||Central Bank Of Barbados
Speech by Paul M. Ashby, CEO of Signia Financial, at the Central Bank of Barbados and Financial Service Commission's 2018 Domestic Financial Institutions Conference.
Let me first thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity to address this august group of persons. I am delighted to speak on the themes of employee engagement, productivity and innovation, which we entitled “Transformational Leadership – Leading from the Core.”
Now I know the regulators among us may know who Signia Financial is, but if my former commercial banking colleagues are like me when I was at CIBC, you may not know who Signia is. Prior to January 2012 Signia never registered on my radar. So I do not take it personally if you are wondering who I am and where is the place called Signia. I may be disappointed, but I would understand because we are small relative to you, so before I get into the substantive pieces of my presentation, which will be on some of the softer issues in a social sciences conversation, I believe I should share with you a few small facts about Signia to contextualize what will follow later.
Signia is not an insurance company; we are a finance company, we do all types of lending. We offer leases, we are a licensed Foreign Exchange dealer, we are a licensed brokerage and trade some of the highest volumes in Barbados. We are deposit takers; we are regulated by the Financial Services Commission and the Central Bank of Barbados. Between 2012 and 2017 Signia’s loan book grew by 29% from $136 million to $197 million, deposits grew by 19% from $141 million to $188 million, net income grew by 28% from $3.1 million to $4.1 million and this growth was buttressed with reductions in delinquency. Signia celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. Our parents are Cave Shepherd & Co, Grace Kennedy, and Massy United Insurance.
So now that you have a sense of this company, I can move to share with you in this brief presentation some of my thoughts on the leadership discipline, and some actual interventions we used at Signia to create a culture that is conducive to high levels of employee engagement.
One of my mentors many years ago recommended a book to me called Meaning Inc. by Gurnek Bains et al. The essence of the book was discussing ideas and examples of how companies developed productive teams and cultures. There is a quote in the book by former CEO of IBM Lou Gerstner: “I used to think culture was an important part of the game. I now realise it is the whole game.” So building the right culture is vitally important.
However, for me to engage in a discourse on “Transformational leadership – Leading from the Core”, I thought it would make sense for me to share a little bit about me, so that you understand where my leadership philosophy comes from. Indeed, I believe that every good leader must have some type of philosophy from which they lead. So here is a brief back story.
At a year and half, my great aunt and her 10-year-old daughter visited my mother to see how the young baby was growing. They were obviously concerned. The 10-year-old girl said “He so sweet”, “Don’t let he suffer”, “Cuh dear tek he nuh.” This was my first opportunity after birth. I was raised in the household of my great aunt, I was the first of my mother’s children, and comparably, I had significant advantages and opportunities that my siblings did not necessarily have. There was lots of stability, positive reinforcement and great living examples of achievement around me which I wanted to emulate. My experiences growing up as child and teenager imprinted on my personality an immense attitude of gratitude, the valuing of opportunity, and it also developed a fierce desire for independence and control of my circumstances. These features are at my core and drive me every day.
I shared this snap shot of my personal history to demonstrate that leaders must engage in self-reflection, self-learning, and I encourage persons who I mentor to write down who they are and what distinguishing qualities they possess, not physical qualities but character traits. This self-reflection allows one to determine who you are as a person and ultimately as a decision maker. I did this exercise many years ago, writing down who I am and also who I wanted to be, not what positions I wanted, but what qualities I wanted to exemplify. Written on my mirror image page are those words or phrases that represent my philosophy of leadership and decision making. As an example, some of the nuggets on my philosophy page are as follows “there is greatness in creation”, “everyone has something to offer”, “expect the worst because even good people do bad things”, “enjoy the notion of being the fuel to someone’s success each day.” If you don’t have one, I suggest to you that you can create your own leadership philosophy page as your own anchor also.
Leadership and Company Culture
Leadership is a very important endeavour in life and I think that those of us who get the privilege to lead, we must realize the tremendous influence and responsibility we have, and we should not take it lightly. Having the position is one thing, but the execution and performance once in the role is so vital. One of the things I have learnt over time is that the organisation takes on the persona of the person who leads it; there is no getting away from it. It is especially so for smaller organisations, but I have equally seen it manifested in large organisations. I have witnessed this in many iterations at CIBC: Bob Sallis turned CIBC into a sales juggernaut; Michael Mansour, who was an accomplished accountant, came and reined in the sales people and made the organisation a place of accountability and appreciative of risk; Mahes Wickramasinghe’s mantra was “let’s get things done”, “let’s make things efficient.” Your leadership filters throughout the fabric of the organisation all the way through to the last employee who comes through the door. What your customers experience in their interaction with your staff is the manifestation of the culture you have created.
I realised from very early that my role as a leader will be reflected in the culture of my organisation whether I do something or I do nothing. Therefore, when I lead I am always deliberate and strategic in the things I do in an effort to create the culture I envision and want. I try not to allow things to happen by chance to the extent that it is within my control.
Let me now share a couple of approaches that we have adopted at Signia to create a transformational culture that produced the results I referred to earlier. The first thing was the development of a space which we called a “learning environment.” The notion of a learning environment was really about talent development, so we created opportunities to build self-esteem and self-confidence. We created opportunities for employees to public speak in front of their colleagues on any topic of their choosing, every Monday morning, in a session called Jumpstart; and because we called it a learning environment – either open feedback or closed door feedback was offered and accepted freely. We then extended it to employees sharing on the various aspects of their jobs so that the cross fertilization of knowledge across departments could occur. As you know, in financial institutions, silos are easy to develop because of the need for separation of duties, so this was also used to diffuse some of those natural tensions: “why I do what I do/and how what you do impacts what I do.”
One of the other things we did was what can be called creating Intrapreneurs (entrepreneurs on their job), where people got to work on specialised projects outside of their core duties. Teams were developed to work on the website, to work on customer service, to work on brand development, to work on staff activities. This is particularly important for the millennial group. By the way, 80% of the employees at Signia are millennials (I call them the 20 somethings and 30 somethings) so these activities were seen as positive and embraced by that grouping because they love their skills and intellect to be challenged.
One of the biggest things that we do is every month in our staff meetings is we have an active learning and sharing session on the performance of the company. The most junior person on our staff understands spread, margin, interest yields, provisioning. We explain how the business works, we talk about the business model, and discuss details that the average employee would not ordinarily have access to. We do this so that people make the connection between what they do and how the company performs. Staff meetings aren’t led by me or management alone. In fact, the chairmanship and the discourse from the different departments are led by line staff most meetings. Yesterday, the Harassment Policy was rolled out by a line staff member, and it was done with the level of significance and seriousness it warranted and as if one of my management team members had done it.
At the leadership level, we sought to expose the leaders to conferences that hitherto only the CEO may have attended. This allowed them to expand their thinking beyond the zone of their desk to what is happening in the industry, what are the possibilities for their careers and for the future growth of the business.
We also invited next level leaders to attend managers’ meetings as part of their development, but also to get their input.
It wasn’t all talk, as a young company we then needed to truly demonstrate commitment to this process by introducing to our employee manual enhancements to our tuition policy and made amendments to the study leave entitlements.
Now these are all activities that developed over time but were all premised on giving people opportunities to grow. People are highly motivated if they feel like they are being prepared for the next opportunity that may come their way. While they are learning and growing, the organisation is growing too. We lost people because they had skilled up or because they had grown in confidence, but that is alright. All that means is that there is an opportunity for someone else who is on the growth path and then the cycle continues.
In this type of environment what happens is that ideas come from all ends of the organisation: improvements, suggestions for cost savings etc. You learn of the wider range of skills that you have access to which you may have otherwise had to source externally. Only last month one of the youngest members of the team had an idea, pulled together a team, developed the concept, called me to set up a meeting, and came to present it to me. I loved the idea. Now they have to implement. But the key thing here is that she had the courage to pursue it and that is the acid test and the ideal outcome of the “learning environment”.
A National Focus
The second thing that we did was think about how we could participate in the transformation of our community – this idea called Barbados. Barbados is a very small project that requires everyone to participate in its growth. So besides the internal talent development, we focused on developing the external talent who could also ultimately become our advocates and even customers. My view is that if you have marketing dollars you need to make those dollars work in such a way that you help some segment of the community but at the same time be building your brand. We deliberately set out to build a corporate image of assisting young, upcoming talent in the non-traditional areas but areas that could be future careers for them. So we support the arts, film, music, sports. We focused on mathematics for primary school students through the Jaycees; we supported Keeping up with the Jones, Ian Webster, and Neesha Woodz as some examples. Our approach is not random and we discuss it with our staff so they understand the approach. Yes, we will do some product marketing but the majority of activities that we will support will be towards youth development in the country in very focused ways.
Now it may not be obvious to the naked eye, but the combination of care for the growth of the employee talent and care for the growth of the next generation actually feeds into the performance of the business because the staff take on a caring posture for their customers and our business ultimately flourishes and is reflected in our customer service, because we know and you know that we are not the least expensive game in town, but we just have to be more efficient, more accessible, more responsive and sensitive to the needs and interest of our clients.
I think the fact that I am here delivering these words may suggest that we have in some way at least raised our heads enough to be noticed. I think I am fortunate to lead a talented bunch of individuals and that my management team has been able to harness their collective abilities to create a culture that works. It definitely is not perfect and has lots of room for improvement but it certainly confirms to me that aligning hearts and minds is a powerful tool.
Lessons for the Leader
What have I learnt in this experience, especially in the last six years, because the learning environment wasn’t only for the employees but for me too? I was indeed a wide-eye, rookie CEO and what I have shared with you so far is about the compassion and passion of leadership. But what I have learnt has actually been a by-product of my own compassion and passion, which was something I called dispassion. Yes dispassion, a tempering of my own exuberance and zeal. Human beings have insatiable appetites and what I have learned is that you will never satisfy those palettes, as much as you give and want to give, the human psyche has a desire to want more and more. My guidance is that one must be measured because you have to leave back something for tomorrow. Dispassion is required to keep things in balance.
In closing, my experience as leader in many spheres so far tells me that to make a difference and get the best out of the circumstances you are presented, you can’t just focus on being transactional but you need to have a deep commitment to transforming lives and in order to do that you have to lead from deep within you, I call that your core. And secondly, you have to be focused on the belly of your organisation, your people – I also call that your core.
As I reflect on leadership at all levels in this country and more specifically on us gathered here, it is very apparent to me that we who have that privilege and opportunity are now called to be transformational at this juncture of our country’s history. The means building cultures within our organisations that are focused on the well-being and betterment of those around us. For the well-being of our employees and their families; for the well-being of our customers and their families; for the well-being of our own families. We have a responsibility to help people to grow and develop. We should not allow our day to day leadership to become so caught up with the mechanics of the tasks, or the desire for profitability. Profitability is important but the process of getting that profitability is even more important to ensure tomorrow’s success. I submit to you that in the process of pursuing the profit objective it is critically important to never lose sight of the people, because people are why we do what we do as leaders – I leave you with these words from a great leader Nelson Mandela, “A leader is like a shepherd, he stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, where upon all others follow, not realizing all along they are being directed from behind.”
Let your people shine and relish in their success because their success is yours too!