Welcome back to our Women in Tech series, where we celebrate remarkable women who are innovating and leading in the tech sector. Today, we’re thrilled to bring to the spotlight Melissa Banek, an epitome of versatility, adaptability, and leadership.
From her formative years as a Registered Psychologist to her pivotal role as the Head of HR at IMC, Melissa’s journey is a testament to the power of diverse experiences and the profound impact they can have on one’s approach to leadership.
Navigating through various roles, organisations, and even continents, Melissa brings forth a unique blend of psychology and human resource expertise. Her approach to leadership, which champions the amalgamation of peak performance with sustainability, has undeniably left an indelible mark on IMC’s performance culture. But her impact doesn’t stop there. With a keen focus on cultivating emotional intelligence, especially amongst male leaders, Melissa is reshaping conventional leadership paradigms in the finance industry.
In this enlightening conversation, Melissa shares powerful anecdotes from her career, offers invaluable advice to budding women in tech, and elucidates her vision for a more inclusive and equitable future in the tech industry. So, whether you’re seeking inspiration, guidance, or just a compelling read, dive in to uncover the wisdom and experiences of this remarkable leader.
Hi Mel, thanks for joining us today. You have a rich and diverse professional history, from being a Registered Psychologist to an HR Executive and now the Head of HR at IMC. How has this diverse background informed your approach to leadership and managing people at IMC?
My pleasure. I’m glad to be here. Yes, I have had quite a varied background as I have worked in many different organisations and industries. However, it has always been in the HR space. I have always been passionate about helping leaders and organisations reach states of peak performance and doing so in a stable and sustainable way.
Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working with high-achieving individuals, C-suite executives, and leaders who are motivated to be the best that they can be. This has allowed me to see firsthand what optimal success looks like for leaders with the overlay of what an organisation deems to be important.
My approach to leadership is to give people a chance if there is alignment with our leadership success factors and if they have a strong motivation to move into the role. I also do not believe leadership is the only way to make an impact and progress in your career, so we also offer many other pathways for “moving up”.
We are proud of our high bar on performance and have a number of HR initiatives and tools to assist both managers and employees in having clear and open conversations when it comes to performance. Our culture very much leans into the principles around growth mindset and we have both structured and unstructured ways we help our leaders and employees have open discussions around career, growth and performance.
You’re back in Sydney after spending considerable time in IMC’s Chicago office. Can you share some of the most significant cultural or professional differences you’ve observed between these two locations?
I truly enjoyed myself and grew so much as a person and leader while I was in Chicago for 5.5 years. The IMC culture was similar in Chicago as it is in Sydney and this was great to see as our company values are the same in all offices.
The Chicago office was over double the size of the Sydney office with high growth targets, so the challenges faced in the US differed from those in Sydney. Specifically, how do we maintain an awesome culture even with the huge growth happening. To do this, we needed to look at how we communicated changes that were happening in the organisation, who needed to be involved in making decisions and how we would structure our teams to set us up best for success.
I worked closely with the Executive Team and the HR Leadership Team to devise people strategies that would assist us in maintaining our strong culture whilst growing quite rapidly. We placed a large emphasis on our engagement survey to better understand from our people what we were doing well and what we needed to change.
For example, we were making some pretty significant changes with how we set up and structured our trading and engineering teams, and we learnt from our people that we needed to provide further information about how decisions were made in order for people to truly understand the thoroughness and process behind how decisions were made. When we were smaller, people would be more involved in the decision-making, but as we grew, we had to get more particular with who we were involved in the process as it became unviable for everyone to be involved in every decision.
Another thing we looked at was what it meant to be a leader in our growing organisation and the skills that we needed to drive change forward and further embed our growing culture. One major initiative was our Emerging Leaders Program, which focused on our managers who were earlier on in their leadership careers and needed to deal with the large changes we were facing.
This 9-month program was very effective as managers learnt the skills we deemed to be critical, like influencing, delegating effectively, building strong teams and the like. This highly tailored program blended both practical and technical learning whilst intertwining coaching with in-house and external coaches. It was a big shift from being a smaller company culture to that of a larger organisation.
You’ve spent a lot of your career supporting high-performers. What’s your secret to effectively coaching individuals who already consider themselves at the top of their game?
The key is to get clear right from the outset what it is that they want to achieve. Due to my background in psychology, I’m able to dig deeper with people to really dismantle their blockers and the mindset shifts that need to happen to get to that next level.
I fundamentally believe it doesn’t matter how far along the high-performance journey someone is on, there is always something to learn and get better at. It’s funny because it’s often the clients or stakeholders who are at the top of their game who don’t rest on their laurels and still want more out of their life and their career – without compromise. This seems to be an innate quality they all possess.
Working on developing emotional intelligence, particularly in male leaders, is one of your specialities. Why do you believe this is important, and what strategies have proven most effective?
Organisations can place a huge focus on technical capabilities but the biggest game changer that I have seen is when that technical expertise converges with emotional intelligence. For those who have merged these two areas well, their career has really taken off.
Emotional intelligence is not something that you can just read in a book and then you are an expert in it. Without emotional intelligence, leaders won’t be able to reach their full potential and they can even block their team members from reaching their full potential. There are a number of strategies that are effective but I would say first and foremost, having awareness of how you behave around others, being able to manage large emotions, coupled with a desire to respond rather than react, is key. Developing emotional intelligence is a lifetime process.
With your decades-long experience in the finance industry, you’ve had the opportunity to witness significant shifts in the sector. How do you foresee the role of performance coaches evolving within the financial trading industry?
In recent years, I have seen the emphasis of organisations investing more in their people, particularly their top performers. One very potent and impactful way of doing this is through performance coaching, with many firms in the US either bringing the function in-house or outsourcing it. We also believed in the benefit and brought the function in-house.
The numerous benefits of having dedicated in-house performance coaches stem from their wealth of experience from their time working within our HR team. They possess an intimate understanding of our culture, stakeholders, vision, values, and success factors that are integral to the organisation.
Moreover, even after the coaching engagement has ended, it is easy to conduct ad-hoc follow-ups that allow us to track the ongoing success and benefits as the person continues to progress within the organisation. Our people recognise this phenomenal benefit as we are a company that truly cares about the development and growth of our people.
You’re passionate about helping people achieve a career and life they love. Can you share an example or story where you saw this passion yield remarkable results?
I am in such a fortunate position where I get to work with and observe so many people and leaders who genuinely love their career and their personal life without compromising on what truly matters to them. The key lies in prioritising and focusing your time on the most appropriate tasks that will yield the results you are looking for.
For many high performers, there is such an innate drive for results and when this becomes the sole focus, it can lead to unhealthy habits and ways of working. Ultimately, the people who have been able to focus on the high-performance habits that encapsulate various areas of life, including health, wellbeing, hobbies, personal growth, and community, are the ones whose careers have really taken off. When someone is able to get to a place where they are feeling good in the areas of life that are important to them, this is when the ultimate up-levelling and joy happens.
I remember one stakeholder I was working with who was at an inflexion point in their career. They had recently been promoted to lead a much larger team in a different area and had also been burning the candle at both ends whilst they were trying to fit too much in – both professionally and personally.
Unfortunately, a number of things were starting to suffer, including their health and sleep, and there were also issues occurring within the team, including trust issues and underperformance. In working closely together, we were able to get clear on what was getting in the way of their success, how to get more focus on the things that would move the needle, and re-prioritising health and wellbeing to optimise their performance.
I am pleased to say that after 3 months, we were able to get the foundations in place, and within 6 months, both they and their team were thriving. I find that when leaders are able to make changes for themselves and operate from a peak state in all areas of their life, not just work, the flow onto the rest of the team should not be underestimated.
The path to a career in tech can seem daunting, especially for those just starting out. What words of wisdom would you offer to women who are passionate about tech but unsure about how to begin?
It can definitely be intimidating starting anything or anywhere new and I can guarantee that everyone feels this way at various stages in their career.
My words of wisdom are to back yourself and go for it if that’s what your heart truly wants. Don’t sit on the sidelines of your career – get in the driver’s seat and put your hand up for opportunities and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
Seek out work experience or an internship to get a flavour of what it entails. That way, you can truly get an understanding of what it might be like to work in such a role. Also, if you are able to find a female mentor who can also share their experience of what it is like to work in tech and the different roles and pathways for career growth, then that is really helpful.
Lastly, always pursue your passions and dreams no matter what setbacks may come your way. This level of resilience will serve you well.
Lastly, if you had the power to bring one major change in the tech industry, particularly for women, what would it be and why?
If I had the power to bring one major change to the industry for women, it would be to prioritise fair and equitable recruiting practices. This level of care and due diligence will assist all organisations in ensuring that they give everyone a fair opportunity to do well during interviews, ultimately leading to greater diversity within organisations.
To achieve this, organisations can review and improve the imagery and language used in ads, job descriptions and the assessments used throughout the hiring process. As well as regular training for interviewers and decision-makers on promoting an inclusive and non-biased process to ensure it is fair and equitable.
Embracing these changes and fostering a culture of inclusivity in tech recruiting not only benefits women but also creates a more diverse and innovative industry as a whole. By providing equal opportunities and dismantling biases as a company, we’ve learned that unlocking the full potential of talent from all backgrounds will lead to a brighter future for the tech industry.