17. How Listening to Your Values Can Lead to a Fintech Adventure, Benyam Hagos COO NiumFeb 24, 2022
Life starting out at a big four with a path to partnership in audit
How he learned to listen to his valued and the skills that changed his path to be the leader he admired
Hitting a new and fast-changing environment as a leader in a fast growing FINTECH Nium
How he plans to lead his team with authenticity, agility and trust
INTERVIEW: FROM BIG 4 to FAST-PACED FINTECH
What is the focus for you personally in your career at the moment?
For me, it's all about growth. This is a stage in my career where I need to continue growing. I'm very fortunate and I've got an expanding role now, so I'm not just learning about finance.
My role covers two things now; finance and driving a strategy and pushing Nium forward in Europe.
I really want to focus on my own growth to make sure I'm learning about the other areas. I try to drive that strategy. It's growth for me and growth for the company as well.
What does growth look like to you?
I spent a long time in a big 4 company, 11 years and I very much on an escalator working towards partner thinking that would be my long term aim.
There was a point in my career when I thought actually I would like to have a broader experience, look for something a bit different than just being in pure audit, which is what led me to going out into industry.
Leaving the Big4 was a huge jump for me. I think it is a huge jump for a lot of people. I never really thought I would leave. And that was a big challenge for me.
I learned a lot and I had good mentors around me who helped mould my success.
They helped to drive my confidence so I could put my head above the parapet and try and be the leader I wanted to be. At Nium I knew and felt that I spoke to people who led the interviews, that I would have that chance to step out from the pack.
How did you get clarity on the type of leader you wanted to be?
I think when you're in that big four environment, you're very lucky in that you have leadership roles quite early in your career. You'll lead teams after three, four years, which was me at only 24, 25, but you also have leaders above you at age 34 - 35 who are not so different from you.
I was fortunate to work with some outstanding leaders who I looked at and thought, I like part of the way that you're doing this part of the way that you lead this. I don't like certain things that you do and could start to build my own leadership style.
One of the big, big points for me was vulnerability.
I worked with one of the partners who was really open about himself; what drove him, why he wants to be in an accountancy environment. That made me gravitate towards him.
Finance and accountancy can sometimes get a bad reputation - “you're a boring auditor.”
But actually, when you start to show your personality, you show who you are, that's what people want to see.
People want to work with somebody who can bring change.
When you're in a finance function, it's very easy to just be seen as a policeman and just say “no, we can't do this. We can't do that.”
But to try and help the business grow, I think that's an exciting part
Who are you now, as a leader?
I think it's hard to say what your own style is like.
You need somebody else in the room to say what your own style is.
Ultimately, I think just truly try and be authentic.
Just to be me and show that, that there isn't a facade that I'm hiding behind. And be sure of who I am as a person because that's the easiest way to connect with somebody.
Be open. If you've got to be sick, to look after your kids, or whatever you got to do, just be an open person because ultimately that's what you want.
You want to connect with somebody on a personal level and then you'll start to you'll put in the extra hours, you'll do the extra yard.
You've got that trust in your team when they're trusting you as well. I would hope my team would say that I support them by standing next to them and that when that I share the success with them, and also I share the pain, that when it got tough and things weren't going well, that I wasn't there pointing fingers.
I was there with them at 11.59, trying to get things done before midnight closure.
I would hope my team would, would recognize that and feel that I would do that for them. They were there when I needed them, and they weren't there pointing fingers, they were there with their sleeves rolled up. That's what you want.
All in it together
Nium is all about making seamless payments. That's what they want when they're wanting to do. We want it to be the number one, make it seamless, make it easy for you to use our products and payout with virtual cards. The company started in Southeast Asia and it's growing.
Nium is in San Francisco now,. You'll see the big billboards and if you are watching the cricket you’ll the big logo out there. The idea is to grow and be at the forefront.
That's what I think is very exciting about Nium and at the moment is that you can start to build it and push the boundaries and build it.
Your day will change day today. You have to be comfortable to pivot right? You have to believe that fast change is exciting and not stressful.
What advice do you have for a finance leader in a Big4 looking to explore new careers?
A Big 4 is a great place to be. I really enjoyed it. If you are going to leave, you have to make sure you go to the place a right place. Do your research and be calm and measured when you do it.
I had very clear goals when I was more junior in my career, I had very clear expectations of what I thought my future would look what it looked like. I remember the first conversation I had where somebody said
“do you want to be a CFO?”
And I said to her, “no one's ever asked me that question before, they've only ever asked me if I wanted to be an audit.”
Since then Nium has been very clear in broadening my horizons.
The key to my career was knowing I was taking the right step when I took it,
Having that clarity saved me not just a number of years, but it really changed my perspective on my career.
I will always remember when I was leaving the building on my last day hand in my pass in thinking I'm not really sure what's going to happen after this.
That was terrifying and exciting at the same time, because I was so used to it.
Even when I went on secondment from London to New York, I knew what I was doing,
I'd already been to New York. I was moving onto an engagement team where I knew half of the team. So I wouldn't have a concern and similarly, when I came back, I wasn't worried as I knew a number of the team members coming back in.
But handing in your pass, handing in your laptop and going into an industry role? I didn't know anyone in the company, nobody bar one person so it was very scary and very hard.
II did a lot of research to make sure I went to the right place because when I walked out of the building, I wanted to make sure that I was going to the right place and they would work out for me.
What is your leadership focus for the next 12 months?
I am trying to bring more structure to the conversations I have with my team so that they have my undivided attention at certain points.
I want to give them a window where if it's urgent, you can get a hold of me, they'll always be one dedicated slot each day.
That really helps me structure my day. It helps me structure my life ultimately on the back of it, because I know. There are these touchpoints I'll have with my leaders.
What I'm trying to show to my team over the next six to 12 months is that they will have the same access to me as I have to my leaders, that would always be the same that I will try and structure myself in a way that can support them.
And also giving them the opportunity to step into my shoes where they can.
For me, trust is a really big thing, and a huge part of the way I am as a person; with my family and who I am at work. I need to feel that I can trust my team to do what is needed to be done, to hold themselves to account, to try their best.
The other thing is to be authentic. I'm a family man. I need to do nursery drop off. I need to be around. I need to, and I want to be relevant in their life.
Being authentic is a big part of who I am as a person.
Watch the interview here: