Being an Effective Leader in Disruptive Times
By Nathan Evans, EMBA 2011
Life is a portfolio of experiences and the ultimate learning journey. After a physics degree at Imperial College London and 10 years in investment banking, the desire for personal development, as well as professional growth, convinced me Kellogg was the right business school and between 2009 and 2011, I completed the Kellogg-WHU Global EMBA program. The same reason led me to co-found the fintech company, fulfin, in 2018. fulfin is an innovative, collateralized lending platform pioneering the provision of working capital to SMEs in Europe.
Founding a startup challenged me in a new way to become a better and more effective leader. A startup is an uncertain environment, especially when you are trying to innovate. To achieve fulfin’s vision of providing access to fast, fair and flexible working capital, we need a highly talented and motivated team. Talents do not work for startups for the size of the paycheck, but for the supercharged learning experience and the opportunity to do work that has real relevance and can change the world.
As a leader in this startup environment, it is important to define and shape the culture of the company. I believe strongly in values-based leadership, and Kellogg professors and fellow students from across the world played a major part in helping me find and develop a highly effective leadership style based on humility, self-reflection, openness and self-confidence. Kellogg helped me become immensely people-centric. As a fintech startup, we measure and track everything. However, it is people, not KPIs, who show loyalty and commitment during disruptive times.
Leading in a crisis
Since the escalation of the COVID-19 crisis, the way we run our business has changed dramatically. We were amongst the first to allow our team members to work remotely. Soon after, we closed down the office completely and asked everyone to work from home in the spirit of social responsibility and for their own well-being. At the time, I hoped we would be able to maintain our productivity and continue to serve our customers, but I could not be totally sure.
Over the course of a management career, leading through crisis at some point is a given. Ten years on, I remember the lessons learned in the roleplays at Kellogg, where we were immersed into a crisis simulation and forced to make critical decisions in an impossibly short time frame, with incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information. That experience and the reflection upon it is helping me today in the current crisis.
Three pillars to rely on
Here are the three pillars that I am relying on to lead fulfin through the coronavirus crisis:
Pillar One: Stay abreast of the very latest developments, but use values as a basis for major decisions
During this crisis, the latest information has sometimes been inaccurate, incorrect or even contradictory. Since our customers, partners and investors are also dealing with the crisis, we have significantly increased the number of touchpoints we have internally and externally to make sure our understanding of the situation is as good as it can be at any given time. It is not the latest news, though, that has dictated our response to the crisis, but rather a big picture approach where we exclude the worst scenarios for the company and put our team and customers’ needs above immediate, financial KPIs.
Pillar Two: Communicate clearly and empathically
With so much change, it is difficult for many in the team to know what they should focus on and how the crisis will affect them or the company. Therefore, we communicate our decisions and the context clearly and regularly, which helps the team perform and feel as comfortable as possible in a challenging situation. We are fortunate enough that we can still engage with all team members personally to back up any general communication we make. In these times where we work remotely, these exchanges happen by phone and by using tools like Slack and Google Hangouts. This has proved to be extremely useful for giving immediate and useful feedback, as well as helping our decision making be more empathic.
Pillar Three: Remember a crisis will end, but leadership does not
Right now, it is very hard to estimate how long the coronavirus crisis will last, but it will end at some point. Our professional relationships will still exist once this is over and all our actions during the crisis have long lasting consequences. Having values act as a North Star even during disruptive times gives me confidence that the difficult decisions we make in crisis-mode will not cause lasting harm to our company as we always stay true to our culture.
Although the coronavirus outbreak is a health tragedy of epic proportions, it is important as a leader to embrace the unique chance we now have as a team to make a contribution to a greater social cause. In doing this, the team will grow both personally and professionally, enabling us to continue to become the best versions of ourselves.