by Nori Gale
What does it take to develop a team into future leaders? WEX’s Alex Limerick, Director, Business Solutions (Global Product and Innovation), shares her insights about leading with resilience, flexibility, risk-taking, and a generosity of spirit.
Limerick leads the product and innovations group at WEX with just that kind of leadership, as her team creates products and services for WEX’s Corporate Payments Solutions line of business. Limerick’s division of the company brings in $39 billion in annual payments volume. Limerick’s confidence and faith stem from her innate generosity and the wisdom of her mentors.
Insight #1: Learn to Adapt
Experiencing trials in childhood can help a person develop traits that will lead to strong leadership abilities. Limerick spent her early years on homestead property in Rural Australia. When she was four years old her family’s home was lost to a bushfire. “It’s funny because I just remember having nothing. We came back from being away and it was all gone. All the toys, books, everything had perished in the fire.” While beginning to rebuild the homestead, they spent time living in a converted red London bus on the property, then moved in with an aunt and uncle in Indonesia, and finally came back to settle in Australia again. Through it all Limerick continued to attend school, make new friends in foreign countries, and persevered with a constant state of change that she grew into over time.
People ask Limerick where she became so resilient and she points to this early reshaping of her life as an exercise in character-building. Her resilience was learned in part from her parents, “My dad’s got this way about him, he’s always so positive, and my mom is really practical.” Together her parents presented the adversity the family faced as exciting and positive, which for Limerick and her siblings signaled how they too should react to the situation.
Harvard Business Review published an article that argued that resilience “requires the courage to confront painful realities, the faith that there will be a solution when one isn’t immediately evident, and the tenacity to carry on despite a nagging gut feeling that the situation is hopeless.” When this kind of tenacity and hope is learned at an early age it can build a strong foundation for facing business setbacks or challenges as an adult.
Insight #2: Take Risks to Build Your Leadership Chops
Sam McRoberts recently covered a German study on risk-taking in Entrepreneur Magazine. The study, involving 20,000 participants, found that people who enjoy taking risks are happier people in general. General happiness increases many of the qualities of excellent leadership–patience, generosity, curiosity, and energy all stem from a general sense of well-being. A leader who takes risks can also contribute to the wider group’s interest in the work at hand and engender a willingness to evolve and grow.
Limerick’s early years and career path are littered with risk-taking, and each leap of faith she took led to more growth and learning for her. She chose to attend a German language immersion high school. “I entered my first day of high school and everybody was speaking German. All my teachers, all my books, everything – no dictionary translations – history, math, biology, chemistry, you name it, it was all in German.” Limerick graduated from high school fluent in German.
While it was an uncomfortable risk to join this language immersion school, the experience paid her back in spades. When Limerick was fresh out of college she was connected with an Australian entrepreneur expanding his travel business into Germany. Smart, ambitious, and fluent in German, Limerick was recommended for the job. She picked up and flew alone thousands of miles from home to open her new boss’s business in Munich. “It was a small travel company looking to increase their destination numbers by expanding into Europe.” Limerick herself was “expanding” into Europe–it was her first real job and away from everything she knew. “I turned up in Munich and I was just one woman on my own. I had to set up an office, I had to create the business presence over there all on my own, from scratch, and I was 23 at the time. It turned out to be a multimillion-dollar business, so not huge, but pretty big for a 23-year-old.”
After building up the Munich business, Limerick moved to London – another new city, after landing a job with a British construction company. From there she moved to British Gas, a big utility company in London. “I did fun and interesting work there, setting up green energy projects for them like smart metering.”
Each new job required a challenge for Limerick — she was driven by a desire to learn new things, expand her repertoire and push herself to take risks and be bold.
Insight #3: Be a Fearless Leader
While working for British Gas, Limerick was recruited by a headhunter to come to Visa in their payments technology business. Visa was scrambling to get ahead of the competition and overcome the disruption in payments occurring at the time with apps and digital payments coming into the forefront. “I came to Visa in 2012 to look after their contactless and mobile products and it was really to come in and look at what was stalled and how could we accelerate it. I had a baptism of fire to learn payments and I had this wonderful man, Clive, who would evening school with me and teach me on a whiteboard all of this stuff. I just literally dove in headfirst. It was six wonderful years at Visa learning the ins and outs of payments. I didn’t come to it from a technology background but just jumped in and learned payments and the tech sitting behind it because we just didn’t have a choice.”
Limerick’s all-in attitude stemmed in part from the urgency of her circumstances. She joined Visa just prior to the 2012 London Olympics, which, as she put it “was all Visa and it was all contactless and there was no room to fail. It was a Mount Everest of a learning curve for me.” It would be the steepest learning curve of her career which she overcame by diving in fully engaged. “I look back now, seven, eight years later and I know payments now like the back of my hand and I think how did that happen?” It was grit, fearlessness, and hard work that got her over the mountain.
Insight #4: Maneuver Sharp Pivots with Grace
Recent data provided by CNBC shows that 60% of businesses that closed during COVID-19 have now permanently shuttered their doors. To weather a crisis like COVID, business leaders found they had to be flexible, creative, and maintain a calm composure throughout the difficult hours, days, and months as the crisis stretched out beyond a year.
When the pandemic hit, and travel stopped overnight, a chunk of WEX’s business disappeared. WEX executive leadership assigned Limerick the mammoth task of backfilling to help make up for that loss of business, and she describes those first few days being filled with a surging energy. She recognized the feeling from past experiences. “How do you get into crisis mode whether you’re a kid with no home or you get to Germany and you have no support, just yourself, but in that moment that’s when your jet engines of action kick in.” For Limerick, solving the travel problem for WEX meant quickly taking action but doing so with grace and calm. “How do we bring people together, how do we find a vision, how do we get going because if you stand still it’s not going to be great for you.”
Fortunately, over the prior several years, Limerick had been developing a list of ideas for new products from a slew of sources both inside and outside of WEX. She quickly got with her team and they got to work analyzing the ideas. “Let’s have a look at them, let’s dig harder into them: would you put your sales number against it? If the answer is no, let’s parking lot that idea.”
Next, Limerick and her team approached the whittled-down list of ideas and “stress-tested, what’s real, what’s imagined, what’s near-term, short-term, long-term. If you need a ton of investment to do it well that’s not going to happen in a pandemic so scratch that one too.” Focusing on long-term outcomes, as well as immediate fixes, Limerick’s team landed on a handful of products to actually pursue.
One project that emerged from Limerick’s list involved expanding on an existing partnership with a disability program dating back to the 1980s in Australia. This government program was ripe for a payments solution with a goal to help disabled Australian citizens move out of institutions and live independently. “When I looked at the problem I thought back to my Visa days where we did a lot of product development and research on wearable payments. One of the use cases that I worked with Barclaycard on was for people with fine motor skills challenges. When you’re in the shop, pulling something out of a purse can be tough, so when you can have your payment device be wearable or in your wallet in an accessible way, or on your phone that makes the whole experience easier.”
Limerick and her team pitched this idea of digital, wearable payments to the disability program plan managers, suggesting the use of Apple pay technology, mobile devices, and a pre-paid card to avoid onerous expense reporting. WEX is now co-creating that mobile program with several plan management organizations in Australia.
Insight #5: Be Laser Focused on Developing Individuals on Your Team
Limerick looks at the people on her team and focuses intentionally on their development. She uses her one-on-ones to develop her staff as leaders instead of using that time to go over project lists. “I intentionally work on what are the things they need help with to grow. How do they become that next best person?”
Annually, Limerick has a strategic, overarching goals conversation with her team. “I sit with them at the beginning of each year and I ask how are you a better person at the end of this year than you were at the start? And where have you left this year in a better place than where you found it? It’s really just being intentional about growing their strengths.”
Limerick is sensitive to the individual struggles of her staff and she works to aid their development. At one point, she noticed that one member of her team was having trouble trusting her own judgments and strengths. Limerick’s approach was to quietly provide the employee with opportunities to build up her own self-image. “I did things like ‘Oh, I accidentally can’t turn up to my speaking slot at this big conference coming up – I think that you should take my place.” And then Limerick worked with her to build and perfect her presentation. By providing this protege with confidence-building opportunities, and then getting out of her way and letting her shine, Limerick created a pathway toward success on a personal level for her colleague, and in doing so strengthened the team as a whole.
Insight #6: Always Be Open to Learning New Things
An openness to learning new things started for Limerick at a young age. Her family sat down to dinner every night and all of them were expected to talk about what new things they’d learned that day. This gave Limerick the skills to voice her opinion and trained her to be aware of what she was doing and to value the learning she was experiencing.
In one survey cited by Harvard Business Review, of more than 50,000 learners on an online adult learning platform, Coursera, 72% reported career benefits such as doing their current job more effectively, finding a new job, or receiving a raise. Continuous learning and being open to new ideas leads to greater career success, and Limerick is a prime example of that.
Besides growing up in a family that valued learning, Limerick also had the great fortune of being paired with strong mentors from whom she could learn. At British Gas, a leader at the company took Limerick under her wing and taught her an essential lesson about feedback. Her advice was that when given feedback, be aware that it’s not always all going to be the feedback you should heed. “She said ‘Alex, you know you best. Throughout your life, you’re going to be given feedback. ‘Because you know you, take that feedback and sift through it. Some you’ll know is true, some you won’t want to hear but need to, and then there’s the stuff that’s coming with a different agenda. Bucket that up and don’t take feedback just because it’s given.” This is a lesson Limerick has carried with her and shared with others because it had such an impact on her career.
This same mentor recognized that Limerick was exceptionally good with people and she helped her further develop those people skills so they would impact future business negotiations. They would sit together before meetings and plan for the interpersonal aspects of the meeting, “She would talk to me about what the desired outcome of the meeting was and she’d draw it like a chessboard and she’d suggest I think about who talks to whom, what’s this person’s intentions, what’s that person’s intentions, what do they want, what does this person want and how do you move this kind of business in a way that you want to move it by knowing what they want.” Limerick realized this kind of strategizing relied most heavily on attentive listening. Dearborn also picked up on Limerick’s ability to listen and encouraged her to use her strong skills of observation to drive interactions where she needed to arrive at the desired business outcome.
Limerick’s belief in the value of learning probably has something to do with her strong relationships with mentors, and with the curiosity that makes her such a good listener. To continuously care about learning from others–whether in a conversation with a peer, mentor, or mentee, or in a competitive business meeting–is to strengthen one’s capacity to eventually teach and lead others.
Insight #7: Being a Strong Leader Means Knowing When to Push and Went to Pull Back
In an HBR article, “Ego Is the Enemy of Good Leadership” Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter state that “an inflated ego narrows our vision. The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe. Basically, a big ego makes us have a strong confirmation bias. Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.”
Limerick is master of her ego and she works to train her staff to remove ego from their work. She describes it as not being precious about things. “I’m not precious. If we don’t like what we’re doing, let’s change it. I’m not emotionally wedded to my ideas. There’s an important point to that because there can come a point in your work when you are expected to adapt and maybe completely shed an idea you had been fighting for. If you get too hunkered into stuff, you can’t change and it’s important that my opinion doesn’t become overriding – I can have an opinion and that’s great but we all need to be able to flex as needed.”
While Limerick encourages her staff to remain ego-free when presenting product ideas, she also promotes positive discussion around new ideas. She believes that the easiest path to take is that of a critic and encourages her team to avoid that easy path.
When presenting a new product, her team is encouraged to start with “We know that this isn’t perfect, but boy have we innovated. How might we make it better? Be part of my journey to help me improve and learn and get better customer outcomes.” By entering a presentation with both positivity and openness, Limerick and her team shape the dialogue towards generative engagement and growth.
Limerick acknowledges it’s a narrow path between fighting for an idea and bowing to the answer “no, this isn’t going to fly,” and gracefully moving on. That is the dance her team is expected to choreograph and perform.
Insight #8: The Best Leadership is Driven by a Generous Spirit
Generous leadership was recently described by Forbes this way: “The generous leader gives people what they truly want: knowledge, power, information, credit, praise, responsibility and authority. Perhaps most importantly, the generous leader gives faith; assumes that his or her people want to succeed and do good work. The generous leader assumes positive intent. When leaders share whatever resources they have … it evokes loyalty, support, and commitment.”
Limerick’s focus beyond developing new payments products and services for WEX is on supporting her staff to grow and develop their careers. She has a natural desire to help people which comes from generations of generosity of spirit in her family. “I genuinely want people to do well. That’s really important to me. I love to see people being successful and landing in a place where they’re stronger than they were.”
Limerick describes her father as one who is all-giving all of the time. “He’d give you everything and anything. Our house was always the house where everybody came and ‘open the fridge,’ and ‘eat whatever you’d like,’ and ‘do what you’d like,’ and the most important thing was having people in your home. My house even as a teenager was the one where everyone slept and everyone came and swam in the pool, and ‘a full house is a happy house’ and that was our way.” Coming from that upbringing gave Limerick an outward-facing personality and a social and open nature that was naturally giving.
Leading with a desire to strengthen the people around you has a lasting impact on the work you do and the lives of those you lead. It is the core of Limerick’s strength as a leader, beyond her talent, intelligence, and drive.
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Performance Management Institute
Harvard Business Review
TED Talks: The Generosity Experiment