As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashira Gobrin.
Ashira Gobrin is the Chief People Officer at Wave, a FinTech company building financial services for small and micro-businesses. As an ‘Alchemist of Organizations’, Ashira works to turn potential into performance through purpose, values and great leadership. She is considered to be a transformational executive and a change advocate; blending a get-it-done performance style with the ability to bring a vision to life and fuel enterprise-wide execution to drive employee engagement, retention, revenue, and growth. She has over 25 years of experience leading fast-growth technology companies. Currently, she is 100% focused on building a world-class, award-winning team driving exponential growth at Wave (recently acquired by H&R Block in Canada’s 7th largest tech exit since 2001), she previously led the scale and optimization of Vision Critical’s global operations through 300% growth and implemented an end-to-end government-level human resources transformation for the Government of Poarch Creek Indians in Southern Alabama.
Thank you so much for your time Ashira! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. With a passion for fine arts and a lifetime of painting that began about the same time I learned to walk, I ventured across the globe to Art School in New York. Shortly after, my family moved to the U.S, but my husband and I made our own journey to Canada. I was a young woman trying to build a career in a new country with no friends or professional network, while also trying to raise a family and plant roots all over again. These times were overwhelming to say the least. It was hard and there were many tear-filled moments, but when I look back at those years, I am grateful for the support of my devoted husband who was also navigating his career and for the support of all the people who saw something in me and opened doors for me along the way. Early on, I had a full-time position at GreyWorldWide in their interactive Division as studio manager, and following that I took jobs with increasingly large mandates in digital strategy, online market research and software that taught me a fortune.
In addition to my fulfilling career, I have the privilege and the responsibility to volunteer in a leadership capacity at a few prominent and very senior Jewish community organizations. I have acted as “Chair” of two separate boards of not-for-profit organisations. For over the 20 years before I came to Wave, through mentorship and experience, I developed a superpower in helping people bridge the gap between their performance and their full potential, and thereby, helping businesses to succeed. I am proud of my achievements having raised 3 amazing children, volunteered many hours to my community, built a great career and found some lifelong friends.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Does wearing 2 different shoes count? That was a silly and awkward moment, but I use it as an example because most of the mistakes I have made came hand in hand with not having enough sleep. In my early years, I had young children and was trying to build my career so the days were very full and there was always more to do than hours in the day. I dealt with it by hardly sleeping. At that point, I didn’t have much of an option, but it became a habit. As I’ve gotten older I have realised how many of my mistakes are linked to lack of sleep and I have made more of an effort to make sleep more of a priority. I don’t always get it right, but I’m also aware that when I am tired, making an important decision is not a good idea.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are so many books that added to my perspective but I’ll start with two.
1) Lead by Greatness written by my father David Lapin. His work is deeply embedded in my DNA and much of how I think and make decisions is off the groundwork that he set in the 50 years of his career. This book focuses on the relationships between purpose, values and strategic business performance, and I use that in my philosophy day today.
2) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This is the quintessential work on purpose and man’s ability to survive the hardest experiences if we connect to a deeper purpose which entails serving someone other than ourselves, or something larger than ourselves. He learned this through his development of Logotherapy prior to the war, and through his research while in concentration camps during the war. As opposed to Maslowe who believes that happiness lies in self-actualization at the highest level, Dr. Frankl teaches us that the more that you focus on your own happiness, the less happy you actually are. Dr. Frankl reminds us that happiness cannot be pursued, happiness ensues as the byproduct of self-transcendence — the connection to a higher purpose and it is foundational.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Wave was started in 2010 by CEO and Founder Kirk Simpson and Co-Founder James Lochrie, to benefit the large and underserved market of small and micro businesses that found the administration of running a business: accounting, invoicing, payroll and managing cash flow overwhelming and not enjoyable. I joined Wave in 2015 to lead the people strategy, to be mindful about building a diverse and inclusive world-class team and culture. While Wave’s mandate is to focus on entrepreneurs and microbusinesses, my personal purpose is to be the Alchemist of Organizations — turning potential into performance through purpose, values and great leadership, and I have a real opportunity to do that successfully at Wave thanks to Kirk’s belief in me and the team that I work with every day.
Wave struggled as any startup does for its first 5 years through the highs and lows of fundraising, product successes and failures, and finding a business model that is sustainable through the expected venture capital high growth performance metrics for the long run. Just before I joined, Kirk, as CEO, began down a path to be more mindful about creating a culture that attracts great people, set purpose clearly, and use values to get the business where it needed to be. I believe this fundamentally changed the trajectory of the company, and is part of the reason behind the success of Wave through our acquisition by H&R Block in Canada’s seventh-largest Tech exit since 2001 and through today.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle is that if you get the people part of a business right, the rest will come right itself. That means investment in attracting, engaging and retaining the top talent. It means setting aggressive goals and investing in people to stretch them into their full capabilities. It means looking after your people with the deepest level of care for their personal and professional lives. It means focusing on your people rather than yourself which takes humility, vulnerability and generosity. When you have all that in place, you have trust, you have support, you have great leadership in yourself and those around you, and the rest will fall into place.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Over the past few months, we have been actively checking in on every employee, some more frequently than others, on an as-needed basis. There is a large group of us who after some discomfort, have adjusted and are doing ok, although this is not their preferred way to live or work. There is a smaller group who have truly embraced this as an opportunity and are thriving and they probably won’t change much when this is all over. But there is a group of us who are truly struggling to survive, for whatever reason in the past or present, their circumstances mean facing tremendous stress, anxiety and trauma. This is a group of people whose scars will run deep, and who will need long term support way after we are “back to normal”. I personally find myself in the middle group — I am fine to work at home as long as I need to, but it’s not my preferred way to work. I get energy from being around people I care about, and I miss day-to-day interactions not done through a screen.
I find it 10 times harder to get a pulse on how people are feeling. What used to be a walk around the office now has to be a 1:1 meeting and there is a limit to how many of those I can do in a day. My days are now 12–14 hours of video meetings, which means I am finding that it’s hard to get out, eat properly or exercise. I am trying to do some meetings over the phone so I can “walk and talk”. We also started a buddy program at work exactly for this purpose. We set health and wellness goals and try to keep each other accountable.
The week in mid-march when we closed the office, I got a call from my daughter who is overseas. She had Coronavirus and she was really sick for 4 weeks. I could not do anything to help her and that was hard. No sooner had she got her feet back on the ground, my sister in the States got it. She has 5 kids, and I would usually have got on a plane the same day, but this was not possible. Not being able to help is my worst obstacle. I had to learn to do this remotely, check-in daily with video, order food online for delivery, help out with groceries, read stories to my nieces and nephew. It was strange, but through that, I saw the virus up close and was able to manage so many questions for people at the office and around me because I had some early working knowledge on symptoms, testing, care and protocol.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our business serves the small business and entrepreneurial community, and as we all know, that community has taken a really hard hit. As empathy for our customers and the burden they carry of running a small business with the administrative load that comes with that, we jumped to incorporate government funding programs into our payroll products to help our customers access them easier. We also gathered all of the complex information a small business needs to access these programs and created content to make the complex system easier to understand. In addition, we implemented free instant payouts and bank transfers that typically come with a fee, so our customers could get money quicker with no additional cost during this hard period. All this meant huge effort in adding features to our product in a very short time.
Next, we focused on our employees. We have spent so much time finding the talent we have around us and investing in their growth and development. These people have been there for us every step of the way when we needed them, so we made it a priority to cut budgets everywhere we could without cutting jobs. We are fortunate that we were able to do that and we have not had to part ways with a single employee. It’s been amazing to watch our employees rally to help our customers, the company and each other. They have stepped in to support each other through difficult personal circumstances and have risen above and beyond for our customers. We have learned a lot and although nothing about this has been easy, we will come out of this stronger as a team and as individuals.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Though all this feels so unnatural, we must not ignore that there is something the universe is trying to tell us — a paradigm shift is occurring. A paradigm shift is not an exponential growth curve. Even in a steep growth curve, there is continuity from one place to another. A paradigm shift is a complete discontinuation of the past. If we don’t adjust and evolve, we don’t survive in the new world because the new world is fundamentally different. We need time and space to transform ourselves and develop the muscles we need to venture into the new reality, whatever that may bring.
All of the skills we’ve focused on developing in ourselves and in our teams are now more valuable than ever: empathy, flexibility, adaptability, effective communication, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Courage is not the absence of fear, it is about feeling fear and embracing it anyway. With courage, we face our fear and find the path to achieve things that we didn’t think we could. We need courage now, to come out of our shells and find the new world.
In the midst of this current crisis, I need to send a loud and clear message to leaders: don’t stay the course! I’ve spoken to a number of leaders during the past few weeks who were working hard to keep their people focused on what they were focusing on prior to the pandemic. As a result, they were actually increasing the frustration of their people, and missing out on crucial opportunities to develop new strategies for this current time, and maybe even for the future when all this is over. This is the time to rethink, make big decisions about what we stop doing and what we start doing, and be mindful about what we include in our lives personally and professionally.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
What we have now is space to be introspective, present in our lives, and time to stop and listen. We don’t know what the new world will expect of us, but now is the time to prepare. We must be flexible, adaptable, creative and focused on something larger than ourselves. We must reprioritize to focus on what is truly important. That may mean throwing out all or much of our old assumptions, backlogs, or work in progress. We need to communicate clearly with empathy and with patience through the change. We need to ask each other how we can help. We must be ready to do our part.
Professor Otto Scharmer wrote an insightful article about this. I quote him as he is so eloquent:
“We are bending the curve. How? By bending the beam of collective attention back onto ourselves, through the realization that our own behavior (e.g., social distancing) contributes to the flattening of the curve, and therefore to the well-being of all. That, in my view, is the new superpower in the making — the rise of a new pattern of collective action that operates from an awareness of the whole: Awareness-Based Collective action.”
This is the paradigm shift. A clearly visible correlation between action and reaction. That means WE are in control of what happens to ourselves and others. By being aware of the big picture and focusing our actions on the greater good, we will come out better on the other side.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think anything largely systemised will be disrupted because it has all come to a standstill which means we have to rethink how to rebuild it all. Education, Healthcare, Travel, Retail, Religious Services and Ceremonies, there are so many areas of our personal and professional lives we are thinking about. Do I really need this? Do I really want this? Does this serve my purpose? Will I keep this when things go “back to normal”?
I believe we have all learned to be a lot more empathetic. We have had to put aside our differences and work together, no one wins or losses individually. We are working globally on understanding the virus, faster and more accurate testing, vaccines and treatments, and we are sharing what we learn right across the globe. I hope we continue to seek solutions to problems collectively — this is true diversity in action.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy? Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
There are many difficulties of being isolated especially in times of uncertainty, volatility and fear. For all of us, this is uncharted territory, less than ideal and not as efficient or as effective as what we are used to. Some days are harder, other days are easier. We have been taught to fear proximity with other humans, simple, everyday interactions outside of our home have been deemed unsafe. Humans are simply not designed to isolate and seclude ourselves for long periods of time. There is a good reason that prisons use this as a form of punishment. It is hard. This has caused short term impacts on our physical and mental health, and for some of us, the longer-term impact will continue to appear for many months after this.
When we leave our comfort zone where we feel safe and in control, it will take courage. We feel fear and the fear dictates our space. We doubt ourselves, our abilities and we avoid what is before us. In fear, our anxiety rises, we create conflict or we feel overwhelmed. We hoard toilet paper and we obsessively consume unfiltered content. And then we have a choice: to stay in our fear zone, to retreat back to our comfort zone, or to progress into our learning zone where we gain skills and experience to face new challenges and expand our comfort zone. In the learning zone, we stop compulsively consuming food and news that harm us, we verify information before we share it and we let go of things outside of our control. Then we reach the growth zone where we discover belief in ourselves, learn to listen to our intuition, use our new skills to help others in need, live in the present while respecting the past and focusing on the future. We practice gratitude, patience and empathy to ourselves and to others.
This is our task now, to work through the fear, progress through the learning and into the growth where we develop ourselves to be stronger, more creative and more resilient. I work on this every day and encourage everyone around me to do the same.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Albert Einstein is one of my favorite human beings of all time. He was famous for saying: “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results” I think this is very apt for this time. Our past actions got us here. If we want to live in a different world, we need to change our behaviours. Perhaps this is why the planet got brought to a standstill. To give us space to think about how to do that.
How can our readers further follow your work?