Life & Business Lessons from the CEO of Wex Inc.
Melissa Smith is the CEO of Wex Inc. a provider of payment processing and information management services in the US, Canada, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. They have around 5,000 employees and under Melissa’s leadership the company has gone from $50 million to $1.7 billion in revenue.
Melissa began at Wex Inc. in 1997 as a senior financial analyst and she worked her way up to being CFO and then President of the Americas before becoming CEO.
A lot of things in the world have been changed by Covid-19. The way organizations operate, the way employees connect with one another, and even the way leaders have to lead.
Melissa Smith, the CEO of Wex Inc., who is responsible for around 5,000 employees around the world says connecting with her people is more important now than ever before. And one important way she does that is through recognizing her people for what they do.
She takes time to send handwritten notes to employees who have been promoted, or who have gone above and beyond in a project, or who have volunteered for events in the community.
She believes that people need to be recognized with little things like handwritten notes and big things like stock grants. She says it is so important for people to know that their work is recognized and valued.
This recognition can actually go both ways. Melissa has been grateful for letters that her employees have been sending her during the pandemic to let her know they appreciate what she does. In fact, she has one employee who sends her a note every single month, and it really means a lot to Melissa.
Overcoming internal and external doubt
A lot of leaders deal with imposter syndrome at some point or another. In fact, a majority of the leaders I speak with on the Future of Work podcast admit that they have faced internal and external doubt throughout their careers. It just comes with the territory. Leaders are going to have times when they feel they are not right for the job or that they don’t have the skills to complete a task.
So how can you overcome those feelings? Melissa says that when it comes to internal doubt it’s all about toning it down. Most likely those thoughts and feelings will never go away completely, but you have to learn to switch that inside voice off.
When it comes to external doubt, it is a balancing act. You have to be able to listen to feedback from others and learn to accept constructive criticism. But you also have to be able to recognize if people are just naysayers who question your abilities without reason. For the naysayers you just have to learn how to move on and prove them wrong.
Melissa’s experience as a female leader
While Melissa doesn’t really think of herself as a female leader, she does recognize that some people will be surprised when they meet her, especially because of the industry she is in, which tends to be male dominant.
In fact when she recalls a time when she was the CFO at Wex Inc. and she and the head of investor relations were on a call with an investor and a portfolio manager that Melissa had not yet met. When both sides went to hang up, the other side of the call thought they had hung up but hadn’t. So she heard a part of their conversation.
The portfolio manager was saying “The CFO is a chick”. And the investor that Melissa knew responded and said “Yes, but she’s a geek chick”. And then they went on to talk about the answers to questions they had.
What she took away from that experience is that people recognize that she is different and they stop to acknowledge that, but at the end of the day what they really care about is the content of what she has to say. They care about performance and results.
When asked if she has to work harder or be tougher as a female leader, Melissa says, “It is different, yeah. Clearly it’s different. I think the important part, though, is those things happen. But if you allow that to be kind of the central part of your thinking, so if I start with the fact that it’s unfair, then you’re almost putting your own baggage on top of what’s already going to be a little bit more difficult. And so what I think of that is, I would rather not have that in the back of my mind, not have your own mind questioning what you’re capable of, on top of what’s going to be other people who do perceive that they just can’t relate or understand sometimes or how you’re capable of doing what you’re doing. But that’s not for me to own. You know, I think that’s for me to a certain extent, to put blinders on and focus on what needs to get done.”
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The importance of saying yes to opportunities
Melissa has given a talk for TEDx and in it she talks about the importance of saying yes to opportunities at work. Career progression, Melissa believes, is in part our own responsibility. It is part your capability, part sponsorship, and part timing.
When you say yes to something outside of your normal responsibilities it allows you to get exposure to people you wouldn’t normally have and it shows a set of skills that are different then what you normally use.
As Melissa shares, “Often what I was given for assignments that would be outside of my job were things that weren’t fun, or, you know, something was broken, or something was happening across some other parts of the planet. And I was being asked to step in and be involved. And I really think that doing that was part of a big part of my career progression, because it again, allowed people to see me in a different light than they would have if I was just, you know, the CFO or the controller or some of the things that I’ve done in my past.”
So if you get the opportunity to do something outside of your job title, or something even a bit outside of your comfort zone, you should definitely consider saying yes.
Dealing with failures and mistakes
Every single leader deals with failures or mistakes at some point in their career. Melissa says she views these as learning opportunities. We are all constantly learning and evolving, so using these situations to grow and get better is important.
Melissa says it is crucial for leaders to create an environment that accepts failures. If people feel like they can’t fail, they are going to be too safe.
One thing she has learned is not to put difficult things off for later. As she says, “bad news doesn’t age well”. If there is a hard decision you have to make, or a hard announcement you have to give, do it sooner rather than later.
Advice Melissa would give to her younger self
If she could go back in time and give herself some advice Melissa says she would tell herself you have the power to impact the way others think and feel by your actions.
She says, “When you get older, you realize that everything you do affects the people around you when you know, like it or not. And so you have to be, you know, you have to just be thoughtful about that…you might meet with somebody and for you, that meeting, you know, maybe the last thing that’s on your mind, but it may be the most important meeting of the day for that other person. And so kind of taking a deep breath, and being the person you want to be in that moment, is, I think, really important. And something particularly in this pandemic environment. Like, you know, you might be running 100 miles an hour and really thinking about a lot of things. But if you can just take a deep breath and reframe yourself for what you’re about to go into it. I think that’s really important.”
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