Team composition is vital to competition.
Perhaps no industry champions this standard more clearly than the lucrative world of team sports. Every year, from the NFL to the NBA, the rookie draft, free agency and player trades send media headlines and fan bases into a frenzy — a multi-billion dollar spectacle of talent acquisition.
But drafting the right talent is just one piece of the puzzle; it takes a team to win the championship.
Executives and managers often labor over constructing trade scenarios and putting together a viable roster both on and off the court or field. The team with the superstar often wins, but the winning team always makes the most of its players.
In the tech industry, the same goes for companies that regularly compete for talent. This is a lesson that has not been lost on Boston-headquartered Forward Financing, whose leadership recently reexamined its existing hierarchy. It was clear that a team of extraordinary talent required a proper structural conduit to fully unlock each team members’ potential.
The new leadership bench provided just that — a group of director and senior director-level employees that sit under the executive team as a way to empower them, while outfitting the organization with increased internal communication and transparency.
What Does Forward Financing Do?
Forward provides fast, flexible working capital to small businesses nationwide that have often been underserved by traditional financing options. By simplifying the requirements, streamlining the process, and using advanced proprietary technology, Forward is often able to deliver approvals within minutes and funding within hours — giving more businesses the financial opportunity they need to thrive.
A top-level shakeup is never an easy transition, but Forward’s mission statement of connecting small businesses with accessible capital was an effective impetus for change.
“Over the past couple years, we’ve hired a lot of smart people for the director-level team,” said Shannon Braley, chief people officer. “Prior to that, those on the executive team oversaw day-to-day and big-picture functions of two or three business units. It became clear we needed leaders for each one.”
Assembling the right people for the jobs was one thing; best leveraging their unique talents was another. Ultimately, the company decided to create a new level in the corporate structure, hoping to emulate the success of the existing executive team.
Chief Financial Officer Christopher Chiou believes the company is on the right track. He came in after Forward implemented this revamped structure, and sees the change as a necessary one in Forward’s long-term plans.
“I’ve worked at hyper-growth companies that had this structure, and it was critical to their success,” he said. “You need a strong bench to take more responsibility and ownership.”
Within the leadership team, members such as Director of Marketing Jessica Roden have observed more frequent exposure to the executive team. While she’s had a direct line of communication in the past, the new leadership structure enables her to collaborate more deeply with people like Braley and Chiou.
“These opportunities help create a clear picture of the business strategy and direction of the company,” Roden said. “I can then cascade that information to my team and make sure we’re all driving the vision forward.”
The bench also gives her access to invaluable peers whom she can lean on, bounce ideas off, and discuss challenges with. These once siloed leadership positions are now a unified common space for transparent collaboration.
“We’re all leading teams at Forward,” she said. “We’re all trying to contribute to company growth and success.”
Leveraging the Best of the Bench
With any top-down policy, the ripple effect has an appreciable impact on the rest of the company.
“Any time you’re including more diverse perspectives — from different areas of expertise, backgrounds, and experiences — you’re going to get a better decision holistically” said Roden.
Leadership changes can seem abstract to those who are separated from them by various degrees of management. To cement the changes more tangibly, a new company initiative aims to have all employees hear from director-level leaders, as opposed to just the executive suite. There’s a place carved out for them to present at company meetings and give team-specific updates.
Empowering Ownership for Better Results
Amid the company changes, the top brass is finalizing objectives and key results for 2023. What’s new this year is working with the new leadership team to generate department-level OKRs for the first time, which will allow the business units they run to align with company objectives. Chiou hopes that this initiative will naturally introduce more ownership and accountability within the ranks.
On a more granular level, it also involves delegating more responsibilities to this new leadership team to empower their roles. Braley recalls working on a compensation project with her Senior Director of People & Culture, Mackenzie Kagel. This was the first year Kagel took on the proposal and led the charge on the requisite tasks, fully supported by Braley.
“It’s a large project, so the fact that I was able to have her run with it and come back with a proposal and suggestions rather than taking it on myself was both a big win for me and a great learning opportunity for her,” said Braley, “It was a win win!”
Avoiding the ‘Expensive Meeting’
What do you get when you take 20 of the most senior members in a company and put them in a room together?
“A very expensive meeting,” Chiou laughed. “I’m always aware of how I can make sure that time is well spent. A crisp, tight agenda with clear topics for discussion so there’s no idling.”
With the addition of a whole new rung on Forward’s corporate ladder, the challenge now is how best to incorporate new voices effectively. More team members are now sitting in on strategic meetings, and with more cooks in the kitchen, it’s a tightrope act to manage efficiency.
“Every meeting, I try to cascade information I’m hearing at the executive team down to my direct reports,” he said. “And getting information from teams that I can elevate.”
“How we operate needs to adapt in order for us to be extraordinary.”
The bilateral channel serves to facilitate communication and empower action on both ends of the hierarchy. Braley goes one step further with that idea.
“I started bringing people who drive a specific project into the meeting with the president or CEO, allowing them to be part of the presentation,” she said. “It leads to an open discussion instead of me filtering up and down the chain.”
Establishing a New Status Quo
Five and a half years ago, Braley was the only member of the people team. Today, she leads a diverse crew of talented individuals. With the addition of the leadership team, she can now focus on the big-picture strategy while empowering team members to take on responsibilities
But the new status-quo still takes time, trial and error to create guidelines and best practices.
“A challenge for me is being more comfortable with letting go,” she said. “Empowering team members to take on more will always be something we can continue to do more of as the executive team.”
Like tasking Kagel with a solo project, Braley trusts that the transition will benefit the whole company. Roden agrees — she’s working through the growing pains of a new system, but is confident in its integrity to push the team forward.
“Depending on the situation, I’m either the decision-maker or I need to float approval up the ladder,” Roden explained. “There are a lot of gray areas, but as we settle into this new structure, we will get more opportunities to practice and see where everything falls.”
It’s tempting to keep an existing leadership structure static, especially for an organization like Forward Financing. Ask Chiou, and he’ll say that part of the success comes from constantly seeking improvements — even for its leaders.
“You have to be able to change because your business is changing,” he added. “How we operate needs to adapt in order for us to be extraordinary.”