Communication, communication, communication: Introducing innovative products in microfinance institutions

October 14, 2013

Baboucarr Khan, CEO of Reliance Financial Services in the Gambia was joined by Reliance co-founder and COO Ismaila Faal along with Women’s World Banking team member Alejandra Rios to discuss the leadership implications of product innovation during a webinar hosted by Women’s World Banking. The webinar is part of a series of discussions designed to bring together alumni of Women’s World Banking’s Leadership and Diversity Programs to talk through the leadership and management implications of addressing current business or strategic issues faced by leaders. This real life case approach enables the audience to understand how their peers are using their leadership and management skills in the context of shared business challenges.

The key to success was “communication, communication, communication and carrying along the rest of the team.”

– Ismaila Faal, Reliance

Baboucarr and Ismaila attended the Women’s World Banking Advanced Leadership Program (ALP) held at the Wharton School’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education in April of 2012. “It was knowledge from ALP that inspired us to embark on the innovation of an agribusiness portfolio in the Gambia” said Baboucarr during the webinar. During the discussion, the two leaders shared the importance of agribusiness in the Gambia and described the product and innovation process as well as the contribution of Women’s World Banking’s leadership training in propelling their innovation from concept to reality.

Reliance’s focus from inception has been to provide working capital finance to SMEs and one place where they saw an opportunity was in agriculture. At the macroeconomic level agriculture produces 30% of the Gambia’s GDP and 60-70% of employment yet only 50% of arable land is cultivated. According to IFAD, women account for 50% of the agricultural labor force. Given the impact of the agriculture sector on the lives and livelihoods of Gambians, this seemed like a natural avenue for exploration. However, entering this new sector also came with risks including weather, high operational costs and political agendas around this important economic sector.

When reflecting back on the experience at the ALP, Ismaila discussed the importance of the module on scenario planning in helping to map and anticipate potential risks of entering a new market segment. When Baboucarr and Ismaila returned from the ALP they quickly began talking with their board about venturing into agribusiness. The initial response was wariness to enter a sector where no one else was working and questions about what the true risks might be. Because they had attended the ALP together, Baboucarr and Ismaila were well-equipped to do the necessary work of influencing, taking a unified approach and using a shared language to address the issues being thrown at them, starting with the board (to read how they developed the product, read the full webinar recap).

After gaining buy-in from the board, Baboucarr and Ismaila needed to align the rest of the management team around the innovation. In order to do so, they put together a cross functional team and went through a scenario planning exercise, asking ‘what-if’ questions. By asking these types of questions, they were also able to align possible outcomes most closely with the organization’s mission. The key to success says Ismaila was “communication, communication, communication and carrying along the rest of the team.”

Through her work introducing rural credit products in Latin America, one of the biggest challenges that Alejandra identified is influencing staff to work in a new way. This is particularly the case when there are perceptions about the role of women and men as household contributors. Much like the influencing work that Baboucarr and Ismaila took on as they crafted their innovation, the leadership of each institution in the rural lending project worked to explain the purpose to the product and specifically the importance of the women’s market in rural areas to achieve alignment around the new product.

Leaders and managers have shown their commitment to the product, they have also involved the staff that was affected by the changes that were implemented. Similar also to Reliance, each institution created a cross-functional pilot team. This has helped the institutions to identify an internal champion in charge of the eventual expansion past the pilot phase.

Says Alejandra, “there are skills needed by managers since they are working with and through people. Leadership is important in changing the minds of people, in understanding the different needs of men and women in different areas.” In all of Women’s World Banking’s partner institutions, the leadership has been able to show the need, explain the purpose of the product, to clearly lay out the methodology to develop a strong cross-functional team. This team then works as ambassadors for the product rather than resting all of the responsibility with the credit team.

Training of staff beyond the pilot team has also been critical. To ensure that training is sustainable beyond the life of the project with Women’s World Banking, the team developed training modules about understanding rural areas, women’s needs and worked to create a gender model that was used to train loan officers and branch managers as well as the entire staff. This is similar to the approach that Reliance has taken in its innovation work. To ensure institutional memory, a member of the leadership team is present at every training program that is delivered. This becomes a training-of-trainers model whereby the leadership can roll out training to new recruits and provide coaching and mentoring. In order to further build capacity around serving women, they also plan to train all staff on gender issues to develop a learning culture within Reliance.

The next Leadership and Diversity Programs webinar will take place on December 11, 2013. The topic is The Role of Leaders in Engaging Employees.