When Karen Greve Young and I spoke in mid-March, a third of the Canadian organization’s portfolio, about 3,000 entrepreneurs, had reached out for financial support in the last eight days. Greve Young, who lived in New York through 9/11, equates what COVID-19 has presented so far, as a similar experience to navigate.
“We’re in an era when things are changing quickly and dramatically for a lot of people,” says Greve Young. “Listening to those changes and readjusting and pivoting as needed and resetting expectations is vital.”
In this conversation, she reflects on the power of intuition to guide big personal and professional decisions, especially through times of crisis—she calls the process, “listening to the signals”:
YouInc: When you look back 25 years ago, what were some of the big decisions you were contemplating as a young woman?
Karen Greve Young: Twenty-five years ago, I was graduating from university. I felt there were a lot of linear career paths available. I’d been charging hard through my upbringing, trying to do things as well and fast as possible. I graduated and went into a finance job and what I learned along the way is that careers are not straight lines.
I thought I would go into a direct finance or services role and probably get a Masters degree. I figured if I was a working woman and I took time off to have kids, it would be helpful to have more credentials. I got my MBA, which was helpful. I got it at Stanford during the last dotcom boom, between 1999 and 2001, and a lot of my friends were going to work with startups or going into private equity. A conversation that would happen at the time with private equity investors or startup founders would go like this, “I followed my gut. I followed my instinct. I always knew if I followed my passion things would work out, so that’s what I did.”
I remember sitting in class thinking, “well, that’s great, but I have no idea what my passion is. There’s not one thing that I feel driven by, so I don’t know what that is for me.” I felt like I was missing out.
While I was in school my mom was diagnosed with cancer and it turned out to be a terminal diagnosis, but we didn’t know that at the time. So, I started spending more time with her rather than going on holidays.
In the meantime, September 11 happened, and I was living in New York at the time. Soon after that, my husband and I moved to London for his work and I switched my work there also with Bain & Company. My mom had gotten worse, and I was trying to write a book with my mom about her experience with cancer. I was working part time to be able to write the book and I was going through fertility treatments.
As I was going through this, I got asked to join the board of a not-for-profit. I had no time. I had a part-time job of 50 hours a week, plus writing a book. It felt like a cool opportunity. It was a women’s organization doing work in the London community - particularly with migrant and refugee kids - so I offered to join the board even though I didn’t have time.
Often people hear, “follow your gut, follow your instinct, and follow your heart,” but that can feel intimidating and off-putting.
At first, I was like, “what am I doing? I can’t believe I signed up for this.” Then in a couple of months when mom got worse, I realized I didn’t have time to do what I needed for my family while continuing to work for Bain. I resigned. All of a sudden, I was two years out of my MBA and not working—this commitment that I didn’t have time for - volunteering with a charity - became my lifeline. I ended up becoming involved and escalating roles and running an organization of 400 people.
YI: What did you learn from these gut decisions?
KGY: You don’t know what your path is going to look like. If I hadn’t taken that role, I don’t know what I would have done during the period I left Bain or whether I would have left Bain. That time I had with my mom was vital. I had a lot of privilege in being able to do this. Most people can’t stop working for pay for a while, so I realize I was fortunate in having that option.
Once I volunteered, I had non-profit management experience. I ended up going back to the working world a few years later. In a conversation with the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, who was looking for someone to work with her on strategy, my weird combination of finance, consultancy, and strategy and non-profit management and leadership was what they were looking for and along the way, some of those steps seemed crazy.
Serendipity as a career path agent is vital. Often people hear, “follow your gut, follow your instinct, and follow your heart,” but that can feel intimidating and off-putting, if you think it’s going to come like a lightning bolt. From my experience that’s not the way it comes. It’s about following the signals along the way.
YI: What questions did you ask yourself in order to follow your intuition?
KGY: Sometimes if you find what you’re doing is not fulfilling, it’s easier to make the call to do things that you hope will be. The reality is I didn’t like consulting. Doing something else made sense, in part, because what I was doing as my job was not great for me.
Know the limits of what’s possible. If I had stayed at Bain, I wouldn’t have been able to last as long. Sometimes you try things and there’s this whole concept of having your back up plan - your best alternative to a negotiated agreement - another scenario could have been that I had gone to Junior League and it hadn’t worked out. How big of a deal would that have been? The answer would probably be: not that big of a deal. It would have been okay.
Honest, candid conversations, and building trust are vital.
Ask yourself, why not? Sometimes you try things to see if they work. I’m not someone who plans out five years, but I believe strongly in the importance of servant leadership and not-for-profit contributions and volunteerism. The mission of the organization spoke to me and it felt like a good way of getting my first board seat.
Identify the key signals and consider which ones to follow. If you’re open to thinking about the signals and assigning and re-evaluating, then the decisions that could have seemed unclear are more clear. Sometimes you have to say, I've made this decision and I’m moving on and you have to be ready to do that.
DO THE RIGHT THING
YI: How has your intuition guided you during COVID-19?
KGY: We help young entrepreneurs launch their businesses. We have loan financing and mentorship. We try to make sure we help our entrepreneurs, if they come into challenging financial challenges.
With COVID-19, we started seeing an unprecedented amount of requests for relief from loan payments. Entrepreneurs are distressed. Under normal circumstances, five to 15 entrepreneurs will ask us for support with their loans. The week starting March 16, we had 250 support requests in the first three days, 600 by the end of the week, and more than 1,100 as of March 24. That’s in a portfolio of 3,200 small business clients. The team that handles these requests is a small team, which is used to processing three to five concerns a week.
We wanted to process these requests and needed to, so we made the call in mid-March to stop payment on all loan accounts for the next month. We’ve never done this before. It was a big deal to do this in our financial model, but it was the right thing to do. It’s an example of being nimble and changing your process because times have changed.
COMMUNICATE TO GET AHEAD OF YOUR TEAM’S ANXIETY
YI: How are you supporting your team right now?
KGY: Honest, candid conversations, and building trust are vital. In early March, we created a communication for staff about how we were addressing COVID-19 internally. Overnight the process changed, and I started to prepare a new communication about how everyone would transition to work from home (85 people in eight provinces).
I heard from one of our directors mid-morning that people were starting to get nervous. I was able to send a quick note to staff to say, “hey guys, I know there’s a lot going on. We’re coming out with a broader communication in a few hours. For now, hold tight; know we’re listening and paying attention, and we’re going to be in touch with you about our plans soon.”
I should never let a decision happen that I’m deeply uncomfortable with. I have to be comfortable.
If she hadn’t told me, by the time we sent that plan a few hours later, people might have been way past the point of being nervous and uncertain, and we would have missed our window of getting ahead of people’s anxieties.
We were able to communicate in a thoughtful way. It’s about helping people feel confident so they can share their opinions, insights, and truth—as a leader I decide what to do with it.
YI: What did you learn from that process?
KGY: Some of what I’ve done is counter to what people would have liked. I had one of our employees switch to working from home, who had traveled internationally in a high-risk area. That was a risk making a call for a specific employee. But in two days that was a new best practice. I followed my intuition partly by having a few examples in the past year, where I’ve deferred to my team and not followed my instinct and that hadn’t been the right call.
New businesses are going to be more important than ever in the face of COVID-19.
I’ve learned from being a CEO that you can’t know until you are one. I need to depend on people to give information and insight, and I will listen, but I have to make the call. I should never let a decision happen that I’m deeply uncomfortable with. I have to be comfortable. At the end of the day, that’s what people are counting on me for.
YI: Do you have a process of reflection?
KGY: I started journaling at the beginning of this role. I try to hold myself accountable. I need to rely on insights and expertise from our team, but ultimately, I often have to make hard decisions with incomplete or conflicting information. A few times in my first year, I made the wrong call, or deferred to others even when my instinct told me that it wasn’t the right path. The most important decisions can also be the hardest ones – in particular, those decisions related to hiring, promoting, and transitioning employees and leaders.
Having an executive coach has been important for me. Once you’re CEO - I was probably unprepared for this - no matter how much you tell people you want feedback and unvarnished truth, as CEO you’re everyone’s boss. There’s a limit to even the most trust-based organization and to which people will challenge you.
I don’t know that there will be fewer businesses, but there will be a difference in the kind of businesses people start.
YI: How do we empower entrepreneurs through uncertain times?
KGY: There are going to be extraordinary businesses that start and adversity often brings opportunity. A great number of our entrepreneurs are now making hand sanitizer. We have a 3D-printer company that makes Edtech material and now is 3D printing PPE masks. We have a company that makes women's bras and underwear with advanced materials, which has sourced materials to make PPE for front-line workers. We have entrepreneurs who are pivoting their businesses in the short term to meet these needs.
I don’t know that there will be fewer businesses, but there will be a difference in the kind of businesses people start and how people look at resilience in their business model. At the same time we have a lot of other people coming and saying, “I’ve been laid off from my job. I want to start my business, and I know what I want to do.” New businesses are going to be more important than ever in the face of COVID-19.
So much is out of people’s control right now, it can be easy to forget there’s still quite a lot in our control.
YI: How are you putting yourself first?
KGY: Every morning I exercise, journal, and do three to five minutes of meditation. It’s important that we don’t go straight to our problems and work. You start to take the time you need in your morning routine. If I don’t do it, I start the day ungrounded and behind. Some days where I don’t take that time, which I haven’t done today [laughs], I find I’m quicker to be frustrated.
I give myself permission. One day a week, I won’t work out. I’ll write down on my list of things to do, “day off.” It helps me mentally and emotionally. It’s more of the cumulative. If I’m doing it most days, I’ll get the results.
In my journal, I start with: what am I grateful for and what are some things on my mind? I get rid of these thoughts. Some of these thoughts are big and strategic; some are personal and professional. Then I ask, “what’s the one thing I have to get done today that's important?”
I started writing my to-do list. I used to write a few things down, and I’d have a lot in my head a lot of the time. Getting it on paper, frees my mind, because I’m not worried to forget things.
YI: If you could tell entrepreneurs one thing to think at this time, what would it be?
KGY: You can’t fix everything each day, so what needs to be done today? What’s the one thing within your control that you can address today? If we focus on that and address those things, then that will be a day when we’re productive. So much is out of people’s control right now, it can be easy to forget there’s still quite a lot in our control.