Collaborative leadership for financial health innovation

As the Financial Health Fellowship 2017 programme draws to a close, our Innovation Programme Manager, Marloes Nicholls, reflects on the leadership required to drive start-up success while also addressing complex social issues.

At the Lab, we don’t think of leadership in a hierarchical sense – ‘leaders’ are not some remote, elite group with authority; rather they are people embedded in the community or group that they are working with. In our view, leadership isn’t a title that can be awarded: it’s a practice that can be exercised by anyone helping a group achieve positive outcomes.

Our understanding of leadership has grown out of our experience of incubating communities seeking to transform the financial system so that it serves people and planet. Through our work with innovators, bankers, policy makers and activists, we’ve come to understand that effective leadership requires skills in two important areas:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and finding a way to appreciate and work with them all, in order to evolve into a more compassionate and self-aware leader. Since we’re a product of the world we live in, understanding ourselves involves an awareness of the structures and powers bigger than any one of us and how they shape us, too.
  • Direction: Creating a clear personal compass, by working out a purpose, values, vision and goals for you and your business – something that can propel you forward, even in the face of adversity.

Self-awareness and direction provide the inner strength and focus required to lead ambitious, uncertain and complex projects, like founding a social finance start-up. They also provide a base from which you can collaborate effectively, because they enable you to identify who you need to work with in order to achieve your vision. It won’t be by working alone that you build something new – especially if you’re developing a novel financial solution that meets the complex needs of other people.

Self-awareness is also critical to the way you work with others: even if you’re not aware of your own vulnerabilities, you can be sure they’ll show themselves once the teamwork gets tricky. It’s better to know the things that grind your gears, rather than letting your collaborators discover them by accident.

Incubating the new leaders

Over the past six months, we’ve been supporting 13 pioneering innovators through the Financial Health Fellowship as they develop new products and services that put people in control of their finances, work with their real needs, and take a transparent and fair approach to sharing value.

Collaborative leadership has been a key strand of the programme’s curriculum. Fellows have had to grapple with the challenge of working with people with different perspectives and skills from the get-go: our Fellows have a unique mix of work and life experiences that range from global investment banking to economic activism; our expert teachers have included Marlene Shiels OBE (Capital Credit Union), Ruth Mwangi (Grassroots Economics) and Jamie Campbell (Bud), and our Fellows have also benefited from the advice of our partners Toynbee Hall and their community of Money Mentors.

The process has hugely enriched the Fellows’ businesses – as well as being very rewarding personally. But it’s not easy. It has forced Fellows to rethink their business models, it has challenged their assumptions about the lived experience of people living in financial difficulty, and it has led to significant strategic shifts.

To achieve this has required respect for and trust in others.

To be open to the input of others has meant giving up control over ideas and decisions, and being honest about what you don’t know, as much as what you do. It’s healthy for collaborations to involve a clash of ideas (it’s not always about compromise!) and this demands the management of creative tension and uncomfortable dynamics.

Collaboration is the hardest part of good leadership to crack – and yet we’ll only transform finance to work for everyone by working together.