As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Neville Crawley CEO of Kiva.
Neville currently serves as the CEO at Kiva, a microlending platform that offers crowdfunded loans to rising entrepreneurs. He has held this role since 2017, after two decades of experience leading global business and technology ventures. Having worked in China, Nigeria, Brazil, Malaysia and across the Middle East — Neville is passionate about global technology and service. He is dedicated to serving Kiva’s mission and delivering ‘loans that change lives’ on the largest possible scale, with maximum impact.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. 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?
When I was 21 — way back in the year 2000! — I moved from the UK to China and launched a business magazine called Eurobiz. I had never been involved in the publishing business before, but the first edition of the magazine came together pretty well, with all the pages of advertising sold, some interesting stories, and a nice design.
I was living in Shanghai, but we decided to print and distribute the magazines from Hong Kong.
I thought that I had placed an order with the printer in Hong Kong to print the magazines, put them in envelopes, attach the addresses, and mail them out — a full end-to-end service. However, on the day of printing, I flew out to Hong Kong to do a final check, and unfortunately something had gotten lost in translation. While they had printed the 5,000 magazines, the printer was not set up to put the magazines in envelopes and mail them out.
This was a problem, as I now had a giant palette of magazines but no way to send them to readers.
So, I basically borrowed a little porter trolley from the printer, lugged the magazines in batches on the subway back to my hostel across town, stuffed the envelopes by hand, then dragged them to the post office.
The funny thing about this situation was that for some reason the only clothing I bought with me to Hong Kong was a formal business suit, dress shoes, and a shirt. The weather was about 90 degrees and super humid, so I was looking like an absolute lunatic sweating and lugging these magazines around on the Hong Kong subway in formal wear, and was so flat broke that I couldn’t afford a cab ride, or even to buy a new set of clothes.
Anyway, after several days, I got all of the magazines sent out, and the publishing business went on to do very well.
I took two lessons away from this experience:
- Most V1.0 product launches can be ‘brute forced’, so planning for errors often doesn’t matter too much.
- Never only pack a suit!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I think the person I am most grateful towards is someone who I have never actually met in person:
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Suzuki Roshi brought Soto Zen to the West in the 1960s and founded the San Francisco Zen Center.
On a physical level, I am very grateful for Suzuki Roshi for establishing the San Francisco Zen Center as a place to practice meditation. But on a deeper level, I am very grateful for Suzuki Roshi for both his transmissions of Zen, and also for training a next generation of Zen leaders to continue to practice and transmit the Soto Zen path.
For me, on a practical level, Zen practice has helped me to quiet my mind and ask the question, “What is this really, and why is it so?” This is so important for the work we do at Kiva, as we primarily serve the ‘unbanked’ — the roughly 2 billion people who today in 2020 are outside the formal financial system, excluded from many of the basic services which you and I enjoy.
Modern finance is such an abstraction, and such a narrative construction that, for me, to make real systems change, it is critical to be able to quiet my mind and deeply ask that question “What is this really, and why is it so?”
One of the new Kiva products that came from us asking that question is Kiva Protocol, which is a very cheap, very easy-to-use self-sovereign identity for the unbanked.
When we look deeply at the problem of financial exclusion, one of the biggest issues is that while we might think that someone living on $2 per day has very little financial activity, in fact they often have a several hundred dollar balance sheet and dozens of counterparties. So if we are able to capture this, then even someone living on $2 per day can build a credit history and become bankable. The first step to doing this is getting these individuals a digital ID to tie these records to, which is what Kiva Protocol does.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Since its inception 15 years ago, Kiva has been working toward the goal of global financial inclusion. Kiva is an international nonprofit with a mission of expanding financial access to help underserved communities thrive.
Kiva is best known for the Kiva.org crowdfunding marketplace, where anyone can lend as little as $25 toward crowdfunded loans that support micro-entrepreneurs, farmers, students, and small business owners around the globe who have limited access to capital.
We’ve come a long way in the past 15 years and have funded more than $1.5 billion in loans to more than 3 million borrowers.
It’s very clear to me that it is our purpose that has driven this success. We have brought more than 2 million individuals to lend through Kiva, and this year has allowed us to have a huge impact during COVID, when we partnered with actress Sofia Vergara to launch the Global COVID-19 Response fund. Through this fund, we’ve been able to deploy over $60 million to more than 70,000 small businesses affected by COVID, both from crowdfunding and generous contributions by partners, such as corporations like eBay and Doordash, local councils, and more.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I think there are two basic approaches to leadership:
- You can lead primarily by narrative, tell inspiring stories, get emotions running hot. Or…
- You can lead by being in discovery and sharing the best available truth, even if it is uncomfortable, dull, or uninspiring.
Of course, there is a time and a place for both, but I strongly believe in leading primarily with the second approach of being in discovery and sharing the best available truth.
I also believe that by leading with this second approach — if you are really trying to push the envelope and create change in the world, then you are always living in uncertainty, so you build a certain tolerance and comfort with it.
We are running three product lines at Kiva, we have multiple offices around the world, we are constantly trying to do better with building great teams, having a more equitable and inclusive culture, and developing new and innovative ways to work with our partners. Therefore, we are constantly making mistakes and learning from them. So, I’m not sure there is one standout story for me of this approach, rather I hope and believe that we are continuously getting better at being in uncertainty, learning with honesty and humility, and then moving forward as this is, I believe, how real transformation change happens.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t think anyone at Kiva has ever considered giving up on our mission of financial inclusion. However, we all regularly learn and make adjustments, including giving up on some things in service of our mission. I think that giving up on some things is critical to achieving others, but it’s truly one of the hardest things to do.
I am most motivated by learning and getting to ‘the best available truth’. This truth then drives what to invest more in and what to give up on.
For example, when I first joined Kiva, I very much wanted to launch a new savings account product that would access a big new pool of money to do good in the world. However, we learned that for all kinds of reasons, the probability of us being able to successfully launch the product was low, and so it has sat on the shelf for three years while we wait for the right moment. So in a sense, we gave up on that product — but it was temporary and in 2021, we might get back to it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say that the most critical job of a leader is always, but especially during challenging times, to tell the truth, which can include saying “I don’t know.” It is so tempting to say “Everything is going to be fine” or “We have high confidence X is going to happen”. But in challenging times, that is often not really the case.
I think it is much more helpful to say “We know these things with high confidence; we think these things are going to be like this, but we are not sure; if so, this will be the impact; and here is how we are going to learn and report back on the things we are not confident about and their impact”.
Of course, I make mistakes doing this all the time, sometimes dragging team members into too much unnecessary complexity and uncertainty, sometimes skipping giving a candid update for expediency or because of miscalibration. Working on getting this right is the art of leadership, and art is a messy process!
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Kiva employees seem to be inspired and motivated during this challenging time, so I give strong credit to others in Kiva for thoughtfully and powerfully providing inspiration and motivation to each other. It has really been a joy to witness the various initiatives that have come to life, even during the challenging times of 2020, ranging from custom Kiva masks that were shipped to every employee, to group Zoom yoga classes, to our team members sharing inspiring stories of the impact that we are having in the world to keep us focused on our mission.
It was very heartening to see in our last quarterly employee pulse survey that 94% of Kivans are very engaged in their work, and more than 80% would recommend Kiva as a great place to work, which are both far ahead of industry benchmarks. So, terrific work to all of the Kivans that have created this inspiring environment!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Like most people, I struggle with this because I think it’s important to not just communicate the message, but rather to maximize the chances that the message will be received and processed.
I tend to take a lot of time for really important and difficult communications, thinking about the right language, the right timing, the right medium for the message to be received. Or in other words, how to keep the recipient of the message in the moment and engage their rational mind.
Obviously there is not always that luxury. Sometimes time is of the essence, and we just have to communicate things and hope they will be received and processed, but where possible, I like to really think about the person receiving the message, as ultimately the communication is for them, not me.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I try to make plans on a time horizon-based hierarchy, which I think is the trick to both keeping a ‘True North’ and to being flexible in the face of unpredictability. That hierarchy is:
- 10+ year horizon: Vision, Mission and Values. This is about the change we are aiming to bring about for whom, and how we will act in service of that. This should be unchanging even in the face of something like COVID.
- 5 year horizon: 5 year aspiration and long-range plan. This sets out in 3–5 metrics what actual changes are we aiming to bring about: how many billions of dollars in loans we intend to make to unbanked people, how many identities we intend to create, etc. Of course, we won’t hit the numbers exactly, but it gives an ‘order of magnitude’ aspiration sizing that we can then track and learn against year-by-year, and update as we learn.
- Annual OKRs and annual plan: Like many technology companies, we use the Objectives and Key Results methodology to define the Objectives we aim to achieve annually and put quantifiable targets around them. When we do this, we know we likely won’t hit every OKR, but the important thing is, whether we come above or below a Key Result, that we understand ‘Why?’, learn from that, and adjust future plans accordingly.
- Day to day agile operations: From this clear framework and set of Objectives and Key Results, on a day-to-day basis each team is highly autonomous and agile, adjusting as we learn, whether this is pushing a marketing campaign out, changing the order of feature development on the technology roadmap, or adding to or reducing our budget as our financial profile changes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Personally, I think the number one principle to come back to during turbulent times is ‘first principles’.
At Kiva, this means that when we think about whether we should do something or not, we have to consult our mission of expanding financial access to help underserved communities thrive. We can then ask whether an action will contribute to this in the short and long term.
When we think about any issue, whether it is about a new segment to serve, compensation, DE&I, allocating our financial resources, or an approach to regulation — we can always come back to our mission and values and ask in a first principles way whether a decision would be consistent or not. Then we can aim to, as we say at Kiva, “Do the most right thing in the most right way”.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I tend to think that there are two different types of mistakes.
The first type is unavoidable, in the sense that you ‘pick up both ends of the stick’. This means that if you are heavily geared toward growth, burning a lot of cash, heavily leveraged, etc., then that is optimal in the good times but obviously tough when difficult times hit. It is not just that plans and staffing are set up for growth, but the culture is also set for growth, and changing culture is really hard and wrenching. I have huge respect for leaders who successfully manage to reorient from high growth to survival in difficult times, even if it was a mistake to be overgeared toward growth in the first place.
The second type of mistake is where you are not overgeared, but rather just do the wrong things in the wrong order. I’m a massive fan of the strategy video game Civilization 6 where you attempt to build a civilization from a small settlement to a world power. Really, the key to the whole game is doing the right things in the right order. On one level, that’s a very simple thing to say, but what is special about Civilization 6 is that it has emergent properties, just like running a company, so I find playing Civilization 6 teaches me a lot about where I am impatient, where I am taking too much risk, and so on. This offers me a low-stakes environment in which I can recognize the missteps I am making then apply my learnings in the real world of running a company. I can honestly say that I think I have learned more about running a company playing Civilization 6 than I did getting a fancy MBA and spending several years working at McKinsey — and the game only costs $60!
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Well, for us at Kiva, we are not really focused on profit maximization, as we are a nonprofit. Instead, we are focused on making enough income to support and grow our impact.
In 2020, we went into the year with a great plan … the chess board was laid out, and we knew our next 30 moves, with several back up plans for each move. Then COVID hit, and it was as if overnight every piece on the chess board moved. It was not obvious that we were in a worse position, but our previous plans were largely irrelevant in this new reality.
Within the new reality, we took two approaches: first, we asked ourselves how we could immediately be of service. Recognizing the immediate need of small businesses and our unique position to help, especially in the U.S., we quickly pivoted to ramping up our U.S. lending program, extending credit limits, offering repayment breaks, etc. — obviously good things to do to help small businesses survive the pandemic.
Second, taking a longer term approach, we set out to try to understand the new chess board setup and how to engage in this new reality. We learned that despite having their own hardships, individuals were actually lending more on Kiva.org, so we leaned into that. We also learned that our corporate partners really wanted to help those suffering from COVID’s economic shock, and that we could be a trusted partner for them, so we leaned in there. At the same time, we also learned that some foundations wanted to focus on funding COVID vaccine development rather than the immediate and impending economic impact. Kiva was a less natural fit for those foundations in 2020, so we leaned out there, for the time being.
To summarize, the strategy we took is to immediately act where we knew we could do good. Then, rather than being attached to our previous plans to explore the new chess board setup, we accepted its reality and aligned with it. By doing this, I believe that 2020 will be one of Kiva’s most successful years ever in service of our mission.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
If it’s okay, I’ll actually share six things, using the Six Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism as a framework. I’m not saying that I am perfectly and consistently embodying these Paramitas — far from it! However, I do notice that when I embody these, more things tend to go better for me and those around me, and when I do not, things tend to go worse.
- Generosity — I think of generosity as giving someone something that they need, even when you don’t feel you have it to give. The generosity I struggle with most is generosity of time. When something is clear to me I just want to say it once and move forward. Of course, this is not effective. As they say with leadership communication “Once you’re thoroughly bored of saying it, your team are just starting to hear it”. One of my main messages to the Kiva team in 2020 has been ‘put your oxygen mask on first’, meaning take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others. I think I’ve said this a thousand times in different ways over the past months, but our last survey results are showing it is being heard and acted on, so I’m glad that I took the time, even when I did not feel I had the time to give.
- Morality — I made the decision before I joined Kiva to never again work with individuals, or on products or projects, that I felt ‘out of integrity’ with. In younger days, as I think many of us have, I made the mistake of working on products that I thought were important and of real value to the world, but in doing so compromised my values by working with people with whom I could not reconcile my ethics. This was a mistake. These days, my #1 commitment above all else is to only work with people and on products that I am ethically compatible with. The world is messy, especially with the type of work Kiva does in 70+ countries, but what gives me great comfort is the level of integrity I feel with the Kiva team and with our partners to ‘do the most right thing in the most right way’.
- Patience — Sometimes patience in this sense also gets translated as endurance of ‘dukkha’, life’s unsatisfactoriness or suffering. In the type of work we do, there is so much suffering on such a large scale that it is easy to burn out and feel hopeless, or to get impatient with the timelines that meaningful change requires. For me the most powerful thing at Kiva is to meet with borrowers and hear their stories and their dreams — it brings everything back to a human and individual level where things feel actionable. This is really the original great insight of the Kiva.org crowdfunding platform — by bringing need back to the level of a single human, it feels actionable, and it gives us the hope and patience we need to make a difference.
- Energy — I try to pay quite a lot of attention to my energy level and plan my activities more around energy than time. I’ve noticed that saying ‘no’ uses quite a lot of my energy, but I believe it is often the most important strategic thing a leader can do to stay on a path to creating meaningful change. I recall a couple of years ago deciding not to hire a CMO for Kiva despite the fact that we clearly needed to improve our positioning and correct some burning communications issues. It was a tough decision, but in a world of scarce resources, it was the right one. As our Board member Reid Hoffman says, as CEO, the job is often not about which fires you decide to put out but the ones you decide to let burn.
- Meditation — I would take meditation here not to be some kind of esoteric of complex practice, but rather about developing the mind muscles of focus and contemplation. During times of turbulence I think this is incredibly important. Like everyone else, sometimes I watch a bit too much news or spend a bit too much time on social media and find my mind getting swept along in a way I am not in control of. Meditation helps me to come back to a place of stillness and focus, then act from there — it allows me to get off the train and methodically look around, rather than staring straight out the train window with everything blurrily rushing by.
- Wisdom — This is a tricky one to talk about, which is I guess why it is the final Paramita. This type of wisdom is often translated as ‘wisdom of emptiness of being’, but I think of this less esoterically as asking, as we talked about before, “What is this really, and why is it so?” A good practical example of this is Kiva’s work with refugees. It was commonly assumed that refugees were not credit-worthy. However, by lending $20M in small loans to refugees, we learned that refugees have almost exactly the same repayment rate as non-refugee populations. We are now launching an institutional investment fund to scale up refugee lending around the world. This starts with the wisdom of emptiness question of “What is a refugee really, and why is this so?” Of course the answer is that a refugee is a regular person like you or me, but due to circumstances beyond their control, has to flee their country, and is trying to rebuild their life. Under these circumstances, would we bet on ourselves to make use of a small loan to rebuild our life, and to pay the loan back? I think we would.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ll come back to Suzuki Roshi on this, and perhaps his most famous quote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Whenever I get myself into trouble, it is because I have slipped into ‘expert mind’ — where I am making assumptions, taking mental shortcuts, and limiting possibilities.
Of course, an expert mind is not too much of a problem when making cereal in the morning, but for making strategic decisions, and especially for working with other people under challenging circumstances, it often gets me into big trouble. So, when I find myself slipping into this expert mind and shutting down constructive possibilities, I try to talk a few moments to just breathe and ask the beginner’s mind question of “What is this really, and why is it so?”
How can our readers further follow your work?