This article runs in collaboration with Makan For Hope, a non-profit initiative by Asia Startup Network. The Makan For Hope Festival brings notable mentors and aspiring entrepreneurs in 30 meaningful virtual conversations over food from social enterprises to raise S$125,000 for Fei-Yue to support the children and seniors from low income families.
People, team, culture, and leadership are topics brought up frequently by current and aspiring entrepreneurs at the Makan for Hope Festival roundtables. On July 27, Samuel Rhee, co-founder of Endowus and former CEO and CIO of Morgan Stanley Investment Management in Asia, hosted a roundtable discussion on how to build a team and maintain it.
In this 90-minute session, ten participants had the opportunity to tap into Rhee’s decades-long leadership experience across small and large organisations and had many questions answered on the fundamentals of building a successful company – including building powerful teams.
Culture sets the tone for how people are brought together
Corporation originates from the Latin word corporare, which means to “combine in one body”. Organisation is from organisacioun, meaning “act or process of organising, the arranging of parts in an organic whole”.
The etymology guides us on how these entities operate by way of uniting their parts. We do so on the basis of companionship, which is at the essence of the word company that combines com (together) and pani (bread) to mean “share bread together”.
Leading a corporation, organisation, or company therefore necessitates bringing people together. Culture and common values define the way. “What a company espouses may not necessarily just be about winning, like a professional sports team, which is a popular analogy these days”, shared Rhee.
He advised to think of a professional team with a sense of companionship and closeness, like members of a family. Leaders can then try to answer the question of what kind of culture the team would like to create to this end.
Though Rhee admits to “still learning along the way”, he and his co-founder Gregory Van have managed to build what was, until recently, a completely bootstrapped and 100 per cent employee-owned company with virtually no turnover in its product/engineering teams. These teams take up more than half of the company and are carefully recruited.
For Endowus, developing a strong mission-driven culture has been central to its team-building endeavours. The leaders strived to ground themselves in the mission, vision, and purpose of the company and articulate them across teams at every step of the way – focusing on solving real problems for investors in Singapore and Asia makes a meaningful difference in people’s lives and in securing their financial future.
They are also focused on raising the quality of financial education and level of financial literacy through Endowus Insights and webinars, for which the company is well known.
As a company grows, bringing the many people together and rallying the common values across the organisation can become more challenging. Charles Debonneuil, President of Intrepid Group and former CMO of Lazada, shared his experience of facing such challenges and remarked on the importance of aligning leaders across different locations. Likewise, by working well with the evangelists within the company who champion its core values and “spread the good word”, the core leadership team can “trickle-down” the key messages more effectively across offices.
The vibrant discussion covered a wide range of issues that spanned how to go about looking for a co-founder, how leaders should spend time with teams, how to instinctively determine a good hire, and how to create a coherent culture across offices, to name a few. Below is a recap of key insights shared.
Key takeaways on how to attract and build a team
The most important thing in attracting and selecting a founding team is to ensure that the members are aligned with the mission of the company. If people do not truly believe in the mission, eventually, it may not work no matter how impressive their capabilities are. Once aligned, the members should be able to balance out each others’ weaknesses with their diverse strengths and skillsets.
Leaders should focus on:
- Meaning and purpose – Endowus team built a mission and purpose-driven organisation, which provides meaning to their employees. With this, there is little need for management to micromanage them. As long as the right types who are aligned with the values of the company are hired, they will perform to a high level with independence and integrity.
- Safety and security – Leaders should be able to provide a sense of security and a safety net for people to do their best work. Ensuring psychological safety for people to take risks with their ideas and know that there are no dumb questions is very important. Basic questions asked and answered in early stages set up teams for better execution and reduce mistakes down the road. It is advisable for leaders to facilitate the conversations so that both extroverts and introverts can speak up. They should also spend enough time with new recruits in the beginning so that the role, goals, expectations, and tools to aid the work process are well defined.
- Connected community within the company – People need to feel connected and need one another to succeed. It is therefore crucial for leaders to constantly work on facilitating relationships. Having superstars is great but they will not solve all of the problems.
- Empathy and responsiveness – Building a good sense of togetherness require empathy and responsiveness towards employees. These are also critical in working together effectively. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency in achieving good outcomes over the long term. Building a lasting business requires investment in relationships both internally and externally.
- In hiring a team, Endowus tries to understand people’s motivations and aspirations to determine the fit, in addition to mutually learning about each other through case studies. The fit may be more intangible than tangible so there is no one-size-fits-all. In the same context, Endowus has a flexible approach to compensation structure as everybody’s needs are different. Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) are handed out to provide the opportunity for employees to own the company and conform to one of its core values – alignment. This entails aligning to the best interest of the clients they serve and internally to their team.
- In building and maintaining a team, focus on the people and not the work. Leaders should care about the things that people care about, whether it be money, environment, learning opportunities. It is down to the leader to assess individuals’ needs and capabilities and create an environment for success.
- As a company grows larger in size, there will be more management challenges especially with regards to how time is spent with different teams. It is important to break it down to levels, such as team level, business unit level, and individual level, to ultimately create a flow of management whereby senior leaders delegate down to make the business run organically. By doing this people are given the opportunity to grow, take on more independent initiatives, and flourish in their roles. A flexible mindset on people’s work versus pigeon-holing people is important in this respect. This is more of an art rather than science.
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