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Leadership Thoughts

Stuart Thornton, CEO of hoolah, on cultivating vulnerability in the workplace and starting life afresh

Written by Annabelle Siena Lim Published on 

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Thornton shares about his hardest leadership lessons in and out of the workplace.

Stuart Thornton is the CEO and Co-Founder of hoolah, Asia’s omnichannel ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ ecosystem headquartered in Singapore. 

Oasis (OS): Right off the bat, I would love to know you better. What are three values that you hold most true to yourself?

Stuart Thornton (ST): The first value I hold close to my heart is never to regret anything. I feel that the action of regretting lands us in incredibly negative situations because we’ll find ourselves wishing that we’d done something else instead. For me, I always commit to something and strive for the best. If it’s a negative outcome, there’s always a lesson to be learned, but I’ll never regret making that decision.

The second value is to be present while hustling. I always try to make time for other people, and listen to learn from them. For example, if I get a message on LinkedIn, I will always respond. You never know when the opportunity to meet and learn from someone arises. Rather than just being focused on your own objectives, being present in finding opportunities is important in leading to the path of success.

The third value is to always try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Human beings are emotional, and we tend to react to situations based on our own personal learnings, or our experiences in life. Sometimes, I feel that we need to challenge ourselves to have an open mind in being able to see where another person is coming from. Ultimately, I believe that everyone comes into a situation with a positive intention, and by understanding the other party, there is a lot more that we can do together.

OS: What were some of the internal and personal leadership challenges you faced, and how did you approach it? 

ST: When hoolah started to kick off, I was actually in my mid-40s and going through a major life change. At that stage in life, most tend to have settled down, or have some responsibilities in life. To start up a company and go through all the pain at that time, it was quite a significant sacrifice. It is a shift in life from a somewhat normal corporate life to having no income at all.

The internal challenges come from the many uncertainties in this vast world. The problems and challenges you face get increasingly harder, because in a startup, you have no idea which path is going to lead you to the end goal.

Trying to find the right talent can be difficult as well. Over time, some of the key things that we look for in our people are their talent and personality, because we know those are the ones that will survive in this environment.

For me personally, I’ve never been at my happiest until I had no money coming in, and started looking for what really made me happy.

Thornton doing some good ol’ shopping at BHG. Photo courtesy of hoolah.

OS: What is your leadership style and how do you think it has evolved over the years? 

ST: I remember stepping into my first leadership role, and what I’ve learnt is to always have to be a leader of yourself. For example, stepping up and showing others around you that you’re capable of this. At the same time, there’s also an element of vulnerability, and knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not. Learning to communicate and share that with the people around you is a skill too.

I think vulnerability is a powerful trust mechanism. Sometimes, I see people try and make it up as they go along, but that ultimately gets found out, and the trust is eroded. By knowing what you’re not good at, you can bring great people in to plug those gaps.

Along the way, I’ve learned to be an enabler, and create the environment for people whom you work with. I’ve had an experience of working under a manager before who managed me by spreadsheets. I had to fill every single detail of my work processes, and to me, that was a huge red flag. If you really want to get people to grow and move in a direction, you have to create a conducive environment that gives them the freedom to contribute freely. People always come first.

OS: There is usually a common perception that startups are cool and sexy. In your opinion, what is something that people misconceive about being a startup founder?

ST: From a recruitment perspective, there are many people who like the idea of startups because they are taken in by the opportunity to not be in a controlled environment, or have some sort of autonomy or flexibility. However, flexibility is the one thing that will be different.

In reality, there is an incredible amount of hardwork and grind in order to solve all the risks and pain points. When I look back at our first few years, it was really quite a stretch mentally to be able to survive in this environment. If one is looking for a job where there’s flexibility in time, it doesn’t mean that a startup is the place to be, because you actually have to dedicate more time and effort to something that may or may not be successful. The trade-off of having autonomy and creating something comes in the form of greater risks.

OS: What is one memorable moment from your journey at hoolah?

ST: We use Google for all our infrastructure. Every month, we have a hoolah gathering that is hosted via Google meet. There was one occasion where about 20 people were locked out of the meeting, and we realized that was because we didn’t have enough space on Google meet. That was a massive realization that we’ve actually grown to a big size, and that people wanted to be part of our company. There are many memorable moments, but perhaps this is one that has provided some meaning to our progress.

OS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

ST: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received when it comes to business is to always build a business around what you need to do, as opposed to building it around the person. This is because, when and if that person leaves, you will be in a difficult position. The most important thing is to have the right structure and then fill it with the right people to go with.

WRITTEN BY

Annabelle Siena Lim

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