As the microfinance field continues to evolve, interesting and engaging literature abounds for those who work in the field, and for those
who want to learn about it. For the latter audience (usually donors, students, professionals seeking a meaningful career change, and others), most of the available and easily digestible information often extols the benefits that microfinance, in the form of loans, savings and other financial products, bring to the low-income microentrepreneur by telling us the story of the mother selling tortillas to send her kids to school, the father fixing bicycles to feed his entire family, the son selling chai to support his parents, and other great success stories. While undeniably touching, these narratives often leave buried deep in the background the people who actually help microentepreneurs reach their goals and fulfill their dreams; the people behind the scenes: the loan officer, the branch manager, the systems operator, the logistics coordinator, the trainer and everyone in between up to the executive director of an MFI.
I came to Compartamos Banco in Mexico seeking out more of those great and gratifying client stories that touch hearts and make those of us who work in the microfinance field feel proud to be contributing, even if in a small way, to the improvement in the lives of low-income microentreprenurs. However, what I found instead was the story of an extraordinary microfinance company that because of its incredibly committed and passionate workforce is thriving and helping over two million -and counting – microentrepreneurs in Mexico and beyond to reach their goals and fulfill their dreams.
After spending a week as an ACCION Ambassador at Compartamos, I can better begin to understand how and why this institution is as successful as it is. Its key ingredient: its people. Starting with its logo (a school of fish swimming upwards), its philosophy and culture, Compartamos feels a little bit like a fairy land of a workplace; staff, with their magenta t-shirts, are happy, constantly smiling, greeting each other cordially, and always- no matter how busy they are- asking visitors and colleagues alike “how can I help you?” Or, “do you need anything?” Too good to be true? I had to dig deeper.
Compartamos’ philosophy is composed of two main elements: 1) “Sense of Purpose” from which its mission and vision are derived, and 2) “Mistica”( perhaps understood as its spirit) which is from where the institutional values are born. Compartamos’organizational values, Service, Responsibility, Passion, Rentability (roughly translated as efficiency, or profitability), and Team Work, are grounded on a sixth and central value to their philosophy: “Persona,” or person, as their guiding light and as the conduit to realizing their mission and vision. True to its philosophy and values, Compartamos sees that their employees’ become fully realized not only professionally, but as human beings, and encourages
them to achieve a balanced life style between work and home. While many organizations can pay lip-service to their employee’s life-work balance, what I have observed, and from my chats with Compartamos’ employees at all levels in the institution, is that Compartamos truly cares to provide plenty of opportunities to its staff in the form of volunteer activities, leadership circles, training, and professional development, to achieve their professional potential while at the same time achieving and challenging themselves as individuals.
As I learned more about Compartamos’ philosophy by attending a new employee induction, I continued to be skeptical about the company’s focus on the person as its “timon,” (rudder) ; indeed it seemed too much like a touchy-feely concept for a bank. To my surprise, and I must say delight, everyone with whom I spoke with during the first three days – mainly managers and people who work at headquarters in Mexico City- were very positive about all the opportunities Compartamos offers to its employees. My cynical self thought that the consensus was perhaps due to the fact that these employees occupied roles of greater responsibility and influence within the company. Thus, I was not yet convinced enough to take in the Compartamos philosophy .
To test my theory and prove my cynical self right, I decided that for the rest of the week I would ask the same question to everyone with whom I came in contact with: “How long have you been at Compartamos,” and “What do you think is the aspect that you like the most about it?” For the first question I received a variety of answers: “I have been here for 5 years, ..3 years,…8 years…, 2 weeks…, 1 month,…6 months, …” For the second question, at least 90% of the time, people I spoke with- at all levels, and both in headquarters and in the field, (managers, loan officers , trainers, branch managers, administrative assistants, etc), all expressed similar feelings: “ I like the way I am treated, …Compartamos cares about me and my family… I am not treated as just another number,..I feel valued, …I have many professional opportunities, … I feel included, … I feel I’m part of a team and a greater cause…I feel I can grow professionally…”
On this last point, all of those who had that same answer, are right. Compartamos is going through a period of tremendous growth; naturally, there is a lot of room to develop within the organization. There seems to be a strong culture of hiring and promoting from within, and this is
definitely attractive to people who want to grow professionally. Since 2009, when Compartamos reached 1million clients, the organization has continued to grow exponentially reaching 2 million clients by the middle of 2011. Compartamos now covers the entire Mexican Republic and it has expanded to neighboring Guatemala where it already reached 2,000 clients in less than 2 months since starting operations in that country. Compartamos’ growth and outreach is in one word: Impressive! Yes, one could argue that the IPO helped, and becoming a bank probably
provided it with a better chance to attract talent from other financial institutions, and beyond, but one cannot discount the immense commitment that Compartamos’ visionaries have with their staff and their clients. From what I have observed, it is clear that they recognize that investing in their staff with a variety of professional and personal development opportunities is the critical factor to their success and the only way to attain their vision of reaching many more millions of clients. This commitment towards the “person” as the means to its success has paid dividends
in leaps and bounds. Not just financially, but also, in intangible ways. Compartamos has been named the #1 Place to Work in Mexico two years in a row; it has been recognized as a Socially Responsible Institution. All of these are not a small feat for a Microfinance bank.
I came to Mexico seeking inspiration in the perfect client story. Instead, I think I have found the success story of a microfinance organization
that truly cares and recognizes its human talent and the uniqueness of each of its employees as the key to their success. Am I now ready to digest the Compartamos philosophy? Perhaps. But whether I do or not, one thing remains clear to me: Compartamos is an impressive organization made up of smart, passionate, and dedicated people who see their work as part of something larger than themselves; who see their work
as a little grain of sand that helps to construct a better future for their sons, daughters and have this tremendous sense of responsibility to make their country “un Mexico mejor!”