by Nori Gale
WEX CEO Melissa Smith Counsels Be True to Your Authentic Self – WEX Employees Celebrated for Individuality
If you’re looking for inspiration today, listen to WEX CEO Melissa Smith, featured in a TEDx talk, discussing the importance of valuing your true self. Smith’s championing of the individual reflects a commitment in high growth corporations to the employee-first model. And Smith herself is proof that you can be a nonconformist while at the same time experience success in your career. Her company’s status as a high growth leader is proof of that.
Growth Companies Engage Employees by Embracing their Individuality
A study by the SHRM Foundation, in collaboration with Globoforce, reveals that organizations succeed when they put their own people first. When employees feel their well-being is prioritized by their employer, they thrive. When employees thrive, they work harder. This leads to better results and a stronger bottom line for their employer. And studies show that employees who feel supported as individuals are more apt to have a sense of well-being in their lives.
Inc. Magazine had similar results when they surveyed CEOs from high growth companies on the Inc. 1000 list. The study clearly showed that putting employees before KPIs, and even before customers, brings about desired bottom line results.
As CEO of WEX, Melissa Smith has experienced broad success by putting her people first. Smith engages employees where they are most comfortable, letting them be who they are. WEX has numerous programs in place to support this approach. Programs include a fully-paid one-month sabbatical for tenured employees, a company-wide wellness program that includes six weeks of parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and two paid days a year to be used as “Volunteer Time Off” to give back to the community. WEX employees are encouraged to live their truest lives both in their work and in their free time. When companies free employees to express their individual personalities and beliefs, better overall employee engagement and lower churn rates are a result.
Growth Companies Allow Women to Succeed in Roles Usually Filled by Men
Melissa Smith began with WEX in 1997 as a senior financial analyst for the financial technology service provider. She worked her way through numerous roles, including CFO and president of the Americas, and now holds its most senior position, Chair and CEO. Smith served as CFO during the company’s IPO in 2005 and has continued to spearhead WEX’s dramatic growth, both organically and through acquisitions. Some of her most profound challenges came during her time as CFO at WEX.
As CFO, Smith experienced an “uncontrolled visible reaction” from people when they walked into a boardroom, met her for the first time, and saw that she was a female CFO. Smith flipped the narrative and turned the reactions into a point of power: “I was immediately memorable.” This pattern of taking challenges and turning them into opportunities is a theme throughout Smith’s journey.
She learned to play golf, play poker and “control her frizzy, curly locks” all because they were things she felt she needed to do to succeed. “I learned how to conform just a little bit. But I am fierce about making sure that I stay unique to who I am. I don’t want to be like everybody else.”
And that approach has rendered great results during Smith’s tenure at WEX. In 2014 WEX came in at just over $800 million in revenue and in 2018 it was $1.5 billion. In 2019 WEX was in Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Fastest-Growing Companies.
Find Ways to Privately Remind Yourself of your Core Strengths and What Makes You Unique
Many of us have parts of ourselves we have to work harder to retain in a corporate setting. Smith understands and celebrates this. During her TEDx talk, Smith describes occasionally reaching into her suit sleeve during her workday to feel her Ironman watch on her wrist. Wearing her Ironman is a small act of defiance against expectations around the corporate dress code, while at the same time it serves as a powerful reminder to Smith of who she is: a fierce competitor and athlete.
This talisman also reminds Smith to be true to herself. Over the course of a person’s career, there will be practical sacrifices made to achieve success in a corporate setting but Smith advises us not to sacrifice too much. She encourages us to hold onto the things most dear to us. These are the things that will propel individual growth while also positively impacting company growth.
As Marsha Egan, a certified workplace productivity and business leader coach and Chief Executive of the Egan Group, says in Forbes: “By applying yourself in a way that provides new and valuable thinking that benefits your company, you become a thought leader.” And it is only through fealty to your core strengths and to that special thing that makes you uniquely you that that kind of thought leadership blossoms.
WEX, Under Smith’s Leadership, Shares a Practice with Other Growth Companies: Encourage Employees that if they Work Hard and aren’t Afraid to Fail they will be Valued
Smith’s perspective derives in large part from growing up on a farm in a small (400 residents) Northern Maine town. She was raised by a mother who valued self-reliance. Smith’s mother counseled her children to put doubts aside and face every challenge head-on. Smith attributes this upbringing to her commitment to lead an authentic life.
Her mother’s motto was “Why not?” And Smith and her siblings were taught to ski and ride a bike by “unceremoniously (being) pointed down hills.” They were taught there was nothing they couldn’t do as long as they were willing to work hard.
There were lessons in hard work and accountability when she drove a hay truck as a child and if the hay fell off the back of the truck, it was her job to jump out and load that hay back on.
Because there were so few people in her town and in her school, there was room to try different activities and not be boxed into a category. She was on the soccer team, was a cheerleader and was captain of the math team. “I wasn’t put into a box and my image didn’t define who I was.” That unique, small-town experience, coupled with a mother who told her she could be whoever she wanted to be, developed Smith into a person with grit and openness to the world. These qualities translate to how Smith leads WEX as CEO today.
What was crucial to Smith’s success at learning to ride a bike and being so many different things in high school was that she was not afraid to fail. Forbes puts it so well: “What do potato chips, Post-It Notes, pacemakers, penicillin, and Silly Putty all have in common? They were all created by making mistakes. In fact, in each case, the inventor was attempting to create something completely different and thought that he had failed with the final product.” Study after study confirms that leading an employee base that’s not afraid to experiment and not afraid of what will happen if they fail brings about the greatest advancements in innovation and disruptive technologies. Melissa Smith and her leadership team at WEX know and practice a “not afraid to fail” culture.
Successful Growth Companies Encourage Employees to have an Entrepreneurial Spirit and Constantly Learn
Successful High Growth Companies Encourage Entrepreneurial Spirit in their Employees
In a survey conducted by Inc., 94.1% of Inc. 5000 List companies see developing a culture with an entrepreneurial spirit as a critically important factor in continued growth. As Forbes puts it, having an entrepreneurial spirit is having an attitude and approach to thinking that actively seeks out change, rather than waiting to adapt to change.
Melissa Smith’s belief in staying true to her core strengths and conforming the minimal amount necessary fit the narrative of actively seeking out change. Smith chooses to seek out change rather than adapting to change as it comes. She argues in her TEDx talk that her audience be strategic and thoughtful about how much of their individuality they are willing to give up. She leads by example encouraging WEX employees to each be strategic in how much of their individual thinking they are willing to sacrifice as well. She does not want an army of conformists working at WEX, but rather an army of individuals who do what’s necessary to keep the wheels turning while also coming up with innovative ideas that can only come from faith in oneself and from nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit.
High Growth Companies Encourage Employee Learning and Development
Smith’s mother taught her children that “life is unfair and there are going to be lots of times where you’re going to be working against a deck of cards that are stacked against you.” And education is the key to working through challenges as they arise.
In a SHRM Foundation study, researchers found that to engage and retain a growth company workforce, encouraging education and individual growth should be a priority. “Thriving employees … look for opportunities to learn new things and acquire new skills, and [they look to be able to] access information to help them get better at what they do.”
A study by the Association for Talent Development found that companies that offer comprehensive training programs enjoy a 24% higher profit margin than those who spend less on training. Investing in training and development, even when there are economic downturns, is an approach that provides more opportunities for growth for both the individual and the business.
Smith’s core understanding of the world starting from way back when she was a small child on a farm in Northern Maine is that education is key to facing any challenge. She was taught that lifelong learning is key to being free to make the choices that best suit an individual’s path and goals. In her leadership at WEX, Smith has made supporting employee growth and learning a part of the WEX culture. Smith has put concrete support behind her belief in employee growth and learning within the WEX benefits package. By such benefits as reimbursing employees who pursue expanding their education while working for WEX, as well as ongoing opportunities for learning and development right on the WEX campus, Smith shows fiscal evidence of her passions and beliefs.
High Growth Companies Put Employees in Control of their Own Personal Growth and Reap the Rewards
When Delivered Appropriately, Individual Growth Can Be Encouraged With Authentic Feedback
In her TEDx talk, Smith discusses the important role of feedback in the workplace which is confirmed by a Harvard Business Review study which found that 72% of employees want corrective feedback from their managers and believe their performance will improve once given that feedback. A study in Forbes Magazine found that leaders who gave honest feedback were rated as five times more effective than their peers who were not providing honest feedback to their direct reports. There is some noise in this space with dissenting opinions as to the value of feedback.
Smith says that while feedback is important and should be considered a gift, “As a woman, it’s incredibly important to clamp down on that inner voice that is often telling you that you’re not good enough. There is enough legitimate difficulty and judgment that’s going to come your way you simply can’t pile on top of that.” Smith wants her audience to understand that feedback is healthy and important, but so is faith in oneself.
There has been a movement in companies like Netflix, Bridgewater and elsewhere toward “encouraging harsh feedback” and according to studies by Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and others, this method of immediate, critical, blunt criticism is causing more damage and providing more negative results than intended. HBR goes so far as to say “Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” A measured, kind, and productive approach to feedback is what WEX and Smith promote and practice. Take one look at WEX’s low attrition rate to see that this approach is working.
Give Employees Ownership of their Path and They Will Thrive
WEX was named to Fortune’s 100 fastest-growing companies in 2019 and Smith’s theme in her TEDx talk about nurturing the individual within an organization speaks the language that growth companies need to attract the right talent for their workforce. Smith encourages her audience at TEDx to be the keepers of their own narrative.
Ariana Huffington was recently quoted saying, “More and more companies are realizing that there is a fundamental connection between their employees’ well-being and the bottom line. The goal really is to end the delusion that in order to succeed you have to burn out.” Melissa Smith lives this like a mantra as CEO of WEX. She takes Huffington’s thinking a step further and encourages her employees to live full lives. Rather than using the phrase work-life balance, Smith prefers to think of WEX as providing employees with a place where they can work and live and not need to segregate these two parts that make up a whole person. Because we are living while at work, Smith sees this conjoining as more healthful and positive for WEX employees.
Smith closes her TEDx talk with “It’s your story. Take risks in life. Pick multiple lanes. And live the unique life that you want to live.” Which is how she leads at WEX. She encourages individual thinking and hires people who are not afraid to be authentic and true to themselves.
And this approach is producing great results: WEX has been certified annually as a “Great Place to Work” in the U.S. since 2017. Survey results from certification revealed that employees believe that management is honest and ethical in its business practices, they can take time off from work when they think it’s necessary, and that they are proud to tell others they work at WEX. What more could CEO Melissa Smith, WEX shareholders and WEX employees want than that?
If you’re interested in working for a growing and global organization that puts employees first and has a CEO like Melissa Smith at the helm, please visit WEX’s career page.
Resources: Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Forbes, Harvard Business Review