‘One thing I’ve learned is that career progression entails taking risks’

22 Oct 2019

Stephen Ashmore. Image: Fidelity Investments

Stephen Ashmore of Fidelity Investments discusses the role of tech in financial services, how he brings together a global team from Galway, and the importance of diversity in business.

Stephen Ashmore has been a leader with Fidelity for 15 years and is currently leading a virtual team across Ireland, India, China and the US. He has recently returned from Fidelity China, where he was head of office for two years.

Prior to joining Fidelity, Ashmore specialised in information technology, working in the telecoms industry and civil service. He holds a diploma in IT from UCC and a degree in arts and politics from NUI Galway.

A native of Dublin, Ashmore currently resides in Galway with his wife Kathy.

‘A company needs to reflect its target market – if you want to attract women, millennials, differently-abled customers, then you can’t just look and think like a bunch of middle-aged men’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m an SVP in Fidelity Investments Enterprise Technology and Global Services. My area of responsibility encompasses capabilities for data, AI, analytics and innovation.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I lead geographically dispersed teams across the globe in the US, India, China and also Ireland. This means organising my day around different time zones, often bringing people together in all locations at the same time, which can be challenging.

One question I always ask myself is: how does my work help advance the business? As with many large, complex organisations there are innumerable draws on your time and your attention, and sometimes it’s easier to respond to the most urgent need, which may not be the most important. Constantly asking myself and others that question can help set the right priorities. Also, my colleagues help to keep me focused if I’m straying off in the wrong direction!

Like many others, I spend a lot of my time in work – either physically or mentally. Therefore, it’s important to me that the work I do is meaningful and contributes to the right outcomes for the business.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

I work primarily in technology. This is a very exciting space, moving at an unbelievable pace. One challenge is simply keeping up with this pace of change. Having spent some time in China, I can see how fast technology is evolving and how fast people’s expectations of technology evolve with it.

Making products and services available on a multitude of platforms has become ‘table stakes’ for any business, especially financial services. This is why Fidelity invests a huge amount in technology every year and why we place great emphasis on innovation and ensuring that we keep our employees up to speed on the latest technologies.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

While I work in technology, Fidelity is a financial services firm. The way in which people engage with firms such as ours is changing. There’s an expectation of being able to do what they need to do digitally and at any time. Therefore, technology and digital platforms are critical to delivering on customer needs.

Digital capabilities, data science and artificial intelligence allow us to provide better services and advice to customers and help us to reach a diverse set of demographics including younger investors, a group that doesn’t normally invest significantly in saving for retirement. If we make it easy and appealing for customers to interact with us and build a relationship early in their lives, we can move from selling products and services to a lifetime engagement as a trusted partner. Appealing to other demographics, such as female investors, is also a key opportunity for us as the distribution of wealth changes.

As a private company we make long-term bets and continually evaluate new technologies and trends such as cryptocurrencies and distributed ledger technology such as blockchain.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I started off in technology when I was in the army. I was given the opportunity to study in UCC and thereafter use what I’d learned in military IT. I had the opportunity to move to Galway with a subsequent employer, Saville (I’d fallen in love with Galway when I went to college in NUIG), and this in turn led to the opportunity to work in Fidelity.

Since joining Fidelity I’ve had the chance to work in several roles which opened up other opportunities for me, including the opportunity to run an office in China, a once in a lifetime experience. One thing I’ve learned is that career progression often entails taking some risks. Throughout my career many doors have closed to me, but others have opened.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’ve made many mistakes and it’s difficult to say which is the ‘biggest’ as each impacts in different ways.

Early on in my technology career I was tasked with selecting and implementing a third-party computer system across several divisions within an organisation. It was not a resounding success to say the least, and there were several reasons for this that resonate with me to this day:

  • My ignorance of the culture and history within each division, and the antipathy between them, made me blind to the non-technical challenges of getting them to agree about the commonality in their respective businesses – in other words, I underestimated resistance
  • At that point, I did not fully understand that such a project is as much about change management as it is about implementation of technology
  • My failure at an early stage to clearly communicate the benefits to the respective businesses and to get key business stakeholders (not always who you think they are from the org chart) on board contributed to my difficulties
  • All of the above fed into an underestimation of the overall cost and time to implement
How do you get the best out of your team?

I try to think about how someone gets the best out of me in work and then apply that to those who work with me. For me, feeling trusted and empowered is important, as is having meaning in my work and recognition for the work that I do. Being informed is also important, then I can put my job and my role in the context of something bigger. It also allows me to contribute and challenge as I understand the ‘why’.

A great part of my role is talent development, coaching and mentoring. A good leader will take an active interest in their team’s career development and will make time for these conversations to happen on a regular basis.

I believe that many, including me, are sometimes challenged with letting go and fully empowering a team. I’m still on this journey but I do know that micro-managing is one of the worst things a leader can do. I think it’s important to create a safe environment where it’s OK to offer opinions and challenge constructively. A leader needs to be open to constructive criticism and probably spend as much time listening as talking.

Finally, I’m a firm believer in the adage: ‘A person joins a company but leaves a manager’.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I think that diversity in technology is still a problem, particularly when we speak about gender diversity. I recall sponsoring a hackathon event in a university a few years ago. When I came to deliver the opening speech to 200 or so technology students, I asked if there were any females in the room. I will always remember one lone hand going up in the corner. This was not so long ago.

I think it’s getting better and I can say that Fidelity takes this very seriously and invests in getting it right. It requires investment and a message from the top and it also requires evidence in terms of role models and more women leaders in technology.

Having worked in different parts of the world I began to understand the power of diverse thinking, partly because I’ve seen the opposite and been guilty of it also. Spending time in a different culture opened my eyes to different ways of approaching work, problems and life in general. I firmly believe that the more diversity of thought you have, the better the outcome.

From a purely practical and commercial standpoint, a company needs to reflect its target market! If you want to attract women, millennials, differently-abled customers, then you can’t just look and think like a bunch of middle-aged men.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Throughout my working life, I’ve encountered many people I’ve admired and many that I haven’t. I’ve tried to emulate those I have and avoid the missteps of those I haven’t.

One example that keeps coming back to me was when I was faced with a crisis point in my career. Without going into it, something bad had happened on my watch. I will always remember my then boss’s words to me, ‘Think about your career’, which left me feeling very isolated and exposed. I’ve vowed since then to always try to support those who need it especially in difficult times.

I’ve learned not only from those above me, but from those at any level. In my experience, leaders, role models and mentors are not confined to those at the upper levels of the hierarchy.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I tend to read to inform and to relax. Non-fiction first thing in the morning over breakfast and fiction just before sleep. Of the many books I’ve read in the last year or so, three come to mind for different reasons:

  • A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics (Daniel J Levitin): I found this to be educational and entertaining – it instilled in me a discipline around understanding data and how that’s represented as information for decision-making
  • Bad Blood (John Carreyrou): A great example of entrepreneurial spirit gone awry in Silicon Valley
  • Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker): Working in an intellect-taxing environment, this gave an understanding of how our brains work and process information and why rest is a key ingredient to clear thinking
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I use the same tools most others use. I spend a lot of my time on email, Powerpoint presentations and on video conference. Given the distributed nature of my team, these are essential tools.

I tend to ask ‘why’ quite a bit, or ‘what’s our objective’. Questions along these lines can be valuable tools for any leader. I tend to iterate on most things that I do. I created a first draft of this and came back to it more than once to evolve it.

I value my colleagues – peers, superiors and teammates –to provide me with information and perspective to help me make decisions and decide on courses of action. They are probably the greatest resource I have.

Finally, being able to laugh is a must for me. A good sense of humour goes a long way in relieving any stress and relaxing others.

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