Lisa Henderson: leaning in to leadership

6 Minute Read

Lisa Henderson has moved up the ranks from senior marketer to head of marketing before landing her current role as Managing Director of Aon Affinity. Discover how she learned to stand out as a leader and how her curiosity and marketing skills have helped her get to the top.

How did you come to be working in financial services?
I started out in telecommunications in a PR role. JP Morgan managed a fund on behalf of Telstra and had heard good things about me so I was invited to apply for Head of Marketing and PR. What a time that was!  I found myself jetting off to NYC to be ‘Morganised’ in my mid-twenties, staying at the Ritz-Carlton and walking down Fifth Avenue just taking it all in.

I had a real affinity – no pun intended – for marketing in financial services because of the complexity involved with product compliance and the amount of education needed on the customer journey as a result. I had the right leadership style for financial services too, because the people you’re working with are always very smart. To earn their trust and respect, you’ve got to prove you’ve done the research and know the numbers – it can’t just be opinion-based. And I’ve always loved to learn and kept adding to my skillset, both formally through my undergraduate and Masters degree and informally, from getting to know successful leaders and how they go about their work.

Was a CEO position something you’ve always been aiming for?
Being an outstanding marketer is all about having a customer-first mindset and approach. My ambition to lead comes from a curiosity about new ways to serve the customer. And that’s why I started putting my hand up for projects where I would get to learn about and lead development of better services, tools and products for customers. While working as General Manager, Marketing at ANZ, I led an IT project to create a $25 million new business banking platform. Then there was a digital transformation project I headed up while working as a senior marketer in for a listed financial services company.

Curiosity and an appetite for learning drove me to take on these projects. But these achievements also helped me stand out as someone with knowledge and capability outside of marketing.

To become a CEO you need to prove you have the capacity to get things done and from day one, I was focused on getting the rounded experience I would need to lead a company or division.   

What advice would you give to senior marketers eyeing up an executive leadership team role?
Firstly, it’s important to recognise how much marketing leaders have to contribute in today’s business environment. They have first-class communication skills which are essential for articulating the strategies that drive growth. They also bring a lot of data and analytics knowledge to the table and are good at identifying gaps in the market and how they could be addressed at the product and service level. CMOs are pretty much a mini CEO these days with what you need to cover and that’s why I think we’re now in an era where we’ll see more marketers moving into top positions.

If you can be confident in what you have to contribute, the next step is communicating effectively with other leaders, so they can recognise what you’ve achieved and your potential. This includes speaking the language of the board. Become financially astute, read board reports when you have access to them and show your ability to be accountable and transparent. And don’t just be accountable for your marketing targets. Look for ways to tie marketing achievements to the strategic goals of the business as a whole.

And this last point should be part of a larger plan to market your purpose, strategy and achievements as a leader in your business. Key stakeholders won’t know what you’re getting done and why unless you tell them. And make the CEO and CFO your best friends. You need their backing to be successful as a marketer and more. Get to understand the timeframe they need to see progress in and how you fit into the bigger picture they’re working towards.

What qualities and skills have helped you succeed as an executive leader?
Developing your leadership style is a lifelong journey. No-one wakes up one day knowing how to lead and I’ve found that you learn a great deal from others as you go.  You have to be clear on what you, personally, stand for and what your values are.  Clarity on what you expect from others is also essential and I try to be as consistent as I can – no-one likes a moody boss!

On the other hand, I also know the value of understanding my strengths and weaknesses. And that, in turn, helps me choose people for my team who complement me. Creating a strong leadership team with the skills and styles that work best alongside my own is the most important thing I can do as a leader. That’s advice I was given by another leader and it’s proved to be absolutely true.

As a woman, do you think it has been harder to reach this point in your career?
For much of my career I haven’t thought of myself as a female and I feel completely comfortable in a male environment, which financial services still is, to a large extent. I just wanted to be the best I could be in any role that I did and to compete in my own right.

Having said that, in the early days I was aware of being one of very few women in senior roles. When I became GM for Marketing at ANZ at age 30, I was one of only five women in the top 100 employees at the company. And I did take up golf to give me access to the C-suite in an environment where I could network with them. This wasn’t a big ask as I like golf and my Dad had taught me how to play. I also dressed very conservatively, in black and navy suits, so I wouldn’t stand out from my fellow leaders. I wanted them to listen rather than look at me.

Corporate life is really tough these days and having a family makes it harder still. But having a child was the best thing I’ve ever done and he will always come first.

Being a Mum has also been a huge part of my career and working life. I’m a sole parent and my son is my number one priority. At times this has meant putting my career on hold so I could be there for him. One of my career changes was a sideways move when I knew I didn’t have the capacity to take on more and at one point I chose to take a year off work to spend time at home with my son.

I think this is why there are still so few women in executive roles in Australia and New Zealand. I asked him what he thought about my taking the MD role with Aon Affinity. He was 13 at the time and he said “Mum, it’s your turn now.” This was amazing to hear because he’s learning that women aren’t just carers. They have so much to offer in every walk of life.

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