Lead With Your Heart: An Example From Colombia

Opportunity International's bank branch located in Restrepo (suburb of Bogota)

Opportunity International's bank branch located in Restrepo (suburb of Bogota)

Recently, I visited Bogota on a trip to see Opportunity International’s operations.  Bogota is the capital of Colombia and located right in the middle of the country.  It’s a unique city where it’s located in the mountains at 8,612 feet above sea level.  For comparison purposes, Vail, Colorado sits at 8,150 feet.  So, as you could imagine, even a short walk to the local coffee shop, Juan Valdez Café (think Starbucks of South America) would leave one short of breath.

Bogota is a city on the move.  With a population over 7 million, it is a city that is rapidly advancing.  Once known for its violence during the 80’s and early 90’s, Bogota is a friendly city with tourism being one of its largest industries and vital to its economy.  Many people around the world flock to Bogota to experience and absorb the culture, art galleries, museums and architecture – as the city offers rich history and some of the finest restaurants in South America.  This was evident as I saw several Americans and other tourist when I visited the Gold Museum, Salt Cathedral, Emerald Trade Center and my new favorite restaurant – Crepes & Waffles.  

Opportunity International’s mission is to empower people living in poverty; giving them the opportunity to transform their lives, their children’s futures and their communities through micro-financing.  Opportunity International serves and helps people throughout the world with operations in 22 developing countries.  Colombia being one of the first countries it funded a loan – dating back to 1975.

I had the opportunity to visit one of their top producing branch offices in Restrepo, a neighborhood just outside Bogota’s city limits.  Walking into the banking center – it resembled any other bank one would find in United States.  I was quickly greeted by a host with a warm smile and a handshake.  The tellers and staff members were courteous – just as you would expect.  I met with Carlos, the branch manager, and he was professional and passionate about the banks services and it quickly became obvious the bank was a metrics-driven organization.  Carlos spent a few minutes reviewing the benchmarking reports and explained how the organization measures performance, which are based on financial results, operational efficiency and employee retention.

The most impressive takeaway I had from my meeting with Carlos was his passion. His passion for both – staff and clients was inspiring.  Carlos shared his philosophy to managing 25 loan officers and providing exceptional service to their clients.  He stated to be successful at Opportunity International; “one has to lead with their heart… which will provide the best outcomes for the client and ultimately the community”. Due to the average loan size of $150 and with majority of their client’s loan marks the first time credit has been extended to them – the loan officer has a much greater responsibility than funding loans.  The loan officer must be prepared to assist the clients with their emotional and spiritual transformation that result from this event.

Loan officers maintain an ongoing relationship with their clients, and during the repayment period, they visit the clients on a regular basis to provide financial education and counseling.  From this, many clients have opened saving accounts and started saving for their children college tuitions.  This is a major accomplishment!  Saving is a foreign concept to most due to their extreme low wages, and many are living and working day-to-day just to provide the basics – food and shelter. 

(Pictured Above from Left to Right:  Carlos, bank branch manager; Luz, owner of Lunita, a clothing manufacturer; Lunita employees working; and Luz's son operating the laser cutter)

I witnessed firsthand how Opportunity International has transformed lives.  We visited Luz who runs a clothing manufacturing company out of her home.  She has been a client of Opportunity for a few years and has repaid several loans.  Over the years, her company has been steadily growing and today, she employees 11 people.  Luz’s most recent loan was for $7,500; which funded a computer software program used to create images and a fabric laser cutter.  On this particular day, her son was operating the laser cutter, but he won’t be doing so for long.  She has saved enough money to send her son to college.  Now, he has dreams and aspirations of attending medical school.  I believe he will accomplish his goal. 

Opportunity International’s loans have provided Luz’s family the chance to break the family’s tradition of living in poverty with her son’s college education.  One day, he and his future wife will be able to raise their children in a much different environment.  None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for Opportunity International.

During my branch visit, I met Driyet, a loan officer. As she spoke, I could sense her passion for her work – just as Carlos described the culture of the organization. Driyet has a rewarding – yet tough job.  She visit’s 20-30 prospects per day.  To do so is a daily grind, and requires strong commitment and loyalty.  It’s common for her commute to take 1½ hours from the branch to get into her territory.  Then, cover dirt filled streets block-by-block until she meets her daily goal before trekking 1½ hours back to the branch office to end the day.  In order to endure a daily grind such as this – only passion and love could fuel the drive and motivation.  Obviously, this isn’t just a job for Driyet – it’s a calling

(Pictured Above from Left to Right:  Driyet, a loan officer; a typical dirt street in Driyet's territory; Tito, an appliance repair business entrepreneur; and Tito's savings account card) 

Currently, Driyet has 56 clients.  So, she works in the time to spend an hour with each client on a regular basis in addition to her prospecting.  She loves working with her clients and helping them grow their businesses and eventually working them out of poverty.  

A great example of this can be seen with Tito.  We visited Tito’s house where he runs an appliance repair business out of his home.  He received his first loan from Opportunity International a few years ago and since has repaid a few more loans.  Each loan has grown in value as his business demand has increased.  Now, Tito is considering selling his house and moving his family to a nicer neighborhood and better location with more foot traffic to further grow his business.  Again, Opportunity is providing more than a loan.  They are impacting and shaping lives for the betterment of all. 

Clearly, Opportunity International’s approach to lead with their heart has proven to be successful.  I’m honored to have had an opportunity to see this organization at work.  It’s inspiring to see the positive changes they are making in people’s lives. 

I believe everyone could learn from this organization.  It doesn’t matter what type of company you work for or your job title.  To lead with your heart in the workplace means you care about others – weather it’s your internal or external customers, colleagues, direct reports or your supervisor.  When an organization adopts and encourages this approach, like Opportunity International has done - it doesn’t mean the workplace culture will be soft, non-competitive or passive; rather, leading with your heart is synominis to respecting others and having a strong desire for others to succeed.  When described this way – kind of sounds like a great place to work doesn’t? 

Opportunity International can attest.  Their culture has not only been the driver behind their performance, but also a tool to attracting top talent.  They don’t place job ads to fill open positions.  They only hire from employee referrals, and their retention rate is among the best – proving that leading with your heart will produce strong outcomes.   

In closing, I would like to thank Carlos, Driyet and the other 16,000 Opportunity International employees for their hard work and dedication to transforming lives.  The world is a better place because of you.