Written by Ronald Poon I 4 min read
TL;DR — Key Takeaways:
- Cultivating a Founder’s Mentality among Executive Leaders: Embracing a "Founder’s Mindset" in large organizations is crucial. It involves thinking in first principles, questioning assumptions, and transforming challenges into opportunities.
- Leadership's Role in Accelerating Innovation: Executives in large firms must foster this mindset to enable their teams to innovate rapidly and stay competitive against more agile and nimble startups.
- Implementing Structured Innovation Programs: Big corporations like HSBC can drive transformative digital change by educating their leaders in entrepreneurial thinking and introducing structured programs like "Innovation Catalyst" (a 12-week incubator that combines learning from successful founders alongside building a tangible prototype).
Innovating like an agile and nimble FinTech startup
The ability to innovate with the agility and speed of a startup has become a coveted trait among many large companies and organizations.
HSBC, a global pioneer and leader within the banking sector, has recognized the importance of this through its transformative Innovation Catalyst Incubator Program — aimed and geared towards C-Suite executives and department heads.
- A 12-Week Incubator Program
- Five Tailored Learning Workshops
- 11 Senior Leaders at the C-Suite Level
Objective: To adopt a founder's mindset and move like a nimble and agile startup.
Why innovation is crucial for Fortune 500 leaders
“We’re going to need to be as innovative as a FinTech. And what that means is that everyone at HSBC needs to become innovators. And that starts with you, our leaders.” — Steve Van Wyk, Global Chief Information Officer (CIO) at HSBC.
Leaders of Fortune 500 companies hold a unique position of influence that resonates and reverberates throughout their company. The scale of their strategic decisions is multiplied and ripples across all levels of the organization — impacting numerous employees and external stakeholders.
Steve Van Wyk (the Global CIO at HSBC), in recognizing the importance of this, made it clear to the 11 senior executives of the 12-week incubator program that innovation must start with them, as leaders within the bank.
He highlighted that the program was a chance to “solve genuine problems for HSBC customers”, urging leaders to work in an agile way and embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Leading by example and giving employees the permission they need to innovate
Innovation requires people within the organization to step out of their comfort zones and experiment with new ideas. If this freedom is restrained, then innovation is stifled and will inevitably die within a company.
Therefore, it is crucial for Fortune 500 leaders to not only give “permission” to employees to experiment and innovate — but to also lead by example by modelling this courageous behaviour themselves.
Their influence and genuine understanding of the innovation process can have outsized impacts and effects on new ventures and product developments within the company.
The objective and aim of Innovation Catalyst
The Innovation Catalyst program is HSBC’s proactive stride towards fostering a team of multifaceted leaders, who are poised and equipped to spearhead HSBC’s innovative endeavours.
The program is anchored in three key objectives:
- Building a founder’s mindset among leaders. This involves developing greater empathy and understanding by connecting with real business founders and gaining insights into the mindset that has catalyzed innovation, traction, and hyper-growth in their ventures.
- Learning key startup concepts. During the 12-week incubator program, leaders are provided with the essential frameworks and concepts necessary for building high-impact financial products and services during the learning workshops.
- Experimenting and building MVPs. Throughout the program, leaders get the chance to apply their newfound knowledge and skills in creating new products or services from the ground up.
Inside looking out, or outside looking in? – two broad challenges for leaders:
Catherine Zhou, Global Head of Ventures at HSBC at the time (now a Global CIO) and one of the final round judges of the program outlined two broad challenges that the program addresses. The first challenge, "Inside looking out," focuses on how HSBC can compete with its most formidable competitors today, such as Stripe and Wise.
The second challenge, "Outside looking in," invites leaders to adopt the perspective of a startup CEO observing large conglomerates and bigger companies like HSBC. This challenge is about understanding how a startup would "Compete with HSBC," considering the advantages and constraints of a smaller, more agile company looking to disrupt established players.
These dual perspectives ensure that leaders are not only focused on out-innovating current competition but are also anticipating and counteracting the strategies of future financial services industry disruptors.
What is the “Founder’s Mindset”? (from our observation)
✅ Initiating and Taking Action — This is a key part of the founder hustle and is something that leaders experience throughout the program. Having a bias toward action is an important and integral part of the founder's mindset.
✅ Obsessing Over the Product and Mission — This involves hyper-focusing on something that you’re passionate about and being obsessed with the customer experience. This obsession over the product and mission is what leads to high-quality products and exceptional service.
✅ Adapting and Learning from Customers — Innovation is not a linear path. Founders often have to pivot and iterate to ensure that they’re meeting real customer demands and needs. Hearing, listening and acting on what is actually happening out on the frontlines is vitally important to any business, but especially service-heavy industries such as banks.
Workshops and programming included in the incubator
Learning from Real Founders: Innovation Catalyst Startup Fireside Chat
One of the most exciting aspects of this incubator program was the opportunity to learn from real startup founders who had gained significant traction and success within their respective industries. Some founders that we invited to this panel included:
- Henry Shi — the CTO of Snapcommerce (a message-driven commerce platform with $1 billion in revenue);
- Charlie Feng — Co-Founder at Clearco (a Toronto-based FinTech capital provider for online companies, with a $2 billion startup valuation).
- Louis Brion — CEO at Lakefront Finance (who raised $5 million in funding); and
- Alex McCalla — the Ex-COO of Air Matrix (a 3D network of drone roads with industry-leading precision);
Tapping into these deep connections was not only incredibly inspiring but also highly beneficial for senior C-suite executives looking to build high-impact solutions within the financial services and technology space.
A Unique Support Ecosystem
One of the most unique and striking parts of the Innovation Catalyst Incubator Program was the use of “Junior Mentors” to guide and help senior leaders in the creation of their prototypes. We invited a select group of young, talented and technical HSBC employees to help provide a fresh perspective on customer needs, customers’ largest pain points, as well as product design.
The program also featured highly seasoned and experienced SMEs within the realm of Product Strategy, Open Banking, ML, and Blockchain. In addition to all this technical knowledge and expertise, we had a powerful products pod assigned to every leader. These teams of two (one UI designer and one developer) helped leaders create a real-functional product that they could present on Demo Day.
The Focus of the 5 Workshops
The workshops focused on the journey of innovation from spotting the right opportunities to getting user feedback and iterating on the final product idea. Leaders explored different opportunity lenses and ideation methodologies to ensure that they were working on solving real pain points for customers.
The middle workshops focused on sketching early proof of concepts and creating the actual user flow for the products. This is when the majority of the actual prototyping, development and interface design was made.
The final workshop focused on testing and getting real user feedback, so that the product could be further refined and improved before the final demo day of the incubator.
Innovative solutions from the leaders
Despite their incredibly busy schedules, the senior leaders at HSBC were able to take an idea from 0 to 1 in just 12 weeks.
They all had a chance to pitch and unveil their innovative solutions during the designated incubator demo day.
Some examples of these creative solutions included the “Game of Life” (a financial literacy app for young adults in the metaverse), as well as “My Dream Home” (a single digital platform where all parts of the house purchasing process could be completed).
There were also solutions that looked at problems, such as the world turning more cashless. These solutions took a unique and novel approach to the problem. These particular solutions focused in on the relationship between kids (aged 6 to 18) and their parents, when it came to “pocket money”, rather than looking at society more broadly as a whole.
Focus on your target audience and get to know the true needs of your customers
When creating a new product it can be tempting to try and focus on the public at large. Whether it’s a financial services app or another technology product, at times we often try to appeal to society as a whole.
But if there’s anything that can be taken away from the Innovation Catalyst Incubator Program is that innovation truly starts to begin when you focus in on your target audience.
Only by narrowing in and getting specific on your audience, are you able to truly identify your customers’ most pressing and important needs.
Innovation starts with effective leadership and setting the right vision
What made this program successful was recognizing and acknowledging the importance of having senior leaders and C-suite executives well-versed and familiar with the world of entrepreneurship, key startup concepts and what it truly means to approach things with a founder’s mindset.
With a greater appreciation and understanding of what it truly takes to innovate and create high-impact solutions in the course of just 12 weeks, senior leaders are better able to articulate and set the right vision for their organization.
Effective leadership comes with having greater empathy, awareness and understanding. By building out strong, high-fidelity prototypes, and working directly with junior mentors, developers and designers — senior leaders at HSBC were able to gain a greater sense of what it means to be a founder and how the bank can innovate at the speed of a startup.