Monica Zeng from Aragon One: Hiring, onboarding, coaching and offsites in a remote team

“Remote work” and “coaching” are often mentioned in the same breath. But, on today’s More Beach Meetings episode, it won’t be in the manner you expect.

Our guest is Monica Zeng, the human resources expert at Aragon One. Aragon One is an offshoot of the Aragon Project, an organization founded to empower freedom by building the tools and the community necessary for decentralized organizations to thrive.

Monica is in charge of hiring, but she’s also a steward of Aragon One’s culture. She makes sure the company culture stays intact over time. Monica also does a lot of team development and yes – coaching. It’s not the type of feel-good life coaching you might expect. It's results-driven, employee development coaching that makes her remote offsites fun and rewarding.

Monica has a background in social entrepreneurship and a passion for psychology and management. Her experience is the perfect combination of skills for a company that not only thinks outside the box, but questions why there even is a box.

In this podcast, we chatted with Monica about her approach to hiring, how she uses coaching to professionally develop the Aragon One team members, and some of the creative activities Monica’s dreamed up to make their offsite retreats a little more special.

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Unconventional Hiring Variables

The Aragon One team is a small, tight-knit group: something Monica says is intentional. There are 17 employees on the project right now, and she says they’re only planning to grow to 25 people total (pssst...they’re hiring!).

“Our hiring process is pretty standard, but the variables we take into account aren’t that conventional,” says Monica. Titles and years of experience are less important than a candidate's online activity.

For technical roles, Monica goes straight to Github to see how active a candidate has been and where their values align with Aragon One. “We want people who have a high sense of curiosity, a strong sense of purpose, who are active in the open-source community, who have nonconformist ideas both professionally and ideologically, and who are critical thinkers. We want contributors, not just workers,” she says.

For nontechnical roles, the approach is the same. Monica looks for Medium posts, Twitter profiles, and other informal online channels to see how people are presenting themselves in the blockchain and open-source communities. She wants applicants who support projects that they’re excited about. This approach helps Monica attract like-minded employees who will fit with the existing Aragon One team.

Bottom line: the project is very entrepreneurial. This remote team is full of people who are creative, strategic and push boundaries every day. You’ll succeed here if you’re a leader, rather than a manager.

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Aragon One retreat at Valencia countryside.

Coaching for Success

Part of Monica’s role as the HR lead at Aragon One is to coach her team to reach greater heights. Monica recognizes that coaching might have a negative connotation for some people. “Coaching” often gets the same reputation as therapy or psychology. Many people view coaching as something vulnerable or sad people might seek out. Monica has a different take. She sees coaching as a way to guide people to develop into their top performance.

Monica considers herself a performance coach. She doesn’t try to “fix” anything. She wants to manage an employee’s weaknesses and leverage their strengths to reach their potential. At Aragon One, coaching is about providing the right combination of tools and mentorship to develop communication and leadership skills.

“When you build a team, you have two options,” says Monica. “You can hire a lot of people, or you can hire a select few and make sure that the people who you do hire are rockstars in every sense of their job description. We’ve chosen to be a small team. Instead of expecting a developer to have a future manager, and hire that person, we want people who are already on the team to grow into the positions we need to fill.”

She also does team coaching through team-building activities and off-site retreats.

Breaking Down the Stigma of Coaching

If coaching gets such a bad rap, how does Monica sell it to her team?

The short answer: she doesn’t. “I don’t tell people they need coaching,” Monica says. Instead, she and the Aragon One team have weekly, monthly, and semi-regular calls to check-in on their progress.

“I take the opportunity in these calls to give preventative advice, general feedback, or to do a retrospective with the team if things haven’t gone as we thought they would. I try to tell my perspective of how we can improve as a team always through a soft-skills lens,” says Monica.

She uses the opportunity to coach the team without being obvious about it. These calls provide a valuable opportunity to take comments, review experiences, host activities, and identify areas where Monica can build a reputation for helping add value personally and professionally. It’s a soft-sell approach that shows her team they can take her aside and request specific coaching. People ask her about working remotely, managing a team, and communicating better. Monica says she usually starts working with someone around a specific topic. From there, the relationship grows into a regular coaching session that covers other topics.

“Sometimes it’s as easy as letting someone know there’s someone on the team available to listen to them, and not judge any feedback or idea they have,” says Monica. “I’m the right person to help my team set the next steps for where they need to go next.”

This approach dovetails nicely with the type of person that Aragon One hires. The hiring process vets candidates who are self-aware, motivated, and seeking to grow. Her employees are naturally disposed to respond well to her style of coaching. Monica is a resource her team recognizes as being a valuable tool to fuel growth. More often than not, a team member will come to Monica of their own accord asking for feedback without needing to overcome a stigma. Aragon One hires people who are constantly willing to grow and learn; they don’t need to be told they have to get coaching in the process.

Leveraging Team Offsites

Monica’s coaching strategy isn’t limited to just the individual. Because the Aragon One team is remote, she takes special care to provide team coaching through regular calls and offsite retreats.

This year, the Aragon One team has had two retreats hosted by Surf Office – one in Lisbon and one in Valencia. Monica and the team go into each retreat with clear objectives and clear communication within the team.

They block off time for strategic alignment and the reprioritization of tasks, as well as training, retrospectives, and hanging out together, something that can’t be undervalued when working remotely.

“I take the opportunity during the retrospectives and team building activities to plan activities that are not hard skills-focused or work-focused, but more human and personal. I take the chance to guide the team with a sneak peek of what coaching would look like,” reports Monica.

Monica goes off script when planning team-building activities, inventing each event herself. While she’s normally not willing to share, she did spill some of her more recent activities to us: and her off-site sounds like a ton of fun.

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@monicazng: One of the most requested activities was cooking jiaozi/dumplings/gyozas together FROM SCRATCH! Apparently we’ve got expert veggie choppers, flour kneaders, dough rollers and jiaozi packers in the team. The production chain was incredibly coordinated and the resulting jiaozi.

“I make the team dance and create their own choreography. This activity helps people have fun, not be shy, and be creative. We have a lot of perfectionist engineers and this gets them out of their shell,” says Monica. Her trainings, if you can call them that, are focused on storytelling and creativity, things that help the team get to know each other on a deeper level.

“What I try to do is break down any prejudices that you may have about other team members and get to know the real story of who they are and why they are who they are today. I plan all the activities beforehand and make sure that we’re really careful about keeping our people happy, both personally and professionally.”

Employee Retention

Because Aragon One is so selective about who they bring on, retention is especially important to Monica. She hires people who can go the distance and invests in their personal and professional happiness through coaching and regular calls. These calls help bring the 100% remote team closer together. They aren’t your typical all-hands call that most remote companies use.

“Our all-hands call is not people presenting what they’ve been doing. We assume you’ve been following the project through the work chat and our project management platform. Instead, we have demos so developers and designers can show what they’ve been building to get feedback before their product is released,” says Monica. The team also hosts frequent “align talks." These 10-minute presentations, followed by Q&A, cover topics that have to do with the larger Aragon One community.

These regular calls and retreats, as well as the coaching, help the team’s communication flow better. In a traditional office, it can be difficult to have fluent, efficient communication.

Teams tend to work in siloes or meetings include too many (or worse, not enough) stakeholders. In a remote team, those problems can easily become bigger. Remote workers face the unique challenge of imposter syndrome.

It’s easy to believe others are doing better than you when most of the daily conversation has to do with performance.

Remote workers don’t get the benefit of informal communication that occurs in an office environment. Remote teams don’t have moments in the day to talk about things during lunch or at an after-work happy hour. Monica sees her role as being a judgment-free resource. She's open to receiving the message when a remote worker gets stuck and needs help.

Onboarding and Employee Development

Monica’s last tactic takes place at the start of an employee’s tenure with Aragon One. The Aragon One team designs a professional development plan for each new hire. The plan designates where they see this person growing with the company over the next five years. Monica works with the new employee to align the development plan with their desires, interests, and motivations. “We coach people because we want to make sure they stay with us long-term and grow into the roles we know they can best achieve in,” she says.

It takes about a month for a new employee to complete their onboarding process. This period involves speaking to every single member of the team, including founders. They get a stack of blog posts and videos to review. It takes a month to ramp up and assign work before an employee is let loose to succeed.

To hear more inspirational stories on remote work, retreats, and company culture, download Surf Office’s podcast, ‘More Beach Meetings,’ and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

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