Swimming Against the Stream

Swimming Against the Stream

by Michelle Fiegehen, CEO of Yempo

Before embarking on the journey of building my own company, I spent seven years working for an organisation that seemed to be in constant flux. As Australia’s largest investment bank, Macquarie Bank had an agile and entrepreneurial culture and diverse products that enabled its success, even when other financial institutions floundered.

As a director at Macquarie, it was part of my role to deal with the regular organisational and strategy changes which were the price we paid for the agility that made the organisation successful. Requiring a style of leadership heavily focused on people management, it ensured we didn’t experience productivity losses, absenteeism and attrition from those with an aversion to change. Fortunately, this was an area of developing interest for me that I not only enjoyed, I found myself with a talent for it.

The division in which I worked at Macquarie was populated with high-calibre, highly technical staff at all levels. It was a challenge for me, as an IT Director with a waning interest in technology and rapidly declining technology skills, to hold my own amongst my peers, in terms of technological value proposition. Promoted and commended for achievements in building and leading geographically, culturally and technically diverse teams, I was acutely aware that some of my peers didn’t “get” what I did or why my deliverables were important to the organisation.  I sometimes felt I was swimming against the stream.

From the Ground Up

The result of my leadership style was to build and lead highly functioning teams that shared my passion for getting the most out of themselves –  and each other. We were committed and loyal, and actively worked to build strong relationships that supported the overall culture of the organization. I was proud when a team member defended an unpopular technical recommendation or spoke up with a contrary view. Our organization valued those individuals with the confidence to challenge the status quo.

Today, one of my greatest joys in building my own company, my own culture, and all the processes, policies and procedures to ensure its success, is that I get to design everything from scratch. I leverage everything good that I learned at Macquarie, and toss out all the elements I found bureaucratic or not functional.

Building an appraisal system from the ground up, for example, has led me to reflect on the common practice of developing the weaknesses in individuals with the end goal of “well-balanced contributors.” I am completely in favour of setting challenging objectives for staff, broadening their thinking and enabling them to develop their weak areas, but now I am an advocate of the strengths building philosophy. Attempting to build up weaknesses can highlight an individual’s shortcomings and detract from their strengths, leading to self-doubt and insecurity, destroying the confidence they need to speak up and act as a subject matter expert in the areas where their knowledge is deepest.

I am keen to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of my staff, not so I can focus on developing their weaknesses, but to ensure that as I hire additional team members, the weaknesses are balanced out across the team. My preference is to build well-rounded teams rather than well-rounded individuals, where each staff member’s strengths compensates another’s weaknesses, and all employees have the opportunity to feel fulfilled and valued for their innate capabilities.

Time Well Spent

Reflecting on my Macquarie days, it is with great relief that I have a business partner strong in technology and technology strategy, so I am freed from the unproductive worries of my own dwindling technology skills and can focus on what I do best. It’s not my concern as to whether we order equipment with quad-core and hyper-threading, and I’m not embarrassed that I would struggle to explain the terms. Someone else now holds the technology expertise and is empowered to exercise these strengths, leaving me to focus on what I excel at.

I spend my time hiring the very best people to service my clients’ needs, ensuring our culture and processes are moving us forward in terms of our service offering and talking passionately and congruently with potential clients of the benefits of working with Yempo.

About the Author: Michelle Fiegehen is the CEO of Yempo, a boutique offshoring company in three locations in the Philippines. Now a permanent resident of the Philippines, she has lived and worked in the Philippines and India since 2009, building offshore capability for clients in Australia, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Singapore, Dubai, South Africa and Hong Kong.