by Nori Gale
WEX CEO Melissa Smith recently shared both the opportunities and challenges she has faced in her career in an interview with Authority Magazine’s Charlie Katz. She discussed a variety of topics including how growing up on a potato farm in Maine gave her strength and appreciation for community as well as the role her mother played in building daughters with grit and indomitable strength. Throughout the conversation, Smith shared some tips on how to best set yourself up for success as a senior executive.
Tip #1: Lead with wise compassion, advocating for others and focusing on building opportunities for your team
Smith’s path to CEO has been marked by what Harvard Business Review refers to as a wise compassionate leadership style. This is illustrated by Smith’s competence as a leader, seeing her company through incredible growth and success, combined with her empathetic leadership style. At Smith’s core, from the values with which she was raised, she is always looking for ways to help those around her, and as Smith put it to Katz when asked what advice she’d give aspiring leaders, “Advocate for the success of the people you work with and help them learn and gain new experiences. Prioritizing the growth of your people and also leading with empathy is the best way to build a successful and thriving team.”
Tip #2: Lead authentically and be a good listener
The Center for Creative Excellence reports that leading authentically can sometimes be more challenging for women because there is an expectation to mimic certain behaviors when in a position of power that ultimately might not be natural for women. Smith understands this and has found a way to be true to her values and self within her role as CEO of WEX. “Leading authentically and with an understanding that the decisions I make as a leader will affect a lot of people helps me to make the most thoughtful choices I can.” One of Smith’s natural abilities is that she is a good listener, and because she leads authentically, this skill works to her advantage. “In employee roundtables, I really listen. I don’t have to agree with what each employee is saying, yet I can listen and consider different perspectives.”
Tip #3: Relationships are the key
People who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, according to the Gallup organization, and people who simply have a good friend in the workplace are also more likely to be happy. Additionally, a history of good work relationships at any given company are linked to better customer engagement as well as increased profit. Smith talks about her own career and how relationships have always been a central focal point for her. “In my day-to-day, I do a lot of the things you would expect: provide strategic and operational leadership for WEX, focusing on not just what gets done, but how it gets done, because that impacts the culture of the company. I seek opportunities for expansion, ensure that the company maintains a high level of social responsibility wherever we do business which ties into our cultural values, assess the risks to the company and ensure they are monitored and minimized, advance and develop talent and communicate to all of our stakeholders. At the core of all of this, I build relationships with all of our constituents: our customers, our shareholders, our partners and our employees. Relationships live at the core of how work gets done and is an integral part of success.”
Tip #4: Collaboration and being good at a give and take of ideas is directly tied to success
A recent study by Stanford University found that participants who were encouraged to act collaboratively persisted at their task 64% longer than those in the study encouraged to work in silos. There were also higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and a higher success rate amongst those who were in the collaborative set, and this impact persisted beyond the end of the survey. Smith shared with Katz that while it might appear that CEOs are busy making all the big decisions on their own, her leadership style is collaborative and she believes collaboration and give and take within teams lead to healthier business outcomes. “I think one of the myths I would like to dispel is that CEOs are this hierarchical figure who omnipotently makes all decisions. I think it is dangerous to believe that any one person has all of the answers. Often, there is someone deep in the organization that has better specific content knowledge of the matter at hand and technical skills to make the call. I actually spend a lot of time listening to the perspective from different areas of the business and externally to make the most informed decision that will be beneficial to the whole of WEX, when a decision needs to come to me. Equally importantly, we have spent a great deal of time clarifying who owns decisions, to increase the pace of our movement and push decision-making to the appropriate place within the organization. While I own the results of our collective choices, it’s really a team effort.”
Tip #5: Focus on your approachability – laying that groundwork will come in handy once in an executive role
Robin Camarote, reporting in Inc. Magazine says that “Not being approachable could be your biggest leadership blind spot.” And in a recent Gallup research report, this bears out. Gallup concluded from its research that managers who are open and approachable have more engaged employees. From the Gallup report, among employees who strongly agreed that they could approach their manager with any type of question, 54 percent were engaged. When employees strongly disagreed, only two percent were engaged, while 65 percent were actively disengaged.
Smith has always been an approachable leader and it wasn’t until she was named CEO of WEX that she saw how much she’d have to fight for that public perception to be retained. “One of the things I will always remember is walking down the hall at work the day after I had been named as the next CEO. It was the same hall, the same people, and I was the same person. Yet suddenly everyone treated me differently. They were more cautious. I had to separate myself from the role and realize that the role would create a perception that I have to be aware of. I work extra hard to try to be approachable to compensate. I think it plays into why people talk about the role of CEO as being lonely.”
Melissa Smith’s leadership style has led WEX to quarter after quarter of growth
WEX CEO Melissa Smith is an approachable and authentic leader, exhibiting compassionate wisdom, a good ear, and a focus on relationships, she continues to drive impressive results quarter after quarter. Read her recent Authority Magazine article to learn more.
Harvard Business Review
Center for Creative Leadership