In this fourth article in our series on the 7 habits of highly effective financial technology leaders we speak to Colin Slight of The Realization Group, Jennifer Nayar, CEO, Vela Trading Systems, Leda Glyptis, Chief Client Officer, 10x Future Technologies and Philip Miller, Co-CEO & CoFounder of Solidatus about the art of engaging teams and driving purpose in a post-pandemic world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges at all levels of society and the economy. The financial services community has faced a particular pressure, in continuing to perform and to support and underpin economic activity, whilst individual employees cope with the demands of working from home whilst home-schooling and caring for children, social isolation and uncertainty about the future. Employees have been carrying on the development of products and services, sales to new customers and support for existing ones, all whilst dealing with the same challenges around home working and family commitments. Their leaders, pioneers and entrepreneurs with visionary aspirations, have had to motivate – and sometimes build – teams and share their visions, goals and company culture in a remote working environment. For many, it’s been an extremely challenging time, under circumstances they had previously never considered or planned for.
Whilst financial technology leaders are entrepreneurs and visionaries, none of that can be translated to success in the real world without the ability to mobilise, inspire and guide teams of people. It’s not a habit that comes naturally to everyone, but successful leaders who are less naturally talented in this area will identify those within their organisation to whom they can delegate and drive this important form of internal engagement. The pandemic has required all of our financial technology leaders to lean in more when engaging with their staff and teams. Without the nuances of day-to-day interactions, driving teams towards a single purpose becomes impossible without taking the time to make sure that everyone is engaged, clear on the mission, and has the support they need.
Vela Trading Systems is headquartered in New York but has offices in London, Belfast, Chicago and Manila. The firm therefore experienced the onset of lockdown as a wave slowly breaking across their offices around the world. Remote working was already fully enabled via their business continuity plans, and given its global footprint, the firm had already experienced and learned from events such as 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, monsoons in Manila and others. Staff were accustomed to switching to remote working when necessary, and the transition was fairly seamless. What they weren’t accustomed to was doing it for long, indefinite periods, amidst the personal stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic.
“In terms of the mechanics of moving to remote, that was pretty straightforward. And certainly, I think our clients appreciated that because there was no impact on service. It was a very different situation from a hurricane or some other natural disaster – that gets cleaned up and you head back into the office. The real challenge was all the uncertainty that the situation created for people, the concern and anxiety that people had around this pandemic, and in many cases, the fear that they would be asked to return to the office when they weren’t actually ready. I certainly took the approach that the first thing we had to step up very quickly was our communication.”, says Jennifer Nayar, Vela’s CEO. Instead of holding town halls every quarter, these became monthly. Nayar sent out notes to the entire organisation, every week on a Friday, even if there was no news, to reassure them and to maintain a sense of common purpose and membership of a wider team. They acted swiftly to reassure staff that there would be no pressure to return to the office. Nayar adds “Dealing with a different type of anxiety across the organisation was a new challenge for me. People were dealing with family members getting sick, and in some cases losing those family members. That was a real challenge, I think, for everyone around the globe, but also being a head of an organisation in which some of these things are happening. You have to dig deep to get through some of these times.”
For Leda Glyptis, Chief Client Officer at 10x Technologies, leading a business in lockdown has been both easier than and different to leading a team. “The business will get done, the contracts will get signed, the deal will be closed – especially as your clients and your suppliers are all in the same situation as you are, and keen to keep things moving. The far more difficult aspect was maintaining a connection to our people. Because you only interact with other people in meetings and on screen, you lose your lateral vision. When I was in the office, I could sense a ‘disturbance in the Force’, even if I wasn’t in a meeting with anyone affected by said disturbance, just from noticing what was going on around me, who was talking to whom, who wasn’t interacting, who was looking upset, and who was having a birthday. There’s no science to this, but it’s really important to understand how the team is engaging with each other and emphatically not via you as their leader.”
Glyptis tries to address this lack of information by making a lot of personal time for her team members. It’s time consuming, and exhausting, but pays dividends in the long run. Philip Miller has put in place similar strategies to manage the same challenges, especially as applied to a growing organisation. “For me, it’s been a matter of keeping people in touch with other people, becoming much more of a servant-leader, a kind of facilitator, than perhaps I would have been otherwise. Trying to create a mesh of communication, and instilling that kind of tight knit community, I think, has been the real challenge over the last year. For me, it’s been about presenting a human face by trying to give people an esprit de corps, you know, sort of a real sense of family, while nearly no one had met each other. It’s often the small things, like making sure a new joiner has met someone before their first day, even if it was three minutes on a driveway, passing them equipment across the fence, or, when we’ve been able to get together in groups – sometimes larger groups, sometimes smaller depending on the regulations at the time – that people have felt happy to be in other people’s company.”