#WomenInFinance Lead with Intention — An Interview with Lisa Gray, CEO, Victorian Funds Management Corporation
In today’s data-driven environment, it can be easy for financial organizations to lose sight of the human side of their business. True success is about more than profitability. It’s also about purpose: delivering on the promises we make to our stakeholders. So how do organizations become equal parts purpose-driven and profit-driven? For Lisa Gray, chief executive officer of Australia-based asset manager Victorian Funds Management Corporation (VFMC), helping organizations reimagine their business strategy has been a passion for more than 20 years. We spoke with Lisa to learn how she got into this field, and the different ways she’s helped leaders in the financial space conduct their business with purpose.
You hold a bachelor’s degree in town and regional planning. How did you get into that field and what made you shift your focus to a career in finance?
My father was an architect, so I grew up loving the urban form. While I was in college, I took a course in organizational design, which helped me realize my passion for organizational and team management.
When I first started looking for a job after college, I received a lot of pushback from the companies I approached because they weren’t sure how my degree in town planning could benefit them. I forged ahead and eventually received two job offers, ultimately joining National Mutual (which is now AXA) as a business analyst.
I feel lucky to have discovered my passion early on, and then found an industry that was willing to take a chance on me — not everyone is as fortunate. From day one in my career, I’ve had a role in shaping organizational strategy for businesses, including human capital management. A large part of growing and sustaining strong, healthy organizations is creating an environment that enables people to bring the best versions of themselves to the office. I believe authenticity drives individuals to do their finest work.
You spearheaded a number of transformational projects while at National Australia Bank (NAB). What is one project you are most proud of?
As a result of the Global Financial Crisis, people were disillusioned with financial institutions. Many felt the financial system was off- kilter and that there was not a fair exchange of value between individuals and institutions. At NAB, we decided one way to help redefine our relationship with customers and regain their trust was to eliminate account overdraft fees. We called it our “Fair Value” strategy — and it resulted in an immediate revenue hit of $100 million. Instead of backpedaling, we shifted our focus to revenue calculations and began measuring lead indicators instead of lag indicators to better understand the effectiveness of our strategy. Customers — and even some members of our own team — were initially suspicious, believing that we’d incorporate hidden fees elsewhere, but we moved ahead with the program exactly as planned. We recognized that regaining trust for our industry would require more than one response, but it was a great first step. Additionally, we asked our teams what customers complained about most. Based on that feedback, we continued implementing one change after another — what I like to call a “rolling thunder” response. Gradually, our approach paid off. Not only did we increase profits, add new accounts and retain existing ones, we also won back the trust of our customers.
This was when I realized that to achieve sustained success, every organization must learn to put their people’s and customer’s needs before their own.
While at NAB, you were responsible for the company’s total environment transformation, including a multi-year business transformation initiative to modernize the bank's IT systems. What did you learn about the role financial technology, or FinTech, has in defining the future of the industry?
FinTech is of great interest to me because it offers effective solutions for several human-centric problems such as easier, flexible access to financing, user-friendly money management, and tools to enable peer-to-peer-lending. These easy wins are often overlooked by large institutions, which can lose sight of customer needs in favor of profitability.
My take on technology is also deeply linked to my philosophy of putting customers at the center of what organizations do. I am not a supporter of transitioning old processes and practices to new technologies without revisiting the purpose, usability and audience — which appears to be a current trend. Technology projects need to come from human-centric designs; otherwise customer experience won’t improve and costs will actually escalate. In financial services, I feel major change is especially difficult because people are hyper-analytical and data driven. As leaders, we need to look for signs of success and rewrite the narrative as necessary. Have courage in your action plan.
As leaders, we need to look for signs of success and rewrite the narrative as necessary. Have courage in your action plan.
As of September 30, 2018, the percentage of women on ASX 200 boards stood at 28.5 percent,  an all-time high for Australia. In the US, women held just 22 percent of board seats of 2018 Fortune 1000 companies.  Do you think Australia is ahead of the US in regards to diversity and inclusion?
Australia still has a long way to go. Women need to be given more profit and loss leadership opportunities in fields such as sales and operations, versus the more functional areas of finance or human resources, for example. We must continue to sponsor women for executive roles. Simply having a greater female presence in senior leadership positions encourages more women as they move up the corporate ladder.
That being said, I do believe that gender diversity has been tackled pretty effectively in the Australian public sector. Take VFMC for example. Our board is 70 percent women, our executive leadership team is 60 percent women and our employee base is a 60:40 split between men and women, though we have more work to do in our senior investment roles. Our organization is a great example of the Victorian Government’s focus on appointing women to leadership positions.
You’re approaching your third anniversary as CEO at VFMC. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
As leaders, we need to be inclusive in our approach when fostering a connection with our people. Spend time explaining the “why” and give people time to build their change muscle. This will foster the trust they need to have in you to put an idea forward. Delegating projects and decision-making to colleagues builds trust in leadership — and confidence in employees to share their ideas. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary team at VFMC. We are trying to create a sustainable organization that is not reliant on any one person to make it all happen.
I believe the financial services industry has an essential purpose. People need what we offer on a daily basis: personal banking, saving for retirement, growing a local business or buying a home. This industry has and will continue to be about people. Our offerings are delivered by people and enabled by people on a global scale. That’s why leading and enabling individuals to bring their whole selves to work is of paramount importance to me. This industry has a long way to go, and I will continue to dedicate my work to helping organizations get there.
1. AICD, (2018). The Australian Institute of Company Directors June-August 2018 Quarterly Report. Retrieved from https://aicd.companydirectors.com.au/advocacy/board-diversity/gender-diversity-momentum-continues-asx-200-boards
2. 2020 Women on Boards, (2018). 2020 Gender Diversity Index: 2018 Gender Diversity Index Key Findings. Retrieved from: https://www.2020wob.com/companies/2020-gender-diversity-index
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