By Tahira Dosani & Stephanie O’Brien
Conquering challenges is nothing new for startup leaders, especially for those operating in emerging markets. We know from our experience working with early-stage fintech startups in Accion Venture Lab‘s portfolio that these leaders constantly face and overcome obstacles in pursuit of their entrepreneurial dreams. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting health and economic crises are creating a myriad of new challenges for leaders. They must confront significant disruptions to the financial lives of their target customers — low-income individuals and small businesses around the world. They also need to rethink their operational models to ensure the health and safety of their teams and their customers, and they must navigate a venture funding environment that is extremely conservative, especially for early-stage businesses in emerging markets.
Now that startup leaders have likely spent the past several weeks putting emergency plans into place and addressing immediate needs in response to the pandemic, what is the best way for leaders to proceed as they work to make their businesses resilient in an environment where there are more unknowns than knowns? Beyond investing capital, the Accion Venture Lab team is helping our portfolio companies to put resilient leadership into action during this crisis. Through virtual workshops and webinars, we’re helping founders support their teams and put people first through connection, transparency, clarity, and accountability.
Connection: Building relationships and holding space for others
While none of us can control the future, we can control our own actions and decisions. Founders have the power to control how they lead during this time and to choose to effectively manage themselves and their teams. This is an opportunity for startup leaders, who we already know are resilient and adaptive, to foster deeper connections and support their teams through transition and change. Strong connections develop amongst team members when people openly share their feelings and needs — mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Your employees, your customers, and your communities are living through major disruptions that threaten their health, livelihoods, and happiness. While managing a remote team, leaders need to show compassion to overwhelmed and distracted employees, and to themselves as well. Check in on how you are feeling and take care of yourself so that you can be a more present and effective leader for your team. Give yourself the support you need to handle the burden of dealing with this crisis and your concerns for the future.
Transparency: Communicating honestly and appropriately
Communicating honestly and appropriately with your staff, both about the state of your organization and the responsive steps you are taking during this crisis, assures your team that you’ll give them the information they need to know in order to move forward.
Transparent leaders are proactively honest about what they do and don’t know, and they avoid glossing over negative information. Though you don’t need to share every detail about the state of your business or your fears for the future, there is information each team member needs to know in order to do their job effectively. When planning your communications, ask yourself whether the information you’re providing serves this purpose. Sharing the right things with the right people will keep your team focused and motivated.
Clarity: Prioritizing and committing to a path forward
During this crisis, people have been flooded with information about the pandemic and how to handle it. Leaders are trying to determine the best next steps for their organization and need to take space to digest that information. When presented with overwhelming information and no clear path back toward life as we knew it, startup leaders must ground their decision-making in what matters most: their mission.
By prioritizing organizational goals, leaders can confidently lead their teams forward. Are you clear on what your top organizational goals are? If not, do you have a process in place to identify them? Start with your mission and purpose. Consider why your organization exists in the first place and align your priorities to your mission. Be sure that your team also understands your priorities so that they can focus their individual priorities on the organization’s goals and avoid making their own assumptions. Help your team to reprioritize their projects and accommodate their changes in capacity during this time as everyone is adapting to a new reality.
Accountability: Setting an example by making firm decisions and putting your words into action
When leaders focus on connection, transparency, and clarity, they can more effectively manage their teams during crisis. Resilient leaders achieve accountability when they set clear expectations, do what they say they’ll do, and communicating when they aren’t able to follow through. And when leaders are accountable, it sets an example for others and makes holding other employees accountable less personal.
But leaders can’t be accountable to others if they aren’t taking care of themselves. Be sure to check in on your needs during this time and ask for help when you need it — both personally and professionally. Give yourself grace and compassion while you are making tough decisions and facing overwhelming responsibilities.
We believe that leaders of inclusive fintech startups can effectively navigate through this challenge. Know that the work you do to help underserved individuals and small businesses is more important now than ever before as these populations are disproportionately affected in times of global crisis. Your mission to bring financial inclusion to those who need it most is critical. Anchor your decisions in a recommitment to your mission and follow these four pillars of leadership to guide yourselves and your teams forward into a new future.