Janis Collins, co-founder of The Refinery, explores reacting to a crisis with Sarah Biller, a leader who chooses to act. The conversation is part of a series with authentic leaders around “Finding Your Sweet Spot”, and was featured as part of an Open Doors event for HUBweek, an innovation festival for Greater Boston.

Sarah Biller was working at a large Asset Management firm in 2007 — a noisy and frenetic place — when suddenly, there was deafening silence. One of the worst economic disasters since the Great Depression had begun. Sarah recalls, “We all knew what was happening, but would we just stand-by and watch the financial markets collapse?” Something inside her clicked, and she knew she had to help head off this kind of disaster in the future. In the wake of the credit crisis, Sarah raised venture capital, convincing investors about why and why now she needed to build a solution to predict risks and prevent future credit disasters in the bond market.

What made Sarah act instead of shrink in the face of crisis? She could see a solution. She knew the data and tools existed to predict risks in the financial markets — it just needed someone to pull it all together. Despite many doubters, Sarah dug in her heels and convinced investors she could build that solution.

Sarah trusted her values. “I learned who I was in mid-crisis. I shed the stigma of failure because I planned to solve something about which I was passionate. My core values and beliefs drove me.” Bill George, former CEO of Medtronics and author of Discovering Your True North stresses the need to “identify the values and principles that guide your leadership.” See your failures as learnings and “crucibles” that shape who you are and your leadership capabilities.

Core values are also critical to sustainability. Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee, advises: “If you are guided by an internal compass that represents your character and values, you are going to be fine…. Don’t lose that internal compass.” Sarah kept hers going. In 2009, she launched Capital Markets Exchange (CMX), a venture backed technology platform that uses natural language processing, machine learning and predictive analytics to alert institutional investors to a credit crisis with enough time to act.

Acting doesn’t mean doing it alone. Sarah believes in “extending ownership to the people you work with, and enabling teams that are powerful and own it as if it’s their own path.” Bill George says, “authentic leaders have discovered their True North, align people around a shared purpose and values, and empower them to lead authentically to create value for all stakeholders.”

Since the successful build and launch of CMX, whose clients managed in excess of $6 trillion of Fixed Income assets, Sarah has continued her work in technology innovation at a Global Custody bank, where she was Chief Operating Officer for Innovation, and then founding the Fintech Sandbox, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the creation and growth of Fintech solutions globally — one more example of empowering others in her mission.

Recently, Sarah has turned her focus to the underserved. Originally from West Virginia, she is all too familiar with the economic challenges of the “fly-over states”. Driven again to act, Sarah is looking to create solutions for economic mobility and equality. “We have opportunities to serve segments of society who have not historically been part of financial services and, in general, leverage the capital markets to do good more broadly.”

We are living in turbulent times with daily crises, and also an abundance of leadership opportunities. For those eager to take up the leadership mantle and solve real problems, consider the lessons of Sarah Biller.

1. In the face of crisis, leaders are driven into action by their core values to solve real problems.

2. Authentic leaders recognize that failures are opportunities to learn more about themselves and to grow.

3. Empowering others to lead, aligning around shared values, is essential to the problem-solving journey.

Never let a good crisis go to waste — use it as a driver to create solutions, to clarify your core values, and to “find your sweet spot”.

For more critical leadership insights, we recommend, FORGED IN CRISIS — The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn. Forged in Crisis, available on Amazon, spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.


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