face-to-face instantly from anywhere in our office, and she flies in quarterly to spend a week with our team at HQ.
March will mark two years since Amanda’s move. There have been some hiccups, and a few of the things on our “what could go wrong” list have happened, but like always, we learn from it and improve. I really mean it when I say that Amanda’s move is one of the best things that’s ever happened to Student Maid. Amanda loves her job. At a recent team offsite, she told me she wants to be at Student Maid forever. That’s what happens when we make work actually work with people's lives and with the goals they have for themselves. As for our culture, I’ve never seen more ownership from our team. Giving our Ambassadors the chance to lead their fellow team members has been a powerful experiment. Our students are invested, they feel empowered, and they’re learning invaluable skills that will help them in their future careers.
Here’s what this whole experience has taught me: As leaders, it’s our job to encourage our people to go after their dreams, even if those dreams mean moving far away. When we have insanely talented people who we trust and who love their jobs, we shouldn’t make them choose between their job and their goals. We should be willing to explore how we can make work work with their lives and dreams. Remote work can be scary, but it’s even scarier to lose your best people. Maybe it isn’t possible for you to do for someone what we did for Amanda. But is it possible to create a new role that can be done remotely? Is it possible to implement something bigger to make up for the person’s physical absence, like we did with our Ambassador Program?
If the person leading the operations of my entire company can live 3,000 miles away from its headquarters, I urge you to imagine what’s possible. It might be challenging, but our people are worth fighting for. And fighting for our people is what leadership is all about.
Hope this gets you thinking.