The changemaker

May 03, 2019
From Dublin to Dubai, MetLife’s Yvonne Hill is responsible for a number of disparate teams that span both cultures and time zones. While some might baulk at the challenge – not to mention the necessary travel – Yvonne thrives on the diversity that comes with the role of Vice President and EMEA Controller at the Fortune 500 company.

Yvonne joined MetLife in 2009, having started her career as a trainee Chartered Accountant in PwC. According to Yvonne, the experience she gained – both in practice and industry – made her the “rounded accountant” she is today. Stints in Kleinworth Benson in London and Eagle Star/Zurich Life and Canada Life in Dublin introduced her to many important aspects of business, but it is the human connections that she credits with much of her success.

“When I went into Canada Life, I went in as a Senior Financial Accountant but progressed to Financial Controller within six months. I was fortunate enough to work predominantly with Brenda Dunne, who at the time was CFO and the company’s Appointed Actuary. Brenda had a great way of working that brought the actuarial and accounting pieces together so I gained a great appreciation for, and understanding of, the actuarial side of the business,” she said.

“And when I joined MetLife, one of my first projects was to set up a small shared services team that covered Ireland and the United Kingdom. In 2011, Damien Cranwell came over from the US with a view to expanding the shared services concept for the company’s EMEA US GAAP reporting process and quickly saw me as a potential successor. He wasn’t only my manager, he sponsored me and that really made a difference – everyone’s career could benefit from a sponsor who will promote you behind the scenes.”

A people person

The human aspect of business has been central to Yvonne’s career over the years. From establishing the Irish chapter of MetLife’s Women’s Business Network to leading the company’s WellMet wellness initiative, she has always been a people-first manager. “I try to do the right thing for people and the team,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that every decision is easy. Sometimes the decision is more difficult because you have the competing interests of the individual and the corporation but for me, doing the right thing and treating people with respect is important.”

This feeds into the role of diversity and inclusion in today’s organisations – something Yvonne is keen to encourage although she appreciates the challenges. “It’s very hard, especially if you are more junior, to push something like diversity and inclusion if there’s no appetite for it. In such a scenario, you will need to get a senior colleague to support you because if you are pushing alone against a culture, you will get demoralised very quickly.

“But my one piece of advice, irrespective of your position in your organisation, is to pace yourself; don’t try to do too much too soon or expect results too quickly. The road to full diversity and inclusion is a long one.”

Work hacks

Another area of focus for Yvonne is work-life balance and again, she leads by example. Although her role requires international travel and her span of control covers several time zones, her flexible approach allows her to reach her goals in the longer term.

“I’m usually at work and logging on at 7am when I’m in Dublin. For me, that quiet time is invaluable – it helps me get on top of emails before meetings start to creep in,” she said. “After that, it’s a juggling act. Sometimes I leave work early and make calls at home, and other times I stay late but for me, work-life balance is a long-term play. I tend to look at it over a period or weeks or months and then ask if I’ve been able to spend time on the things that matter to me. Flexibility on both the professional and personal sides is important, and perhaps work-life integration is a better way of putting it.”

When it comes to international travel, which can easily disrupt one’s routine, Yvonne sees it as a necessary evil but one that has broadened her talents as a leader. “I’m very structured with it and because I travel to the same places, if I do have to spend time in an airport, I know I’ll be able to work while I’m there,” she said. “Being mobile in your career and working in multinational organisations can bring a breadth of experience that is much deeper than companies with smaller global footprints can provide, so it’s something I would certainly recommend to young Chartered Accountants in particular.”

Navigating change

Such experience will be a vital asset for Chartered Accountants who are already faced with a tsunami of change. The hot topics, in Yvonne’s view, include data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence – but understanding how each can benefit one’s industry or function is the key.

“Everybody wants to do more with less and we hear all these buzzwords in our professional circles and the business media, but how do you make something happen in each of these areas? It isn’t easy because they are difficult to put into action,” she said. “I firmly believe that we need to reskill our employees to become more adept at data analytics in particular. It’s a very fast-paced environment at the moment and people are adapting and changing, but you will need skilled talent if you want to exploit the potential of these technological advancements.”

Not surprisingly, one vital non-accountancy skill Yvonne has developed over the years is in change management. From her early days in MetLife, building a small shared services centre, to simultaneously developing an EMEA-focused centre of excellence in Warsaw while strategically trimming the headcount in the Dublin office, Yvonne has been keen to put her EMEA locations forward for early-stage change initiatives.

“I do this for two reasons. First, we are a small part of MetLife so if I can transform EMEA into a leader in all new things, that will increase our profile within the corporation and help keep us relevant. And second, because of our size, we can be used like a sandbox. If a project fails, it isn’t a major issue – at least we tried, and we can call it and move on,” she said. “Managing the change that this approach brings can be tricky. You need to set the vision early, choose your key battles and get people on board. But most importantly, you need to be prepared to call time on a project if it isn’t working – that’s absolutely vital if you adopt an experimental strategy.”

And again, Yvonne brings the focus back to her teams. “Change gives people an opportunity to develop but allowing someone to fail can be very powerful. Yes, you need to be careful in terms of how and where the failure occurs, but failure in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be the most effective learning experience of all.”

You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.