Dec 2, 2020

Leading Numerix Through the Pandemic: Taking Action that Makes a Difference

In March of 2020, Numerix, the fintech firm I run, literally transformed overnight. In the span of a day or two, we suddenly went from coffee klatches in the company cafeteria to finding space for our laptops on dining or living room tables, basement bars, whatever could serve as makeshift home offices.

Of course, we were not the only company facing this. Firms everywhere went through massive changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many CEOs, this new and very difficult situation created serious leadership challenges. For me, I had to rethink how I managed Numerix’s most valuable resource: its people. It turned out to be one of the biggest challenges I ever faced—and proved to be a source of great personal growth for me. From my situation to yours, I want to share how this enormously transformative time helped to make me a more effective leader and changed the way I thought about a number of things.

Initiatives Introduced

A boss of mine from a long time ago once told me that disruption is a crucible when it comes to leadership. When I remembered that statement, I timed it by 10 when it came to leading through COVID. I do not necessarily mean that in a negative sense. While a crucible to something can mean a period of tribulation (great misery), as the pandemic has meant to millions of people across the globe, as a CEO I took it as more of a trial, as an instance when I was being tested as a leader.

So here I am going to unveil how I altered or created new leadership approaches to handle—as effectively as I believed I could—the impact of the business transformation forced upon us by COVID-19. For me, I decided to focus on communication, cohesion building, and empathy to employees to navigate through our current reality. For me, it was more about “managing the people” than “managing the work,” because Numerix has great people and I trusted them to get the work done. And they do.

Creating New Leadership Approaches

As I mentioned, I altered or created new approaches to:

I. Employee communication

I’ve been in the workforce for over 40 years now, and in that time I have worked with many senior managers who were never comfortable communicating with employees. I have always believed that effective workplace communication is necessary to creating and maintaining a positive work environment, and I think I am a good communicator. But now I knew I had to up my game. I had to transition from being a good communicator to a great one. We have a high-performance culture and I needed to keep that going. My primary goal was to enhance my communication efforts to help maintain a consistent connection with employees, to ensure there was no confusion about anything, to help maintain collaboration among employees, and for me to listen more. I employed two tactics:

a. I understood that, as the CEO, I needed to be consistently visible. Using Zoom, I increased company briefings (town halls) from once a month to once a week. During these meetings, I would be very transparent about what is happening within the company, the state of the business, as well as all other important company information. I tried to instill confidence in my leadership by demonstrating during these briefings that I am acting fast and decisively. At the end of each meeting, I would open the floor to questions. This was not a time to be reticent and scarce.

b. I also made communication more personal. Rather than limit my communications to the entire company during the weekly town halls, I decided to schedule one-hour calls with each individual team across the company globally (e.g., marketing, financial engineers, software developers, quant analysts, the regional sales teams, etc.).

Have you heard the adage “Talking is silver, listening is gold”? These calls were structured in a way in which the members of each team would express to me their views, concerns, and hopes. Employees need to know they are being heard, especially in times of crisis. I took notes based on what every employee said. The feedback I received was very illuminating and helpful—and certainly a lot more effective than any of the standard employee pulse surveys used by many institutions to gather employee feedback.

II. Cohesion building

Since we were all working remotely, I feared that our employees would start to feel isolated and not working as part of a team but as individuals living in their own bubble. With the amount of investment, we put into our employees, it only made sense to get back the kind of results we needed and which come from keeping them connected to each other while also keeping them happy. There are many ways to improve and maintain team cohesion, and I decided to go out-of-the-box for this effort. To help fuse employees together, I went for fun:

a. I created a “bingo community” with games set every week at two different time zones to accommodate global locations. Real cash prizes were won and employee spouses and even children were invited to play.

b. We hosted “open bars”: Employees globally would host an open bar to show how to make their favorite cocktail. “Only 21 and over” were granted admittance.

c. We even held cooking schools. Similar to the open bar, employees would share how to make their favorite dishes. Italian and Asian cuisines were the most popular. My favorite was a meatball recipe.

III. Employee wellness

Human impact should be at the center of any conversation regarding change. In my view, the companies that will emerge stronger out of this crisis situation are those that are people first. This is how I put it into practice during the pandemic.

a. To help show Numerix’s commitment to mental wellness support, I instituted a policy of permitting each employee to take one Mental Health Day every two weeks, with direct orders from me to not check work emails or voice mails.

b. I also instituted flexible hours to accommodate parents with young children or any other particularly challenging situation that was a direct result of the pandemic’s impact. Traditional work hours were thrown out the window. Employees were told to divide their working hours throughout the day as needed.

People. People. People.

Throughout my career, whenever I was in a leadership position, I always made it a point to forge ahead with building strong employee relationships—a company’s people are, after all, an intrinsic element of a company’s success and growth. During a crisis, even more so. That’s why I introduced the above-mentioned employee-focused initiatives. Nice gestures can make a difference, too. Here are three additional examples of simple but effective initiatives:

  • Give a token gift. To show our gratitude to employees, early on in the crisis we invited them to choose a gift from Snappy Gifts. A small gesture but the outpouring of gratitude was amazing, and I think it served as a powerful motivator.
  • Start summer half-day Fridays early. Usually we start the summer half day Fridays on Memorial Day weekend, but this summer we started it two weeks before Memorial Day.
  • We held a virtual Halloween party for Numerix children. Costumes were required for all children and adults who participated.

I do not believe I would have thought any of these steps if I did not experience my own personal growth as a CEO during this time. I changed the way I viewed some things. For example, I used to be against having a “work from home” policy. Now I see how it has changed our company for the better and proved to me even more that I can trust our employees. I know for a fact that many Numerix employees are working longer and harder versus the pre-pandemic period to help the company achieve its goals during a crisis that threatens revenues. We are not going at 100%; we are going at 1000%.

Key Takeaways from My Experience

Leadership is a difficult responsibility, particularly when leading a company through a health crisis that changes nearly everything. If it can ever help you, I would like to share my key takeaways from this experience.

  • I would start with empathy. If you’re a leader, you need to find the time to deepen the relationships you have with employees. People are the only thing that really matters, so create the trust that is necessary for success.
  • Follow with passion. You may be curious as to why I used “fun” as a cohesion building tactic. For one, a fun environment never goes unappreciated, but it is really more about showing you have passion for doing things that benefit employees.
  • Always focus on strong communication and never stop listening. I believe that clear-cut, consistent and frequent communication increases the likelihood that people will comprehend and take action on whatever you’re asking of them. In that regard, one of the best ways to encourage open and honest communication is to actively listen.

About the Author

Steve O'Hanlon is president and CEO of Numerix, a Fintech specializing in solutions for capital markets. O'Hanlon has spent his 30-year career in leadership positions growing start-ups and SMBs across the financial services technology industry. Co-Author of the new book, Fintech for Dummies, He has a passion for entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation. Today O'Hanlon is focused on building businesses, promoting a digital mindset and driving success.

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