Trust, agility and collaboration: lessons from a remote working CEO

Chris Ellis took the helm at Finder just over 12 months ago – just as the country was going into lockdown. Here he shares his experiences and learnings during his first year as CEO.

It’s a strange feeling starting your first day as CEO from your home office.

As I jumped into the role at Finder in March 2020, Australia was going into our first COVID-induced lockdown, working from home was becoming the norm and the economy was extremely volatile given the then level of uncertainty.

Finder’s mission is to help people make better financial decisions every day, which means we assist consumers with comparing many things across many sectors – diversification that I quickly learned stood us in good stead. For context, we have ~500 crew (Finder’s name for our employees) globally, with a good proportion of them located in Australia, our home market.

Certain verticals came to a standstill overnight while we pivoted into creating others where we saw growth. Instead of talking about travel (insurance, flights, etc), we pushed into broadband, share trading and home improvements. Rather than asking about frequent flyer points, our readers wanted to know where they should buy facemasks, how to upgrade their work from home environment and where to sign up for online gym classes – who knew that would become a category?

I made my first company-wide introduction remotely to a sea of Zoom names and tiles that became business as usual for many of us. Before that call, I checked how many crew typically worked from home, conscious of striking the right tone – 40% of the crew already worked remotely or on a distributed basis. Everything we do is already cloud-based and organisational agility is already part of our DNA.

In the past, Finder has excelled at spotting trends and then building comparisons and business models to capitalise on those trends before anybody else. That’s exactly how Finder tackled the past 12 months. That agility and go-live mentality defines Finder and its culture and values. We believe that innovation happens when things go live on the Internet, with feedback loops from real, not imagined, consumers. This culture is something that attracted me to the job in the first place and retaining that agility and growth mindset as we scale the business matters hugely.

Like many, I didn’t sit at my Finder desk for eight months, and I had to become much better acquainted with my home office. With that in mind, I want to highlight a few lessons I learned in my first 12 months on the job.

Building trust

I’m a great advocate of Patrick Lencioni’s thinking and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He outlines that trust, and specifically an ability to be vulnerable, is the essential foundational layer for effective communication and collaboration.

It’s about being on the front-foot from day one. To give people a flavour of who I was and what I stood for, I consciously talked about my beliefs, the importance of culture and where we were headed in the longer term right from the first global meeting. I discussed the concepts of starting with the end in mind, and that ideas can come from anywhere across an organisation.

I think quite deeply about formal and informal communication and trying to get the mix right. Our weekly “Huddle” is an example of this. During this regular Friday company-wide meeting, I make sure everyone gets context on how we are doing and why, in an effort to deliberately collapse organisational hierarchy by sharing information in a timely fashion. There’s an emphasis on the “why” and on encouraging voices from across the crew to be heard. It’s an opportunity to share context and for crew to hear things first-hand, which I believe is important.

The most challenging aspect of starting work as the CEO “virtually” was figuring out who everyone was without an org chart. Not all individuals and their skill sets were as visible to me via Zoom as I suspect they would have been if we were all in the office. I became intentional with meeting people in all different types of situations (one-to-many, one-on-one and in small groups) to prioritise those connections. Certain things happen when you can see someone face-to-face in terms of building trust, and I had to try and convey that warmth over Zoom.

Solving complex problems in business demands that people collaborate and work in teams – across departments, time zones and even languages. Fostering trust among individuals will bring about the biggest impact.

We have established formal 1Crew teams to work across business priorities and these involve crew members across multiple functions of the business. For example, the Trust and Expertise 1Crew includes crew from PR, client services, customer service, marketing and insights, with crew of different levels of seniority and experience.

The group meets at least monthly and has a dedicated Slack channel to discuss related work in real time. This approach aims to eliminate silos and encourage strategic thinking at a holistic rather than functional level. Currently, we have more than 65 1Crews, with new groups spinning up every quarter. 1Crews are structurally embedded in how we run the company and how we drive growth, and they’re one of the best examples of successfully enabling cross-functional collaboration that I’ve ever seen.

Have a long-term company mission and point to it often

Finder’s five-year mission is “we help our members make a better financial decision every day”. When the pandemic started, no one knew what the world might look like in three or six months or even in a year. During a recession, a mission statement can often be forgotten about and replaced with graphs of revenue going down. Keeping the overall goal in focus made it easier to look at the challenges caused by COVID-19 as just “bumps in the road” rather than insurmountable challenges. Having a longer term vision – that has real meaning – helps with perspective.

A good mission statement is believable, genuine and has an impact day to day. It’s not just a poster on the wall – it informs everything we do. It allows Finder to work back from where we want to be. Our purpose is to help the world make better decisions. We have company objectives that ladder up to that purpose and ultimately the five-year mission. The stronger your mission and vision of where you are headed, the more context people have.

I consciously tried to connect the dots between what was being worked on day to day and our mission and longer term vision. I used that language consciously to guide us through the COVID-19 aftermath.

Context over control

I believe that information is empowering, not that information is power. Being transparent was always going to be my approach coming into the role, and in a COVID world, transparency matters even more.

Crew should be regularly updated on the business they are helping to build. Sharing information broadly creates a culture of trust and builds a more empowered and collaborative team.

When employees are engaged and energised, it’s generally because they feel connected to an authentic higher purpose. Having a “direct line of sight” from what every individual does day to day and how that connects to Finder’s overall mission is something we deliberately focused on. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a CMO or an intern – as leaders, we need to help you connect to a mission.

Reduce customer complexity

Finder is, at its heart, a technology company. In the past 12 months, we’ve accelerated our technology investment to be able to scale faster and better. Throughout my career, I’ve often found that customers (both consumers and business partners) gravitate towards elegant simplicity – whether it be the website’s UX or, for partners, being fair minded and approachable to work with.

This includes expanding the Finder app, which is now a major factor in fuelling the company’s growth. You don’t have to spend days or weeks shopping around for the best deal. The app does all the work. Starting as a tool that helps people save money and get the best deal, it is evolving into a full-scale personal finance authority that empowers Aussies to invest and grow their wealth. Simplifying the customer journey through technology allows organisations to remain competitive instead of playing catch up.

Crossing the one-year mark doesn’t mean it’s time to relax and enjoy the ride. Instead, this is a time to leverage the learning we’ve had over the past 12 months and accelerate our growth. COVID-19 has brought us all uncertainty and challenges, but, with the gift of hindsight, it’s also brought us great opportunity.

Chris Ellis is the CEO of Finder.


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