According to experts, human brains can comfortably process up to three pieces of information. Anything more than that requires a great deal more effort. That is why when Victorian Funds Management Corporation (VFMC) set off on a journey of “evolutionary transformation”, CEO Lisa Gray ensured the strategic plan had three core pillars.
“I do believe in the magic of threes,” she tells The CEO Magazine. “I think it’s important that people can access and understand where the focus and priorities are.”
In search of a role that was “anchored in purpose”, Lisa took up the reins at VFMC in 2016 after 20 years in high-level finance roles working for the likes of AXA and NAB. She took time to get to know the business and its people before kicking off a strategic review.
“What I found was that it was a very proud organisation that had delivered strong investment returns with a group of people who are highly capable in their field,” she says. “At the same time, there hadn’t been a lot of investment in the broader capability of the organisation in terms of leadership, technology and the tools that they had to use.”
During the process, Lisa discovered the organisation was “quite siloed”. “That’s not unusual for institutional investing organisations, but to me it was a handbrake on our capability and what we could do into the future,” she explains.
While there were some great ideas being generated, people were unable to easily find their voice and get their ideas heard. Armed with these learnings, Lisa implemented the 2020 Strategic Plan with those three all-important components.
I think it’s important that people can access and understand where the focus and priorities are.
“The first was about embedding strategic clarity, starting with articulating a purpose for the organisation,” she says. For VFMC, this was around “improving the future prosperity of Victoria”, a purpose that was settled on through what she describes as a very inclusive process.
At least 20% of the organisation was asked to consider various strategic ideas, not just the senior leaders and board members. The second component was about building resilience in the company’s investment performance.
“When you’ve had a very stable organisation, it’s important to step back and take a look to see if it still makes sense, particularly in a changing environment,” Lisa explains. “So we reviewed our investment philosophy and we shifted to a whole-of-portfolio approach, which at the time was very different in the industry.”
Bolstering VFMC’s enabling capabilities formed the third pillar. “While the investments’ focus and capability were strong, all of the underpinning enabling capabilities hadn’t been invested in,” Lisa notes.
“So we developed a clear strategy and road map about digital and technology, about building a data and analytics capability, and then really uplifting our people capability and leadership.” The changes that resulted from this strategic plan placed the business in a good position for the curve ball that was headed its way: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had really uplifted the technology behind how we worked over the past few years, which meant simple things like every person having a powerful laptop to putting in place enterprise-wide collaboration tools that enabled us to collaborate and work from anywhere,” Lisa recalls.
The company had also changed its physical work environment to include more collaboration spaces and embrace a “different way of working”.
“That meant that we were match fit when COVID-19 came along to make the move to remote working pretty much overnight,” she adds. On the investment front, VFMC had put in place a crisis management plan called Fire Drill in 2019 to enable rapid decision-making and communication in times of major market downturns.
“We had those sorts of tools and we had been practising them since 2019, so we were able to activate those things during the pandemic,” Lisa reveals. “We had also been putting in place a lot of liquidity in our portfolios during 2019 just to have that flexibility.” Lisa’s leadership style also had to adapt.
While before, she stayed engaged by wandering around, listening and talking to people, she had to work out ways to do this remotely. Weekly company video meetings as well as more personal “virtual fireside chats” became her new ways of staying connected. She also ensured staff members felt empowered to make decisions.
“Part of my leadership philosophy has always been about devolving decision-making because I feel it’s best decided where it needs to be implemented,” she says.
With VFMC in a solid position, the company is now keenly watching trends in the world of investments and capital markets globally. Meanwhile, internally, it continues its transformation with a second strategic plan entitled Evolve 24, now underway.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has three main components that aim to build on the strong foundations put in place over the past four years, Lisa explains. “I think we’ve really evolved the organisation, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
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