Middle East & Africa Paytech

Leading, Learning and Growing Through COVID-19: Advice on How to Lead During a Pandemic

Being a new CEO, and rallying the troops around a fresh leadership approach and vision, is a challenge at the best of times. But starting amid one of the worst health and economic emergencies the world has ever known is a whole different story.

Sheila Kagan took the reins of PayKey – an innovative fintech enabling banks to embed financial services in customers’ daily social interactions via their mobile keyboard – in May of this year, at the height of the global coronavirus crisis.

Here, Sheila gives an honest account of the difficulties encountered, how she overcame these obstacles and set about motivating her team. She also considers how the disruption of the pandemic has transformed consumer behaviour, acted as a catalyst for banks to accelerate digital banking innovation and created opportunities for PayKey to help them meet new customer demands.  

Sheila Kagan, CEO of PayKey

I’ve faced many tests in my professional career, from starting my own business to managing large workforces. But nothing prepared me for the challenge of leading a completely virtual team, who I had met only a few times or never in person, during a time of unprecedented upheaval.

Luckily, I like a challenge and I love to learn. And these are some lessons I picked up from my 2020 experience.

Adopt a resilient leadership mindset

As Covid-19 hit and working life as we knew it suddenly ground to a halt, there were practical considerations – make sure we had the technology and processes for effective remote working, support staff in balancing responsibilities of work and home, and hiring and onboarding new talent to build a company structure that supports the new business environment.

But the greatest dilemma was how to shift my mindset, and in turn my team’s. When the world is in flux, it can be difficult to unify management with a clear focus. You need to change your perspective so you can view the instability with calm, rather than fear, and become creative in adapting to the changing dynamics. Essentially, that means putting aside 20+ years of managerial experience, and re-inventing yourself as if it is your first executive role.

This was crucial to set an example, instil confidence in the team, and help everyone see a pathway out of the immediate crisis. This would allow us to plan ahead and be ready for the new opportunities that the changing business environment would bring.

At the same time, it was important to recognise that not everyone could follow straight away. Many were feeling anxious and uncertain extra support and care would be required. We had to be sensitive that a more personalised approach was needed in certain cases.

Be open and honest

Open communication is also vital at such challenging times. Everyone had to be made to feel comfortable speaking about personal challenges and sharing their thoughts without filters. At a time when job security was top of mind, we had to remove any fear of expressing emotion.

Openness needs to come from the top and flow both ways. It can only work if staff feel like management is also being transparent. This helps to create a sense of team. You need everybody on the same page and all working towards the same goals, especially during a time of crisis.

This can be difficult to achieve when everyone is working remotely. It’s harder to use soft skills to engage with the team and maintain the enthusiasm of creating something unique.

That’s why, as we changed the way we worked on a daily basis, it was important that we didn’t replace mentoring and personal interaction with detailed task management. Having one-to-one people management took on even more importance. You need to be able to look your people in the eyes to inspire a ‘winning’ mentality and can-do spirit.

Don’t forget your customers

Ensuring our team was supported was not just the right thing to do, but it also allowed us to support our own customers with the tools they needed to address shifting customer needs during the pandemic.

This year has been pretty unique, with everyone experiencing their own brand of the same turmoil. We saw financial institutions having to support the financial health of their customers with payment holidays, waive interest charges and offer enhanced customer service support. And this was all while managing the closure of branches overnight, a surge in demand for digital services and helping their own staff work remotely.

Digital banking services needed to run smoothly while coping with an explosion in demand. More than ever, banks needed our technology to help customers easily engage with financial services when branches were forced to shut their doors.

In a recent survey, only 40% of US consumers said they expect to return to branches post-Covid, so this gives an idea of the acceleration in adoption of digital and mobile banking this year.

This did not affect everyone equally. For example, older generations were having to experiment with mobile banking for the first time in many cases, creating an opportunity for banks to help them adopt such channels by bringing services to environments they are already familiar with, like the messaging apps .

A different approach was needed for SMBs, who have shifted the way they interact with consumers to be more responsive, often using messaging apps rather than other communication tools. Instant access to financial services in these environments provides an invaluable way for them to interact and transact.

And although Millennials and Gen-Z have long been comfortable with mobile banking, the pandemic has affected their income more than any other age group. Being supported by their bank to instantly manage their finances in the flow of their daily mobile interactions is crucial to their financial health.

Our keyboard represented the perfect solution for many banks. It enabled them to take the fear out of mobile banking for these new customers with a simple and seamless experience that offered instant access to banking services from within messaging apps that were already familiar to them.

Turn crisis into opportunity

What’s more, these past few months of change and economic volatility have inspired us to begin developing a range of new products focused specifically on financial health. We are partnering with a number of banks around the world to innovate in this area, so they can better serve their customers.

If anything good has come out of this year, I think it has taught us all to become even more laser-focused on helping people, whether your colleagues or customers.

For me, putting your people first is crucial, crisis or not. I joined PayKey as I could see it was a company moulding the future of fintech, but none of it matters if you don’t have a happy and motivated workforce that can be their best selves at work. This is the best thing you can do for the business and, ultimately, it means success for your customers too.

Some fintech startups have developed a reputation for putting business growth above the wellbeing of staff. Our attitude at PayKey is different. We want to achieve our long-term goals in a sustainable way with a healthy and positive environment. That’s the culture I want to continue building in the coming years, and 2020 has only stiffened my resolve.


  • Polly is a journalist, content creator and general opinion holder from North Wales. She has written for a number of publications, usually hovering around the topics of fintech, tech, lifestyle and body positivity.

Related posts

Village Capital, MetLife and PayPal Announce Finance Forward MENA 2020 Accelerator Winners

Polly Jean Harrison

PIX, the QR Code Payments Platform, Is Implemented by SafetyPay in Brazil

Francis Bignell

Cisco Takes 10-For-10 Approach To Deliver Digital Skills Across EMEA

Tyler Pathe