In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.
From client meetings to doctor appointments to family time, most things Sam Hodges does is public knowledge to his employees. All they have to do is check out his online calendar, which is set to “public” for employees. So why is this co-founder and managing director OK with letting others in on even his private life? Because at Funding Circle, Hodges says he fosters a culture of openness and transparency — in every respect.
However, this idea of an open workplace didn’t happen overnight. Hodges has had his fair share of experiences that, through time, helped him develop and grow his skills as a leader. After a career in finance, Hodges set out on his entrepreneurial journey, opening a chain of fitness centers. Although, like many other small-business owners, he faced difficulty in securing a loan — that’s when he came up with the idea to create a marketplace lending business, which he named Endurance Lending Network.
In the summer of 2013, Hodges and other executives decided to merge Endurance Lending Network with U.K.-based Funding Circle, and Hodge co-founded the new branch in the U.S. Today, Funding Circle is one of the world’s leading online marketplace for business loans, matching small businesses with interested investors.
Throughout his career as an entrepreneur and the co-founder and managing director of Funding Circle U.S., it’s safe to say Hodges knows a thing or two about leadership. And through experience, he’s developed his own ways of scheduling his day, managing meetings, rewarding employees and more.
“Over the years I’ve learned how important it is to continually communicate and reinforce the company’s mission and values,” Hodges says. “They can’t just be words on the wall or in a slide deck. They must be brought to life and connected in a meaningful way with employees’ day-to-day experiences.”
From communicating with employees to team building to having a tightly-knit schedule, we caught up with Hodges to learn his secrets to successful leadership.
On the most important leadership traits:
“The first really crucial trait is around vision. As a leader your job is to understand the market, understand the business’ capabilities and then come back to the organization with a view on what you need to do in order to become successful.
“A second really vital skill is communication — being able to communicate in the right way with many different types of stakeholders.
“A third really important skill is problem-solving. In a leadership position, oftentimes what you face day to day are the things that are not going well and the opportunities that exist — so comfort with ambiguity, the ability to put structure around problems and the ability to be calm in the face of things blowing up.”
On leadership style:
“I think leadership is about how you make the people in your organization feel. Are they inspired to come into work and be excited about what they’re doing day to day? Are they able to tie their work directly to what the organization needs?”
On habits that help him lead:
“Getting sleep and exercise in the right increments is really crucial. There have been moments in my career where I’ve been chronically under-slept or under-exercised, and I think that has made me less resilient and less present when I needed to be. As a leader, you need to make sure that you’ve got energy.
“I am a big believer in working out most days a week. I also try to make sure I’m getting minimum six hours — ideally seven hours — of sleep every night.”
“The biggest question for any leader is what do you not do — you have an infinite amount of work, and there are so many things that [you] could do during the day.
“It comes back to what is the organization’s strategy, what are the major opportunities and threats and how do you make sure that you deploy your resources including your own time against those opportunities and threats in a thoughtful way.”
On the toughest business decision:
“In summer 2011, deciding to [create Funding Circle in the United States] vs. taking another job or pursuing another business opportunity. It’s always a challenge as an entrepreneur because if you don’t go in 100 percent, the odds of success are much lower. And so I think that suspension of disbelief — silencing the inner critic on an entrepreneurial idea — and just jumping in and saying ‘I’m going to go at this.’”
On the most important traits in a new hire:
“The fundamental thing I look for in anyone, regardless of their level or functional competency, is values alignment. We have five core values — think smart, make it happen, be open, stand together and live the adventure. And I spend a lot of time thinking about, for a particular type of person in a particular role, what will living those values actually mean not only based on what the person has said in the interview process but also what they’ve done.”
On recognizing employees:
“We have two awards that we give out — one is the ‘Mission and Values Award’ and the value that we highlight rotates week to week. We’ll get 15 or so nominations across the organization and I’ll pick someone and recognize them in our all-hands meeting and give them a gold trophy that has been with us now for six years.
“The other award we give out is the ‘Gremlin Award’ — we’ve got a really fun red gremlin that we give out. The idea behind the Gremlin Award is to recognize someone who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in their role.”
“One of the things we try to do is not organize our activities on a functional basis but rather on project and focus area bases.
“[For example,] at the beginning of the year, we promoted someone into a role overseeing and helping us drive our direct business. And so we had a direct team off-site — we went out to a nice lunch and got everybody together to talk about how things were going.”
On unique office rituals:
“We get everyone together on a global call Tuesday morning 8:30 sharp. I’ll usually start with our awards, then recognize anniversaries. I also recognize new joiners and leavers. In the new joiners section, one ritual we have is every new joiner has a buddy and [the buddy] introduces the person in front of the company. Then we hand the mic over to the new joiner and [he or she] has to tell everyone a strange or fun fact about themselves.”
On managing meetings:
“I have a strong view on how meetings should be run. When you sit down in a meeting, whoever organized the meeting must make it really clear what the objectives and agenda are. If I come into a meeting where someone is not doing that, I will either step in and do it myself, or I will basically stop the meeting and make sure we have clarity.”
“I put almost everything I do in my life on my work calendar. The vast majority of stuff on my calendar is public — anyone in the company can click into it to see exactly what I’m doing at any point. That includes personal stuff, and also blocked time for things like thinking.
“I try to think about the major things that we as an organization need to be focused on. And from my vantage point, what I need to do in order to help us move those things along. I think of those as being the big rocks that I need to build the rest of my calendar around.
“I also need to block out stuff on the personal front. I’m married, I have a young daughter, I want to see my family on a regular basis. So I try to build in the basic framework on those two dimensions — the personal stuff, the crucial major rocks.”
On office setup:
“We have an open floor plan — nobody has private offices. I sit in the middle of the floor. I always tell the office team that I want to be in the thick of things but I really don’t care where I sit. And it’s actually helpful for me to move around.”
“It varies. We order in lunch once a week for our entire office, so I try to join some of our teams to eat in the kitchen or on our rooftop deck when I can. Besides that, there are some great lunch spots near our offices in San Francisco. Grumpy’s is a really fun restaurant a block away where Funding Circle folks go often, including a monthly lunch I host for new joiners.”
On a strong company culture:
“Over the years I’ve learned how important it is to continually communicate and reinforce the company’s mission and values. They can’t just be words on the wall or in a slide deck. They must be brought to life and connected in a meaningful way with employees’ day-to-day experiences.”
On cultural mistakes:
“Not finding regular opportunities to connect with people across all parts of the organization. This led to too much of an echo chamber between me and our senior team around what was working and what wasn’t. By talking to a wider swath of our team, oftentimes in informal settings, I’ve gotten a much clearer view on how we’re doing around the values that matter to us.”
On his biggest cultural win:
“I’m proud to see that we’ve created a culture that is brought to life from the bottom up as well as top down. For example, two of our values are ‘stand together’ and ‘live the adventure,’ which has helped to create a place where employees feel welcome to bring their individuality to work with them in the morning and share it with their colleagues.
“One example is our passion projects, where employees volunteer to present during a lunch-and-learn on a personal interest that they are knowledgeable and passionate about. We also have a broad network of employee clubs — everything from community service, to sports and activities, to groups promoting equality and diversity in the workplace.”
On his role models:
“You can look to political leaders and find great sources of inspiration, particularly in terms of their resilience. If you look at Abe Lincoln or Winston Churchill, the number of times they failed before they ultimately became successful and the dark moments they had to endure are incredibly powerful. Hardship is all relative on some basis.”
On his favorite leadership books:
“Churchill’s autobiography is very powerful. It gives you a real sense of how someone, in a vital leadership role but also someone who personally had a lot of flaws, managed through and dealt with adversity.
On where most leaders go wrong:
“Because you are a leader, people are nice to you and don’t necessarily tell you everything that you should be hearing. I think that’s one of the reasons why you want to create a really open and transparent culture. In some cases, I’ve seen leaders be willfully ignorant and in other cases I’ve seen leaders just not get all the information they need and fail because of that.
“How do you make sure that you’re not drinking your own Kool-Aid too much, and that you’re being appropriately self-critical.”