One CEO’s journey to becoming a business builder

One of the most important predictors of success when a company launches a new business is how committed the incumbent CEO is. But for busy CEOs who manage constant financial pressures and competing priorities and who often have little to no experience launching a new business, playing the “chief business builder” role can be daunting. As the CEO of NCB Financial Group—the largest bank in Jamaica, founded in 1837—Patrick Hylton decided to launch a new digital payments platform, Lynk, before another competitor could. In this conversation with McKinsey’s Atanas Stoyanov and Barr Seitz, Hylton discusses how he built support for the new business through strategic communications and a deep commitment to making it succeed. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Getting started with a burning desire

McKinsey: You are the CEO of a well-established bank with a long history. Why did you decide to launch a new business?

Patrick Hylton: It all started with a burning desire to build a new business. We’ve been a successful bank for many years, but when I looked around, many of the companies that were doing exceptionally well were digital. They had the new ideas and were disrupting established business models. I said to myself, “If we want to be amazing, we need to launch our own digital businesses. We need those competencies.”

That’s why we decided to launch a business ourselves rather than acquire one. If we wanted to transition to being digitally native, we had to build that muscle; this meant that we needed to develop true digital operations to spawn and grow new businesses, as well as leverage those capabilities for other parts of the business.

Leading means advocating

McKinsey: How did you go about building support for your new business?

Patrick Hylton: For me, as CEO, it was important to articulate a clear strategy, be an effective advocate for the new business, and set the ambition high. I have huge ambitions for Lynk, the digital payments business we’ve launched. I want it to rival and even surpass the incumbent. When I talk to the CEO of the new business, I say, “Don’t ask if it’s too crazy. I want people to ask if it’s crazy enough.”

When I went to the board about launching Lynk, I made the argument that we didn’t want to wait to be disrupted. We had to be the disrupter and have the first-mover advantage. We wanted to lead the change rather than respond to it.

Not everyone supported it at first. But there’s a saying that there are diamonds in your own backyard. My most convincing argument was that we had a real opportunity because of our size in the market and our relationships, as well as the fact that we could reach various socioeconomic brackets through digital platforms and digital payment solutions. We also had a reputation for being successful and trustworthy, and we felt like we could leverage that to help the new business succeed.

Making people believe is the biggest challenge

McKinsey: Launching a new business is a big challenge. How did you convince people to commit to it?

Patrick Hylton: My biggest challenge was getting people to believe in the vision and opportunity of Lynk. You can present analysis, show projections, and identify markets, but in the end, it’s hard to get people at the board level and senior management levels to believe in a dream. People are conservative by nature, and we had no history in starting up a new business that required a significant capital deployment. So their reservations were understandable.

As the CEO, you have to believe in the vision yourself and articulate that dream, but in the end, it’s really about having credibility. There were people who weren’t completely convinced the new business could succeed, but they gave me the benefit of the doubt because I had a track record.

Any doubts surrounding a new business can be hard to erase, so you have to keep reinforcing the vision and share successes along the way. And you have to quickly share when things aren’t going well but be able to explain why and what you’re doing about it.

External validation is also important. We explored bringing in a strategic partner—another established company—to help us scale the business. They assessed the new business and made a significant offer. While we didn’t ultimately come to an agreement, it was great to get that external validation because it showed to everyone that the potential for this new business was real and reaffirmed our commitment to it.

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Communicating with stakeholders

McKinsey: What do you think was the important thing you had to do as a CEO to make this new business successful?

Patrick Hylton: I have realized that managing diverging stakeholder interests is one of the most important things I can do as a CEO. I used to go around trying to convince people by giving speeches about what’s in the best interest of the company, but then I didn’t understand why I couldn’t win people over as much as I’d hoped to. Through an approach called “sources of meaning” that I’ve since adopted, I’ve completely changed how I go about gaining support.

I start by systematically identifying who the stakeholders are, what their interests are, and how to align what we’re doing with their interests. With regulators, for example, I explained how our new digital payments business would be more inclusive by being able to reach more people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, would help to reduce any exposure to pandemics, and would aid labor productivity. I showed through our analysis that customers really wanted digital financial services.

Overcoming resistance in the non-digital business

McKinsey: Was there any internal resistance to working with Lynk inside NCB, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Patrick Hylton: Lynk is its own business, but it’s also part of NCB and depends on the assets of the main bank to succeed. I wanted to set it up so both entities would benefit. But some people in the existing bank were resistant at first and considered Lynk a threat. So I worked with the various leaders in the business to help convince them to work with Lynk and why it could help them.

First, I explained that it was better that Lynk would be disrupting the bank rather than an external entity doing so. That gave us many more opportunities to learn from Lynk and shape it. For example, I explained to the CEO of the retail bank that Lynk could help solve a lot of their problems. They have various customer segments that are expensive to serve because they have small balances and transact frequently, but they still need support. The bank could transfer many of those customers to Lynk, which could more easily and cheaply serve them. On the tech side, Lynk had newer and more advanced tech, so our people could learn how to use the cloud, for example. I sat down with each executive in charge of the main business units—retail banks, credit cards, and so on—and laid out how Lynk could benefit them. I had to have multiple conversations with them.

There were conflicts, of course. Lynk attracted some of the best talent from the bank. But I explained again that it was better that these people went to Lynk than to some other start-up. If we didn’t help Lynk succeed, we’d lose many more people.

Committing time and being involved

McKinsey: As CEO, you have a lot of competing pressures. What kind of commitment did you personally make to Lynk?

Patrick Hylton: I was quite involved in hiring the CEO for Lynk because, at the end of the day, it was my call. That meant having discussions with various people to understand what kind of person to look for. I was looking for someone with digital skills and experience, but I really wanted to find someone who was bold and ambitious. Some people aren’t really open to massive success. They’re happy with one million customers, but I wanted to find someone who would instead say, “Why not ten million customers?”

I spend a lot of time on our new business—about nine to ten hours each week—and I talk to the CEO every day. I don’t sleep very well, so we’ll often chat at two in the morning. And I constantly talk to people who use our services to get their reactions and see what their experience was like; I read the traffic on social media; and, in general, I try to build a perspective from multiple vantage points.

I see myself more as a mentor than an executive when it comes to my role with the new business. I can’t ask someone to run the business if they’re not accountable, so it really has to be up to them. No great thing can be accomplished if people don’t have real freedom to act. They make the decisions. I don’t get involved with picking their teams, for example. What I can do is help them set up aspirations and goals, share my thoughts and perspectives, and provide regular coaching.

Evaluating the past and looking toward the future

McKinsey: By any measure, Lynk has been a success. Lynk has acquired more than 100,000 users in just a few months and has widely received positive reception in the market. Is there anything you would have done differently?

Patrick Hylton: I wish we had started earlier. Others are coming into the marketplace now and trying to catch up. If we’d started earlier, we would have made more progress and been further ahead. We’ve lost some of that potential first-mover advantage.

I would have also changed the funding model to treat it more the way a venture-capital fund would. We committed the necessary funding, which is important to have, but we committed it all, so the new business was ensured that it would get additional funding. Start-ups don’t operate that way. They get an installment and then have to hustle to get the next round of funding. I would have been more explicit about releasing the funding in a similar way so that it was tied to performance, and the business would then have had to make a real case for another round of funding.

That said, I am very proud about what we have been able to build—this is the first start-up I’ve been involved with—and we are constantly searching for ways to scale this model to further new businesses.

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