I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Thomas. Phil Thomas is Head of Operations for Lloyds Bank Cardnet, based in London. He joined Lloyds in October 2013 and has worked within Financial Services for the past decade, taking on leadership roles in both start-up and corporate environments and has worked across Europe, USA and Africa during his career. Comfortable in strategic management positions in both operational and commercial functions, Phil has a strong track record of execution of complex and innovative initiatives. Phil speaks five languages and holds a BA (Hons) in Modern European Languages from Durham University and an MBA from Duke University. He lives in Cambridge, UK and enjoys travel, running and following football (both American and soccer!)
Outside of taking a chance and pushing through challenges, what are the top 3–5 habits or mindsets that has helped you succeed?
1. When faced with what you know to be an important decision, do not fall into the trap of paralysis via analysis — trying to find more and more data. This nearly always favors conservative retention of the status quo (i.e., staying with your current job). Know what you need to make a decision and don’t add to it.
2. (Notwithstanding no. 1) Understand that your ‘gut feels’ for things is often a mask of subliminal biases. I remember an MBA class at Duke, taught by the exceptional Rick Larrick, where this was broken down. It was a massive light bulb moment to understand our brains’ desire to seek out the interpretation of information most favorable to our biases. If you get an instant visceral reaction to an individual or situation, take a breath before blindly following your instinct!
3. Surround yourself with people who care enough about you to tell you when you’re making a mistake, overreacting to a situation or just generally being a dick. Do not fall into the trap of being your worse critic; it’s subjective and destructive in equal measure. The sooner you learn to take their feedback with calm and humility, the better your decision-making becomes!
4. As a leader of people, be comfortable sharing stories of failure as well as successes — having not followed a traditional route into Financial Services, I spent the first decade of my career feeling like an imposter and was terrified to show anything that could be determined as a sign of weakness. It took a presentation from Jimmy Wales with the underlying catchphrase ‘Failure — Jimmy Wales is good at it’ to make me realize that embracing failures was a source of tremendous strength, provided it’s positioned properly!
When did you take a risk in your professional or personal life?
I left a comfortable corporate job to be employee number 21 at a fintech startup where I was the first person who hadn’t been recruited from the previous company of the founder & CEO. Having given the advice above not to follow your gut instinct, I should share the disclaimer that I did not follow my advice here. I left my comfortable job purely as a ‘screw you’ response to a culture of being required to spend a certain number of years at a particular grade, regardless of performance, before being considered for promotion.
I was entirely unprepared for the demands of being at a smaller company where there was next to no governance structure and culture of seeking forgiveness rather than ask permission. If you wanted to put a new product out on the market, the only criteria were making sure the code was good enough. No risk sign-offs, no market testing, nada! It was the most significant case of corporate culture shock I’ve ever encountered.
What did I learn?
How to improvise and innovate when you don’t have the resources to compete with large competitors. How to think laterally around potential use cases for cool technology.
The best example of both was in developing voice authentication software to authenticate payments — six years before Apple and Android incidentally! We pivoted to winning awards for our partnership with UK’s biggest charity for the blind because after realizing that there was a potential application for the technology to give partially sighted people the ability to make online payments without having to enter their credit card details — they just used their voice to confirm payment.
My relative success is for others to determine but, professionally, it was the sharpest development curve I could ever have encountered early in my career. It made me infinitely more qualified to succeed in senior management positions than if I had followed the corporate career curve.
When you faced adversity, how did you move forward? How do you decide to continue or to move to a new direction
As my career has developed, I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing wrong with not having all the answers. The first time I faced that my self-determined career path of becoming a translator wasn’t going to work out, I froze and was terrified to ask myself the question ‘so, now what?’
It’s something of a cliché, but there’s a great deal of excitement in not having all the answers. It takes a significant amount of maturity to accept that your path might veer considerably off track!
Through job moves, geography changes and redundancies throughout the last decade, I’ve learned to seek advice from others (see above) whose opinions I value, work my network (adversity is no time for misplaced pride!) and ultimately become at peace with whatever decision I make — having a go-to activity lined up after major periods of stress (mine’s hiking) is incredibly valuable. I read last week the mantra that poor companies die from their mistakes, average companies survive and great companies improve and — metaphorically — I believe that probably applies equally to people.
Fintech and payments specifically have never seen so much investment and innovation in the last decade, borne by both technology and regulatory shifts. If you consider developed markets like the US or UK — it’s taken us sixty years to move from cash to mobile payments (via cheques, bank cards and e-commerce with a host of false starts). In China, this paradigm shift has taken less than a decade, and the ubiquity of the likes of WeChat (not technically a Fintech but underpinned by a common mobile payment method) is awe-inspiring and a sign of where consumer behavior will lead to on our side of the world.
Equally, in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, many Fintechs have followed in M-Pesa’s wake in creating simple mobile payments services that allow some of the poorest people in the world access to commercial markets and financial services which they’ve previously been universally excluded from. Applying both the intellectual curiosity and the appropriate technology to solve real human and societal problems is extremely inspiring.
Who are the best leaders?
The best leaders I’ve had the privilege of working alongside and for are universally well-read and intellectually curious — they almost certainly recognize the same characteristics in emerging leaders. Finding out where they source their reading from and receiving recommendations is infinitely more reliable than random Amazon searches!
Obviously the quid pro quo to this is making time not just to read Dan Ariely or Daniel Kahneman but to actually engage with the topics they raise and work out how it can apply to your leadership to make you more effective — again, it comes down to giving yourself enough breathing space but it will be an exceptionally effective career investment.