Pam Moret is by training a lawyer and by experience and her own description, a “problem person.” She is someone who loves “diving into aggressive development and challenging problems. I came out of the womb that way. I prefer living with the consequences of leading.”
Who better to head an innovative startup, brightpeak financial, inside a somewhat conservative and staid organization, Thrivent Financial? About four years ago, Pam stepped into the role of CEO of brightpeak with the backing of Thrivent’s CEO, CFO and board… and little else. She was employee number one in this new venture, and every decision that has been made since then starts and ends with her. “It’s a Harry Truman kind of job.”
Innovating new concepts, really succeeding in bringing new ideas to market, is hard whether with a completely entrepreneurial enterprise or inside a large company. I asked Pam about the differences she sees.
The positives of intrepreneurship (innovation inside a large company…)
“First, I spend hardly any time going to look for capital, something that consumes a huge amount of time in VC or angel backed startups.”
“Second, our CEO did a startup in another organization so he has been such a great resource. He cleared the path and that has made a tremendous difference.”
Another big benefit: brightpeak was free to develop its own products and choose its own resources, but could tap on the parent company where it made sense. Employer benefits for employees is one good example. Having the underwriting strength and ratings of Thrivent for all products is another.
…and, the challenges.
“I hear the negative back chatter from some internally, but we need to collaborate.” brightpeak has turned the corner in growth this past year, which has eased the tension and stresses that naturally come with investments such as this. As Pam points out, this is true in any large organization trying to do innovative things alongside a long and deeply established core business.“There is an impatience. Not from my boss but from other internal stakeholders. Their tolerance for failure and patience around innovation is a constant challenge. I do have to emphasize, however, that many have been very supportive.”
Okay, I will give Pam that last shout out to her collaborators, but her main point is exactly right and very important. Most large, established organizations crush their innovations. Often, and unintentionally, over time the drip of doubt and negativity kill the infant. You need a leader with the courage and confidence to bust through the naysayers. “My emotional confidence has had to grow tremendously. I have to be the cheerleader. I may be awake all night over something, but that is never the face I show in the daylight.” This is why you need a bold leader if you’re going to pursue ideas uncomfortable to the larger organization.
On this discussion, Pam concluded, “The positives dramatically outweigh the negatives.”
In a startup, you have to know more, make singular choices and own the decisions.
Pam has done a lot of “aggressive” (to use her word) change leadership, so I asked her what most surprised her in this startup assignment.
In her large company executive roles, even if there was a significant change agenda, she said, “I had people who did that. Experts. In this role I have been pushed into areas that I would have been superficial about in other environments. Cyber security is one good example. We have lots of 51/49 decisions, and as a result, I have to know more.”
“When the chips are down, you’re the one.” Pam talked about the level and variety of topics that cross her desk from the mundane to the significant. “In corporate-land you call a number if your lights need to be changed, or you need a security problem solved.” At brightpeak they change their own light bulbs and answer the call if an alarm goes off at 2 AM.
“This is a teeny company with limited capacity.I have worked for two fortune 500 companies, and looking back, I had resources up the ying yang! Here, choices become so much more real. And the choice around ‘the ONE thing’ we are going to do versus other things, and getting people to understand the focus, is critical.
“There is a level of intimacy to the leadership requirements here that I’ve not experienced in my other jobs, and I’ve been leading people for a long time. Motivation, conflict resolution, constructive feedback: it’s not that the topics are different – but they are more nuanced in implementation.”
This leadership challenge includes finding, recruiting and retaining the right talent. “I work for a gigantic non-profit, so I don’t have options to offer stock with big payday opportunities. Typically people willing to take risk also want the big payday. We have found creative ways to make up for this difference in requiring that. And we’ve been able to attract and retain the people we want.”
I asked Pam what she is getting out of this experience. She talked about the nature and complexity of the problem solving, which she loves. And she talked about learning to fail successfully. “The freedom to try things that actually are not going to work. Not failing mindlessly over and over, but having plausible hypotheses. They don’t all work but we learned a ton, and we have really learned to fail fast and capitalize on every one of those experiences. I can honestly say we’ve not had one ‘failure’ where we haven’t found a silver or gold lining even though the original idea didn’t work.”
The upstart changes the established business.
As we closed our conversation, I asked Pam how brightpeak will change Thrivent. “We can already see some of this.We [Thrivent] actually need to sculpt our future by trying new things. Some other ideas and businesses are already being incubated. Some will fail – some will succeed.”
“Ten years from now I see Thrivent with a whole portfolio of entities, some running very independently and others much more integrated. Not wild and crazy, but eyes wide open risk management. It is a damn exciting time to be part of Thrivent! I really believe brightpeak has a shot at being a major player in serving this market in ten years.”
Pam epitomizes the characteristics I’ve heard from so many of the bold leaders I’ve had the opportunity to interview: confident, positive, and “willing to live with the consequences of leading.”
What changes are you leading today? And what are the consequences you’re addressing head on? I’d love to hear your stories, too.