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Top women leaders in fintech: spotlight on Griffin’s VP People, Maria Campbell

Maria Campbell named one of the top 25 women leaders in financial technology in Europe for 2022.

Portrait of Laura Hauser
Laura HauserTuesday 22 February 2022

We’re thrilled to announce our very own VP People, Maria Campbell, has been recognised as one of the top 25 women leaders in financial technology by the Financial Technology Report.

Maria is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Before joining Griffin, she pioneered inclusive people-led strategies for ground-breaking startups like GoCardless and Monzo. She’s a passionate advocate for diversity and creating cultures that make work enjoyable and fulfilling while supporting teams to grow in a healthy sustainable way.

We sat down with Maria to chat about her journey as a female leader in fintech, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and the joy she finds in having a slightly offbeat approach.

As the first people leader at GoCardless and Monzo, you’ve shared that your career sweet spot is leading people strategies between series A to C funding cycles and headcounts 30-250. What do you enjoy most about this phase in the startup journey?

Joining a startup in its early stages gives you the chance to experiment and play a role in creating something new that has not existed before. You get to build on a blank canvas, not on historical baggage, which is really liberating. The lean nature of a startup means everything you do gets noticed: you have the chance to make a big impact, to be part of something bigger than yourself. And, with no bureaucratic layers to wade through, you get to work directly with the founders and wrap your hands around the organisation in a way that’s just not possible in a larger company.

As a people leader, being part of a startup gives you the unique opportunity to design the workplace of the future. You get to really understand what people want and need, there’s no ‘we’ve always done it this way” mantra to challenge. There’s also awareness from everyone that things will change. Every time a company doubles in size you have to rethink and reevaluate everything. It’s a continual learning experience.

It takes a certain kind of person to want to work at an early-stage startup because there is an inherent lack of predictability and stability in the day to day. There’s entrepreneurial energy you don’t find as consistently in other stages of companies. You're surrounded by people that have an impatience and drive to make things better, who have a fresh and optimistic outlook and are willing to take risks and experiment. Being able to navigate through this journey as a team and create something meaningful is a unique experience.

What does culture mean to you?

I think about culture as operating principles. The parameters and guidelines for how you work, rather than what you are working on. These principles shape the interactions people have with one another across the business. They also shape the kind of people you bring into the business, and ultimately they shape how you go about achieving your goals as a business.

Every company has a culture. Sometimes it's not a great culture, or it’s ill-defined or manifests in different ways in different parts of the organisation. In an early-stage company you are able to establish the principles that underpin your culture and extract them fairly early on from the way people behave, which means you can create a culture that aligns with your values as a business and the vision you want to achieve.

What do you need to consider when building the right culture in a rapidly growing business, and what are your top tips for success?

While you are in the early stages, every person that you bring in can shift the culture in a slightly different direction. Once you have clear cultural principles, a lot of the ambiguity and potential politics becomes less distracting, because you know what you need to do to get things done. And if you’re having conflict with someone, you know that you have the same shared underlying values and operating principles for how to do things. This shifts the conflict from being a deep-seated personal values conflict to a conflict around implementation or interpretation, which is a lot easier and more comfortable to resolve.

But, you can’t just set out your cultural principles and assume everyone will internalise them and always act on them. You need to embed them and reinforce them, continually reevaluate them, and see how well they are serving you.

For instance, transparency is something I deeply value, and tend to prefer cultures where it is valued. The way transparency manifests itself in a team of ten people is completely different to how it needs to manifest itself when you reach 300+ people. It’s no longer about making information available, it’s about signposting and broadcasting and targeting. So the way you operate your internal communications, the way that you work, and the way you give people access and visibility of the work you are doing so they understand it, rather than just being able to ‘see’ it, is really important.

Building and reinforcing culture, and the way that your principles manifest in all your organisational rituals and structures, continually change as your team grows. It’s a continual process.

Here are a few of my top tips for building a positive culture as you scale:

  • Know what you are trying to achieve.
  • Be deliberate and explicit about the culture you want to create and operate in.
  • Figure out where the gaps are between how you’d like to operate tomorrow and how you operate today.
  • Be prepared to be creative: remember you are asking people to think differently about how they engage with their coworkers and their work. Find ways to make that change meaningful for them.
  • Don’t be afraid to use all the tools you have at your disposal.

What three words best describe your leadership style?

Leadership is a really interesting concept to me. Early in my career, I was given feedback that I needed to become more ‘leaderly’ but no one could articulate what exactly that meant. I found it quite frustrating because I was aware that the leaders I saw represented around me were not the same as me.

Over time I’ve come to realise that there are many different ways of being a leader and it's about finding what style works best for you. I would say that now I’ve reached a stage where I’m quite comfortable in my style of leadership, and with the fact that it could be considered a bit offbeat and unconventional.

If I could describe my style in three words it would be empowering, cheerful, and candid‍—‌which means I am the kind of person that surfaces the question or issue that everyone else is feeling but not tabling.

Even though work can be hard, it doesn’t have to be an utter grind, you should allow yourself to have some fun along the way and to get excited about the future. As a leader, instilling that sense of perspective is important.

Do you think the tech industry needs more women, and why?

Yes. I believe we need more leadership teams and industries to reflect the world they are building. This is particularly important when we look at technology. It’s having a huge impact on our lives, and so it should reflect the variety of experiences, needs and interests of the diverse global society we now live in. This is especially true for companies that are developing technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. The more diversity you have in your leadership team, the less likely you will be to look at a single perspective.

But, it’s not just about hiring more women. It’s about representation across the whole spectrum of diversity, from class to ethnicity to nationality to geography, to including all genders. It’s vital to ensure the people in your company reflect the people impacted by the products and services you create.

What’s your top productivity hack?

Number one is ruthless prioritisation. In a startup in particular you have to be able to ruthlessly prioritise. That doesn't mean deciding what order you are doing things in, it means saying no, a lot! There are a lot of things that land on your desk that just won’t move the needle. You will never have as many team members as you would like, or as much time as you would like, so it's about focusing on the one thing that is going to make the biggest difference and saying no to the rest.

You find that people who thrive in this type of environment in particular, are people who are comfortable with saying no to things that don’t add value. It’s about focusing on the thing that solves the core of the problem rather than the big elaborate plan. I’ve found it’s always better to focus on the smallest piece of the problem you can solve first.

Number two is that downtime boosts productivity. To be at my best, I’ve learned that I need to prioritise time for myself, to do things that I find mentally nourishing. To spend time away from work, relaxing with my friends and family. The more time I pour into work the less time I have available to spend on these things and the less mentally prepared, capable and ready for work I feel. So, setting out some clear boundaries and sticking to them is important to me.

And number three is to ask for feedback early. Remember that other people you work with are smart so getting their input and early feedback is helpful. I am a big fan of the 30% feedback philosophy‍—‌it's how we work here at Griffin and is really effective. It’s about aligning on the core points first and getting the substantial feedback you need at the time you need it. That way you don’t waste time and energy solving the wrong problem.

Can you recommend any podcasts or books that have inspired or motivated you?

There are three books I would thoroughly recommend that have been super influential in the way that I think and how I approach my work.

  1. Demanding More by Sheree Atcheson is a genuinely brilliant read. It’s a clear actionable book that helps to reset and reframe how we can create a world that works for everyone.
  2. The Memo by Minda Harts is next on my favourites list and on the same theme, though I would recommend everything by Harts.
  3. Range by David Epstein massively helped me tackle impostor syndrome. As someone who has always felt like they are not an expert in anything, this book reinforces the idea that you don’t have to be a specialist; that there's real value in being a generalist, someone who can see the bigger picture and can connect the dots between things.

Congratulations to Maria and all the other female shapers and shakers of the fintech world that made this year’s list. To learn more about the top 25 women leaders in financial technology 2022, read the full report here.