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Interview with Alberto Furger, Founder, Amara Holding Ltd

Alberto Furger, CEO, READ Enterprises Holding
"Whoever comes up with an idea must present a business case to the team that lays out how the idea aligns with the strategic objectives of READ based on factual argumentation, i.e., data-driven research. The business case is then circulated and discussed within the team"

Bio

Alberto (LinkedIn) is Co-Founder & CEO of READ Enterprises (“READ”), a FinTech start-up venture founded in 2017, focusing on the financial health of households. READ has developed a consumer credit rating model, a consumption-based savings system, and a lifetime income solution for consumers. Alberto was born and raised in Switzerland and has been in finance for over 20 years. He is considered an expert in setting up and managing complex asset management structures across all asset classes and jurisdictions as well as generations. Alberto holds an MBA from Heriot-Watt, is the father of twins and resides between Indonesia and Switzerland.

Interview

When managing your team, how do you handle being a player in the same team that you lead? What level of closeness and transparency about your history and performance do you share?

I would describe my management style as collaborative. I focus on designing an environment and structure that creates opportunities for everyone to shine and excel in what they do best. Teamwork and leadership are, for me, neither exclusive nor contradictive. I expect everyone to be a leader in his area of expertise. We have built READ on the principle of meritocracy; this means, that the opinion of someone in a specific area is weighted based on their experience and skills and not their hierarchical position. The key to success in this approach is to create credibility. I have found that two things matter most; first, you have to lead by example, and second, you have to communicate in a very transparent and open way, and this includes your performance. 

How do you balance the CEO with other senior roles? What tasks are you comfortable outsourcing versus which ones must you do yourself?

I like READ to make rational, data-driven decisions. To do this, the team must put things into perspective, weigh up options, assess all available and relevant information, and anticipate most-likely outcomes. We believe in the concept of the vital few, which requires identifying the priority tasks and never to lose sight of the ultimate goal, this requires the team to focus on core capabilities, especially during the start-up phase, where resources are very constrained. 

The team might not always have answers to all the questions and needs to ask for guidance or external advice. In my opinion, knowing your strengths and weaknesses as an organization as well as an individual is of profound importance to set the cultural framework to manage strategic, operational, and financial risks.

I lead READ by ensuring that everyone understands the vision and mission of the company and their role within the organization. I see my role predominantly is setting the strategic direction and being the “face” of the company. While over time, this can be delegated within the organization, in the beginning, you have to set the tone. As a start-up, I also come to understand that most potential partners prefer to speak with the founders directly. Raising capital, for example, cannot be outsourced. 

What kind of parameters do you use when assessing performance?

Performance assessment is an on-going task and done collectively. It’s a dynamic process. As a start-up, you have the advantage of manageability. We use different project tools to measure progress and contribution. The RACI matrix has proven to be an effective way of assigning roles and responsibilities. In our view, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the company is on track and making progress.

As for new hires, thus far, we have been fortunate to attract a lot of smart people that want to get involved and support us. The hiring process is two-tiered. First, we want to ensure that new team members buy into our vision and mission and share our values, in particular with regards to our economic concept as well as our meritocracy approach. This is usually done by at least one of the co-founders. Second, we need to identify their value contribution and, therefore, skillset and their experience. Here, we involve other team members that have the best assessment abilities. 

Concepts like mental health and de-biasing when taking risks are more present than ever. What do you think of objective third-parties like executive coaches? Do they usually add value?

This is a very interesting and relevant question, especially as a co-founder. I have found that despite all the benefits that come with being “your boss,” the entrepreneurial career in general and the start-up journey, in particular, are more often than not emotionally challenging because you risk ending up in a bubble. I dare to say almost naturally, you end up creating your micro-cosmos.

During this time, while excitement is high, so is uncertainty and loneliness, which are probably the biggest challenge to overcome. But it gets worse once you go out to the market. Now disappointment and anxiety are up next, as you realize that outside your bubble, not everyone is as excited as you about your company, and you are faced with push-backs. I am aware of the statistics that indicate that start-up founders are way more prone to mental health issues than employees.

As far as de-biasing goes, which in my view is very closely related to the phenomena of groupthink, this is when our meritocratic concept kicks in. Behavioral science shows that we all are biased, and in my view, there is nothing wrong with that on an individual level, it makes us who we are. However, if you are collectively biased as a team or company, this can be dangerous. We try to solve the issue of biased decision-making by applying a simple fact-based strategy: Whoever comes up with an idea, must present a business case to the team that lays out how the idea aligns with the strategic objectives of READ based on factual argumentation, i.e., data-driven research. The business case is then circulated and discussed within the team.  

I am indifferent with regards to the involvement of third-parties in an advisory capacity. I had both good and bad experiences. I believe it depends very much on the case, and the principal-agent issue must be factored in as well. There probably never is true objectiveness when involving third-parties. That said, ultimately, a business has to be able to make decisions with our without external input, and making decisions always involves risk. 

How do you manage the different conflicts that come up in individuals and the team itself? (Slumps, times of sadness, stress, and burnout)? Do you focus on personal contact, financial incentives, or other ways?

I am a human and therefore, emotional. In a business context, I try to differentiate between opinions and conflicts, both of which can trigger emotions, but I believe they are different. Everyone has an opinion, and if somebody does not agree with me, and while I naturally might not like it, I try to see it as an opportunity. In French they say “c’est le ton qui fait la musique” and I think this is important. Knowing that I am biased an in a bubble, getting challenged is a big chance for me to learn. I try to apply this thinking to myself but also guide others when they face similar situations.

Conflicts are different. I found that in business, if somebody is imposing a particular style of “how work gets done” (their style) upon others and judging performance on that basis is causing a lot of stress. I dare to say that this is causing way more stress than exchanging in a healthy debate around a difference in opinion. With this in mind, I try to lead by example and let people be people. I believe everyone needs to have the freedom to perform their role within their parameters as much as possible.

Some work better in the morning, some better in the evening, some better from home, others need an office setting. I assess them not on how they get the job done, but that they get the job done. That’s what ultimately matters. I actively ask people, “how are you” and “what is bothering you.” I don’t want team members to build up pressure. It’s better to be a shield rather than a composite volcano. I try to avoid explosions; they are usually disruptive and fatal, and way harder to manage. 

As far as I am concerned, I found that sleeping over a specific matter helps. It takes out the heat of the moment gives both sides time to reflect and react less emotionally. It’s a de-escalating strategy that has worked for me many times. I also found that distractions like sports, meditation, and just speaking to my kids help to calm me down. 

How do you manage and compensate the most ambitious top performers? How do you walk the tightrope between retaining them by giving them too much versus them, leaving due to getting too little?

This is tricky, but in principle, we believe that aligning interests is the way to go. At the core of READ’s philosophy is sustainability, and, therefore, we want to build long-term relationships with all our clients, partners, and of course, employees. Therefore, while we do reward short-term performance, the main compensation has to come from long-term incentives.

We have developed a performance-based incentive program that rewards performance holistically and in a transparent manner. While you can assess the performance of an equity trader de facto purely based on numbers, in most other settings, the human component cannot necessarily be measured by numbers only, because individual performance may be “compromised” or may be “co-dependent” upon the environment (internal or external) or other factors that lie outside the control of an individual (an example here would be a private banking relationship manager that is assessed on AUM). Therefore, we must factor this into our assessment to be objective and fair.

Individual performance is usually a function of time & effort, skills & experience, and the environment (internal & external). These three elements, by and large, make up for the performance. Easy to assess is time & effort as well as skills & experience on an individual level. Therefore this makes up for the individual performance assessment in the short-term.

The assessment of environmental factors is way more effected by strategic decisions and, therefore, the management team has to be held accountable. 

In the long-term, we believe that performance has to be recognized through equity participation. We have developed an ESOP with cliff and vesting periods that ensures rewarding long-term commitments & loyalty.

Key Lessons from Alberto

  • Indoctrination for new hires is key. As Alberto states, assessing performance and skillset is necessary but not sufficient. It’s important to align with possible new hires on culture and values, and start the cultural indoctrination process from the get-go;
  • Constantly coach and check up on employees. As Alberto states, simple questions like “What’s bothering you?” or “Can I help with anything” help to relieve pressure. Better to have small blow-ups than a gigantic one after bottling things in for a long period;
  • Against biases, use a business case. READ’s habit of every person needing to create a business case for their idea is a great way to help de-bias an idea – it must stand on its own merit against the vetting of other team members;

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