We all know intuitively that differing perspectives create better solutions. So why don’t more CEOs do what it takes to install unlike-minded people in the C-suite?
The reality is that it’s hard to do. Different perspectives create conflict, and that conflict has to be resolved or it festers. And of course, conflict resolution is time-consuming and requires constant tuning.
Yet, the prize is real and tangible. It comes in the form of growth–both for your bottom line and for your employees.
When I first started at WEX, it was really small–bringing in about $50 million in revenue. By 2018, we were just under $1.5 billion, having grown revenue by almost $700 million since 2014. Today, WEX is roughly 50/50 male-female. Our executive leadership team is 40% female (almost half of whom were born outside of the United States), and our board of directors is 30% female. Unlike many organizations, our gender diversity happened largely organically. We didn’t start out with that as an explicit goal, yet we sit back and evaluate where we stand periodically. I believe that much of our sustainability can be traced back to the unlike-minded people at the top of the house.
Here are three of the ways we have been able to build and sustain diversity in the C-suite.
Select the best athlete for the role at hand
I care a lot about getting the right combination of skills, grit, tension, and chemistry into the mix at the most senior levels of the organization. That’s why we set out to pick the best “athlete,” who is also going to bring in a different background and perspective than what we have on hand.
For internal promotions, at times that has meant pulling women into stretch assignments that they might not have raised their hand to do.
I also prefer a model where women bring each other up. Many of the talented women at WEX have told me that part of our value proposition and why they joined is the idea that female employees can make it to the top here. They see other strong women who are willing to be their mentors.
When one woman breaks a glass ceiling and does it well, it gives air and room for others to shine. We have many examples of that here, but we are still working toward creating greater gender diversity in our technology groups. That said, we are committed to making all employees equal in their pursuit of building out their careers.
Let conflict create better ideas and solutions
This has become even more true for us as we have hit different stages of growth. We have senior leaders who have worked only at large companies and others who were mostly involved with smaller companies. The tension between introducing the right level of process and scale while balancing the risk of bureaucracy is very critical as we grow, which benefits from different thinking and experience.
It becomes less obvious, but equally important when you play out gender diversity as it relates to culture choices, communication, or empathy. Different perspectives create a level of thinking and energy that plays to a multi-gender workforce and customer base. We balance this tension with a list of rules by which we operate and a set of behaviors that we are all expected to follow as leaders of the enterprise.
Allow people to show up as themselves
We have been Great Place to Work-certified for the last two years. One of our highest survey scores pertains to how we have accepted others as who they are regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin.
Acceptance of differences was foundational for me early in my career. It’s why I could advance into roles that have historically been male-dominated. I didn’t need to fit into a mold of “normal.” People come to work here and need to demonstrate consistent leadership behaviors. At the same time, they are expected to be authentic. We believe that what makes a person unique is their secret sauce and has a multiplier effect.
We have continued to cherish and build upon this concept by increasingly focusing on output and quality of work and less on physical presence in the office. Our highly decentralized workforce collaborates to meet goals and to allow as much flexibility as possible. This has allowed new mothers–and fathers–to feel confident that parenthood and time spent with their families is not a detriment to their career.
WEX has evolved many times as an organization and will continue to do so in the future. When I consider what has been one of the most critical ingredients to our sustained long-term growth, I can point first to our embrace of the things that make our people different from one another.
Melissa Smith is the president and CEO of WEX, a global corporate payments company. She began with WEX in 1997 as a senior financial analyst and worked her way through numerous roles, including CFO and president of the Americas, and now holds its most senior position. Melissa led the company’s IPO in 2005 and has continued to spearhead WEX’s dramatic growth, both organically and through acquisitions.