Nary a day goes by without a hashtag heavy LinkedIn post or Twitter thread extolling the wisdom of a ‘great leader’. You have all seen them – ‘Here are the five things Jeff Bezos does before the sun come up’; ‘These are the three books Warren Buffet says you should have read by now’ and so on.
The idea being if only you could wake up at 3:30 am to check off a list of activities like the founder of Amazon or recreate the library of the Sage of Omaha than you too can be rich, successful and admired. But the anatomy of a great leader is more complex and varied than a ‘motivational Monday’ social media post.
Leaders build companies and create products and inspire teams in large and small organizations in many different sectors around the world. They are the type of people that not only produce great results but attract and retain talent that go on serve as great leaders themselves.
Who are those people in fintech? What drove them to create what they have created? What mistakes did they make and how did they learn and grow from them? How do they balance their dreams and doubts? What are the ingredients needed to create a great fintech leader?
In true Fintech Talents fashion – we aim to find the answer via our community. Here we profile a range of inspiring, experienced and influential fintech leaders shaping the teams, businesses and directions of our industry.
To start our series we are profiling Kate Bohn, Innovation – Incubator & Accelerator lead, Lloyds Banking Group and Shân Millie, Founder, Bright Blue Hare who are working on a book looking at leadership and will be running a ‘What makes a FinTech Leader?‘ workshop at the Fintech Talents Festival in November.
You’re writing a book about fintech leaders – why?
Kate – Pandemic aside, so much about business life has changed since the ‘classic’ business leadership tomes were written. Of course, some advice is still relevant in respect of the WHAT of leadership execution, such as establishing and realising a clear vision, or coordinating conflicting interests, yet there are multiple new ways of thinking and science in which the execution or HOW of these requirements are met within a modern business. Reliance on hierarchical structures, corporate titles, limiting information access or vocal volume and one-way communications with isolated decision-making are no longer fit for purpose. As the annual staff performance review has been replaced with immediate and ongoing feedback loops, so the idea of ‘Power’ inherited from previous holder of any corporate title is also all but redundant.
A modern leadership style acknowledges that little things can have a very big impact and that even one person can make an enormous difference to the culture and success of a company.
Leadership requires consideration of the overall impact of actions and behaviours on staff, as well as commercial sales and consumers; an ability to take ownership of mistakes and actions without finger pointing or redirecting blame; has an open-minded view of the world and supports their teams to flourish in the stretch for their highest individual and collective potential. ‘Power’ is now found to reside in the collective team.
This new book seeks to explode the myths around leadership and fintech leadership specifically. The invitation to readers through the crowdsourced content will be to view leadership from different perspectives and come away with some impactful thoughts in how we can all improve this space for ourselves and each other.
Shân – From my personal involvement designing, editing and writing in The AI Book and The InsurTech Book, I know a couple of things:
If you have a strong organising purpose, and a clear content structure, ‘crowdsourcing’ knowledge and diverse insights can result in a reader experience that is as rich, different and unexpected as the complex topics contributors are writing about. If you want to make people think, share what others think.
Examining technologies (like AI) in a way that talks to and supports the ‘expert generalist’ leaders in firms – as in The AI Book – is really valuable. When it’s a secondary mission to unlocking the technologies themselves, the value to individual leaders is limited. Where we are in the evolution of fintech, and in the really unique context of the 2020s, I saw a gap for something explicitly based on the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls of fintech leadership, written by and for those leaders. Even defining those new questions is up for debate – never mind how we answer them.
What did you want ‘to be’ when you grew up?
Kate – I was keen to be a beach bum (my Australian heritage?!) or a professional hermit, ideally living underground…and while I am definitely the height of a hobbit, the extended period of lockdown in the UK has shown me that I like the company of others too much!
Shân – The first – and only time – I expressed a firm view on what I wanted to be when I grew up was when I was nine and declared that I wanted to be an astronaut (remember these were the days of Space 1999 and Star Trek re-runs on TV, and Star Wars in the cinema.) The concept of ‘growing up’ means less and less, the older I get to be honest!
Who has inspired you?
Kate – Martha Lane Fox – she has survived both the dot.com bubble bursting in 2000 and a severe car crash in 2004 (such that she now walks with a cane). Boom, Bust and Physical Trauma: while she is still on another level of mind-bogglingly successful and the one-time poster face of the internet, I have a deep affinity for her no-nonsense, and unpretentious approach to life and adversity.
Shân – How long have you got?! I’m inspired by humans all the time – my friends, people I know, people I will never meet. Thinking about innovation, and our relationship with technology, I’m being inspired by Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ new book, Kindred, where she synthesises a huge amount of knowledge on Neanderthals: she makes accessible to non-specialists (like me) a truer story of how our ancestors innovated and mastered technology and created enduring cultures during times of massive climate disruption. The history of how Neanderthals have been studied and judged by us over time is a great example of how the answers you get depend so much on the questions you’re asking, the mindset you bring with you. I see this all the time in how innovation in Financial Services (especially with AI) is designed, judged and done.
What work project (not personal) have you worked on that you are most proud of?
Kate – The creation and delivery of Trade Ideas Limited (an industry utility for monitoring alpha capture in the Equities market) from 2004 and delivering 50/50 gender parity into the talent pipeline on a Markets trading floor (2016) within a 12-week period.
Shân – Top-of-mind as I write this relates to the leadership coaching work I’m doing at the moment. To see, hear and feel a talented leader find their clarity as a result of the work we’re doing together is absolutely thrilling. It’s the definition of co-creation, I think, and I’m proud of how I play my part and justify the trust put in my knowledge, motivations and skills.
What is one mistake you have made? How did you learn and grow from it?
Kate – I left a priceless, one-of a kind piece of art on the roof of my car and drove off at speed towards the Bodleian Museum in Oxford so they could photograph it for an academic publication. The sound of the original glass, original frame and artwork itself whizzing off my roof and scudding along the lump-riddled tarmac behind me is something that will remain with me for life! I had put it on my roof for safe keeping while I packed up the remainder of the items being taken on that trip. Needless to say, I now ALWAYS check the roof of my car before setting off on a journey!
Shân – In 2009 or thereabouts, I confidently predicted that Social Media in Financial Services was an interesting but fleeting ‘flash-in-the-pan’ when a client who really trusted my ‘what’s coming next?’ opinions asked me what I thought. I didn’t know enough, had not thought enough about it, and committed the cardinal sin of focusing on my (ill-informed) view and not the client’s question.
I’ve used the permanent embarrassment to try to stay properly curious, and alert to the urge to prioritise having an answer above all else.
What is fintech missing?
Kate – I believe that there has been an over emphasis to date on hyper-personalization and micro-services, rather than solving some of the most basic FS challenges. Financial inclusion and financial literacy is gaining momentum, ensuring that consumers are better able to manage the money they already have, rather than just being offered micro-loans and credit opportunities as a sticking plaster for their banking needs. The challenges around accessibility for ALL and the moral obligation FS has in this space, is also gaining traction as we better understand the needs and demands of the spectrum of consumers wishing to use the services more traditionally focused on very targeted customer segments.
Shân – Fintech is missing the clear articulation of the ‘Why?’ as it applies to end-customer, supply-chain players and to society as a whole. You could call this ‘Conscience’ or even ‘Soul’. I am a businessperson: I understand the importance of funding, growth and profit. But it still depresses me that most of the ‘excitement’ around fintech remains the size of the ‘deal’, the Unicorn status, the enormous exit, the cult of the individual ‘hero-leader’ … every one of these with an analogue in the established order the fintech is there to challenge. I’m really convinced that this ‘same-old, same-old’ version of the firm is unsustainable in the 2020s. Time will tell.
The pandemic is over, and money and time is no object – where would you fly (or drive or train or walk) off to?
Kate – I would navigate the globe, visiting every country I haven’t yet seen using ALL the transport methods you have mentioned! There is SO much I have yet to see first-hand or experience close up: take the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok in a first-class sleeper, the Blue Train in South Africa and the Orient Express to Venice or Istanbul; visit the two Poles with research boats; hot air balloon over Cappadocia; walk the Great Wall of China; Kayak the Grand Canyon; visit Petra in Jordan, and adventure through the regions and prefectures of Japan with my daughter. When can I start?!
Shân – I’m a Neolithic monument nut: the UK is bursting with sites big and small and I’ll visit every one of them, exploring by foot with an expert local guide (and my spouse), with itineraries, transportation and local accommodation all taken care of. Just bring your boots, plasters and rucksack, and wander to wonder. Cornwall, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Wales, Ireland, Orkney and more … I think this is looking like a good year on the road, maybe two! Being a bit sneaky, there’d need to be a detour to Brittany and the amazing complex at Carnac, too.
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