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Startup Growth Spurt: Scaling up Through a Merger

April 20, 2022

Anto Lawrence shares his first-hand experience with managing exponential growth, adjusting to fast-paced transitions and strategies for unifying teams across large organisations

We’ve been living in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The pandemic has only magnified this fact. In this day and age, companies are pushed to become more agile overnight. Anto Lawrence shares his first-hand experience with managing the exponential growth of Singlife with Aviva, his evolution as a leader adjusting to fast-paced transitions and strategies for unifying teams across large organisations.

Anto has been working in fintech for over 15 years. He began his career working as an analyst and consultant for companies like AMEX, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. He currently heads the Customer Platforms of Singlife with Aviva, a Singaporean  mobile-first financial services company and trusted insurance, employee benefit and healthcare provider. The company was formed in 2020 following, the merge of Aviva Singapore and Singlife, in the country’s largest insurance deal. Anto tells the story of that transition with an insider’s perspective.

Growing 20x Overnight

Anto remembers what things were like prior to the merge. Even as they inched to about 100 employees, it was relatively easy to connect with everyone personally. In the blink of an eye, they grew somewhere between 15-20x, sending shocks throughout the organisation, it’s people and systems. 

“Suddenly the transition happened overnight because this [merger] was announced. We were no longer a small company. We're a big company now. We need to get a lot more people, a lot more product folks, engineering folks. We'll coordinate and collaborate with a lot more people. It was not an organic evolution.”

The transition caused a necessary shift in the way Anto thought about scale. In the past, moving forward meant moving with about 100 people. Now, it involved thousands. A lot more buy-in and cooperation from stakeholders is involved. 

The rapid transition also caused Anto and his team reorient themselves. The investment freed them from the 1 year runway they’d grown accustomed. Dreaming up product visions over cups of coffee then launching them later at night was no longer the way they did business. From trying to find their niche, proving themselves and catching momentum, focus shifted to working as part of a bigger unit. 

“We had to recalibrate the ways of working because we cannot say that we'd still be that startup guy who can still roll out products every day… We have the same risk appetite, but then we would need to calibrate according to the newly combined entities and how they operate.” 

One Team, not a Company within a Company

While this transition involved numerous changes, Anto highlighted the effort they put in to cultivating a collective identity under the new company. As a start, they took notice of how people introduced themselves, referring to their respective legacy companies. They had to intentionally unify teams. "To change the narrative and start using a common vocabulary for the interactions was a huge thing.” Verbalising that they were now part of Singlife at Aviva, translated into action and helped teams from different parts of the business gel together. 

Speed vs Certainty: Minimising Margins for Mistakes 

Typical of startups, Anto and his team were used to working fast. “There's no incentive for us to be certain about every step we take.” They could afford to deploy products and features, analyze the results and develop on the fly. This all changed with the merger. 

They had a much larger customer base, which upped the ante when it came to making changes and launching new products. “Now, your mistake is going to impact a million customers so you need to be very certain.” They have not completely forgone innovation, but have simply tempered it to ensure their customers continue to enjoy their products and services without a hitch. 

The Role of Conflict in Cohesive Corporate Culture

“Culture doesn't mean that you have all of the folks within your team singing from the same songbook… That actually is actually an anti-pattern to culture.”

Anto believes that trust is essential to a culture. Regrettably, it can be challenging to buld it up in environments where conflicting ideas or debates often seen as divisive and unfavourable. When with dissenting or unpopular opinions are risk being tagged as  uncooperative or wayward, there is little reason to speak up to offer new perspectives and insights. He encourages people to raise questions and enter into active conversations. “It should be that way because if everyone starts taking the same view, there's no growth.” 

Anto is careful to reframe conflicts as challenges. When a team member raised a valid point contrary to what may have already been discussed, he acknowledges its merit and is willing to dive in deeper, even if that means lining up follow-up conversations. 

He takes things a further by occasionally hanging up his manager hat to mentor others apart from his direct reports. Supporting teams across the boundaries of functional teams, allows him to be beyond his small circle of influence, bridge gaps and promote healthy exchanges of ideas throughout the organisation. 

Key Principles for Navigating a VUCA World

Anto has a list of 13 principles product organisations can deploy to propel themselves forward. We asked for this top 3:

  1. Build agency in your team members 

Give employees the autonomy to make decisions rather than training them to seek permission to do something. It increases the ownership the teams demonstrate.

  1. Be clear and decisive

 The best options and decisions are “always the in the grey and clarity of vision making doesn't lie in picking one uncomplicated point of view.” Factor in all the variables at play, make a choice and articulate it.  

  1. Be transparent

Even if there is a risk of over communicating, keep communicating. Making information accessible to people across the organisation changes the narrative and builds their confidence in the company’s leadership.

Reflection Questions

Massive scaleups and changes may require recalibration but do not need to be utterly disruptive. 

  • In what ways can you manage uncertainty using your company’s current resources?
  • What aspects does your company need to improve in order to develop healthy communication between teams?
  • As a leader, what steps have you taken to develop transparency in the workplace?

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