Guest Blog - Women in Strategy: Fiona Hayes-St Clair, QBE

Anika Stokes 04.03.2019

To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8th, this week we will be bringing you a series of guest blogs from leading senior females in the Strategy division. They will be discussing their success, career-defining moments and what advice they would give to another female looking to pursue a similar career. This is what Fiona Hayes-St Clair, Chief Strategy Officer for QBE Australia Pacific had to say.

fiona hayes-st clair

Profile: Fiona has spent nearly two decades as a strategist, most recently in in-house roles after beginning her career with Booz & Company (now Strategy&) where she was a partner in the Financial Services practice. Fiona is currently Chief Strategy Officer for QBE Australia Pacific and was previously responsible for consumer banking and wealth management strategy at NAB. Fiona keeps busy running after her two young daughters and is currently enjoying flexing her creative muscle studying design.

What are the key habits that you feel make you successful?

The three habits that I aspire to…but don’t always achieve as I’d like every day and every week, are self-care, making my people successful and tuning into customers.

Self-care: This is the old airline safety message of make sure you have your oxygen mask before helping others. This habit took me a long time to learn, and I am still working on it, but I have realised that while I have a propensity to take on lots of work and deliver at a high cadence, I burn-out and become less creative, snappier with my teams (and family) and love my work less when I operate like this. For me self-care means – finding time to meditate and clear the clutter, sleep well, exercise and find blocks of time where I tune out of work.

Making my people successful: In any leadership role, and strategy is no different, you succeed when you team is clear on their goal, given space to achieve that goal and timely coaching and feedback to help each individual develop. Often this means giving frank, honest feedback that is hard to hear, particularly for the high-achieving A-types that tend to choose strategy as a career. To help people through this I share my journey, ask for feedback on me (this is a two-way street) and combine care for the individual personally with candour on their performance.

Tuning into customers: Strategists can get so caught up in frameworks and analysis that they forget to tune into the people who ultimately make the strategy come to life – customers. In my current role I look after customer insights and a front-line customer service team, so I have lots of opportunities to tap into customer sentiment. In the past I have used regular visits to branches and contact centres, voice of the customer verbatims, meeting with customers and call listening to make sure my team and I understand what is on the minds of our customers.

What's the most valuable piece of advice you have received in your career and how did it help you?

That analytical rigour and technical smarts will only take your career so far, to truly progress investing time in relationships and people is key. Early in my career I tended to mistake efficiency for effectiveness and was frankly far to transactional in terms of fostering business relationships. Acting on this advice, helped me slow down, take the time to get to know people and really understand what it important to them. Needless to say this makes work more fun, things get done quicker and better!

What's the most challenging situation you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

I consider myself a very resilient, hard-working person who loves the challenge of ambiguity, tough problems and ambitious timeframes – while this kind of work has stretched me and been difficult at times, it has never been insurmountable. My most challenging career situations have been when I have had a fundamental mismatch between my values and the values of either my leader or the broader organisation. The (very) few times this has happened in my career so far, I have taken some time to really observe what is going on and understand why I feel so frustrated. Talking with trusted colleagues helps me get perspective on the issue and then (so far) my decision has been to walk away from those situations as I think it is hard to accommodate a fundamental values mismatch.

How do you approach making a difficult decision? 

As you would expect from a career strategist, I am quite logical…at least to start. I will often write down and try to assess the different options and if appropriate will talk them through with colleagues, friends or family. I like to write down my decision and what the consequences could be before I sleep, literally sleep on it then in the morning finalise my decision. I am working on getting better at shortening that decision-making process as I know that no decision will be perfect, for me the goal is to be clear why I am making a decision, and if it turns out to be the wrong one, learning from that so my next difficult decisions is a little easier.

What do you believe will be the most in-demand skills over the next 10 years within the strategy division and why?

In strategy roles, analysis, great communication skills and stakeholder engagement are really important and hard to do well, but are essentially table stakes. In my view to stand-out as a strategist you need to combine these skills with a combination of these three other capabilities:

  • Influencer – strategists (whether as consultants or in-house) rarely control the resources or all the decision rights to make the strategy a reality. Being able to influence and guide an organisation to make a strategic decision and execute it is a hugely valuable (and rare) skill
  • Integrator – as we face ever more complex strategic decisions, it becomes increasingly important to integrate the perspectives, insights and skills from people from all sorts of disciplines, functions and backgrounds. Integrating and synthesising these to form a new and distinctive insight is essential for strategists searching for a competitive advantage
  • Human-understanding – while not all strategists need to HCD practitioners, learning to connect ‘rational’ / quant analysis with human behavioural insight helps to unlock strategies that are both more differentiated and more likely to gain traction with employees and customers.

Join in on the conversation on Twitter for this years' International Women's Day using the hashtag #BalanceforBetter

Anika Stokes's picture
Director | Strategy & Innovation
astokes@morganmckinley.com.au