‘Baby steps beat knocking people out the way’

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irene thomas assetz capital

For many people corralling two small kids into and out of pyjamas is enough of an adventure into exhaustion not to roll work into the mix. Thirty-two years worth of career later though, Irene Thomas, director of lending operations at Assetz Capital, describes the feat with an understatement Hemingway, in any fleeting moment of sober clarity, would be proud.

“I was a young mum of two babies when I first saw an opportunity to get into financial services,” says Thomas. After doing the majority of the child raising during the day, when her husband came in from his main job she started her second shift; an evening telesales role for a business known then as NWS Bank, later HBOS.

“Focusing initially on unsecured loans, I quickly got the lending bug and moved into their mortgage department,” she says, “I’ve always loved working with people and processes and the financial services sector has been a fantastic environment to thrive and develop”. Fifteen years later she left the business as a senior manager leading operations.

Thomas joined Assetz Capital in June, in a newly created role leading the transformation and modernisation of all areas of the customer journey. Prior to her move she held the position of commercial operations director at Together Money where she managed and led for 14 years. She also ran operations for packager Advantage Home Loans as it was being acquired by Morgan Stanley, taking the team through the transition to lender.

Total Jobs describes operations managers as “the glue that holds an organisation together, responsible for people, operations, budgets, project delivery and strategy, a good or bad ops manager can make or break the delivery of a product or service”. In practice this means dealing daily with people, getting them to do what you want, and probing why if they don’t. It’s not unlike corralling toddlers, with bigger egos and fewer opportunities to resolve conflict with naps.

“It’s in my nature to look at every barrier as an opportunity and focus on working through it,” says Thomas, “it’s about taking baby steps rather than knocking people out the way to achieve goals”. Working in operations and change means Thomas always aims to bring people on the journey, by choice but also, as anyone who has ever worked in virtually any team knows, also by necessity if you want things done well.

“The key is to break down their concerns and make them feel part of the process, no matter how big or small,” she says. It’s also important, she adds, to know your audience and treat them accordingly: “It’s about working on their push/pull needs and behaviours, something we should all continue to learn to do,” she says.

The patience required to do this for three decades is terrifying. Some of the biggest barriers Thomas has faced working in financial services have been when she’s made changes to established processes.  Change is scary, and fear does not bring out the best in humans. “Most people know modernisation and change is needed, but it can be difficult to get the required support and participation, in planning and implementation,” says Thomas, likely another understatement.

Her experience-based solution? “Start with some very honest conversations and feedback, as well as prioritising what the needs and wants of the colleague and customer are, manage through the push and pull process to reach a common ground and get the best outcome for the business”.

People often say they are a ‘people person’ and while it’s not always clear they mean something other than they are normal human-level affable, Thomas seems to genuinely mean it. Cut off from her usual hobby of holidays because of Covid lockdowns, instead of staring at a beach screensaver Thomas studied and became a fully qualified trained counsellor. “It was a goal I set myself in the March lockdown and I’m really proud to have achieved it,” she says, apparently absolutely gluttonous for mending the cracks in strangers as well as finance businesses.

But she is not keen to hoard her hard won knowledge and experience –  “I’d like to see more succession planning for our next generation of industry experts,” she sys, “we have lots of key person dependencies, I think we should be encouraging their professional growth”.

Her advice to that next generation?  “Go for it! Find a great business to join that has values you believe in and ask yourself where you want to be short, medium and long term. If that business matches most elements, the world is your oyster”.