Starting out as a founder, I struggled to find my own authentic leadership style. I had always identified as an entrepreneur and creator, but actually leading others was unfamiliar ground. The leadership styles I saw in others seemed to be remixes of the aggressive “war time” or “hacker” CEO models, which didn’t resonate with me - particularly as a female, non-technical founder. I’ve since come to realize that the prevailing narrative of an aggressive, growth-at-all-costs mentality doesn’t resonate or work for most people - male or female, technical or not, founder or employee. Eventually I did find my footing, and grew Azlo into a leading SMB neobank with 150 team members and hundreds of thousands of customers. Along the way I came to understand that while breakout success almost always requires some combination of unique market insight, grit, and luck, one of the most important catalyzers of our growth was when I stopped pretending to act like what I thought a tech leader “should” be, and instead started embracing my own model of leadership.
I was inspired to join FVS to leverage my learnings from the Azlo journey to help other founders realize their full potential. For me, authentic leadership was the foundation that allowed me to build a company that produced compounding returns in terms of people and customers – as we were able to recruit and retain more great people, and to have a more authentic relationship with our customers that drove word-of-mouth referrals. Here are three of the most important lessons I learned about leadership and team building from my journey as an entrepreneur:
1. Leadership takes many forms – work to find your own style from the onset. When my company reached an inflection point and my job went from being in the trenches (“doing”) to leading, I had an identity crisis. I believed that so much of my credibility was based on my hustle, contribution and work product – and without that I’d have nothing to stand on. But that meant that I needed to figure out what my leadership style was. I tried a few different models (including that of the stoic CEO) before I came to see that I would be most successful embracing my own strengths, acknowledging my emotions, and just being me. I still remember one time - after an acrimonious and charged conversation with outside partners that the former “me” would never have approached in such an emotionally visible way - that one of my employees thanked me for being an example of “strong and authentic female leadership”. It showed me an alternative model could be recognized and celebrated.
2. You don’t need to have all of the answers, but you need to trust your intuition. As we were able to start hiring more experienced leaders, I began to feel comfortable delegating larger portions of the business. But I noticed that when something felt “wrong” with what they were suggesting, I initially suppressed that intuition because I couldn’t offer an alternative solution– and I felt like a “strong” leader needed to come armed with answers. Eventually, I realized that a strong leader in fact helps others get to the right answers. Providing feedback based on my instincts, typically posed as questions, or an articulation of what my gut was telling me, allowed us to jointly get to much better outcomes.
3. Hire to your strengths and values. Hiring great people was challenging at first. A lot of it was because we were following a standard playbook with candidates that didn’t speak to what was truly special about working within our company. So, we set about better defining that across the organization. First, we had already gone through the exercise of creating and codifying our company values. But when we started to demonstrate what it looked like to live those values - in how we acted, by celebrating people who embodied them, and by actually using them as a screening mechanism - it was easier to find candidates that aligned with our company, and to show people a workplace that lived by those values. Second, I discovered that by leaning into my strengths around personal engagement, curiosity, and empathy I could connect with candidates and employees in a way that many other employers could not. In a world where recruiting can feel transactional, taking a genuine interest to get to know a candidate set us apart from many other companies. Finally, I learned that despite all the other things going on in the business, it was critical to remember that one of the highest leverage activities a CEO can do is to find and recruit the right talent, even if that means you have to let other problems simmer in the meantime. That meant that some weeks 40%+ of my time was going to direct outreach, pitching and interviewing. This work allowed us to attract amazing talent, which enabled us to retain an amazing team, which created a flywheel that allowed us to attract more amazing people.
Along the way, one of the not-quite-secret things I learned was that I was not alone. Among most founders things like imposter syndrome and self-doubt are common but rarely discussed. Great leadership is unlocked when it is authentic to you - regardless of who you are or whether you feel like a natural born leader.
In the end, I felt empowered to lean into these challenges in large part with support from my community of board members, peers, mentors, and team. Having this diversity of perspectives demonstrated to me how common these issues are, and the range of solutions to address them. As a VC, a goal of mine is to contribute my experiences in support of other founders and hopefully inspire them to use their authentic voice, lean into their strengths, and find conviction as they emerge and grow as leaders.
If you’re an early stage fintech founder and want to discuss building a culture of authentic leadership, please reach out to us!