WorldPay COO's advice: Lean in, take risks, know data

Stephanie Ferris talks to students in Taylor Auditorium

When Stephanie Ferris graduated from Miami University in 1995, she left Oxford with two things – a business degree and a lot of bartending experience because of the job she had during college. She told Farmer School students at the Executive Speaker Series lecture that they should strive to get more knowledge and skills while they’re in school, and not necessarily those skills needed to mix drinks.

“In order to be a successful strategy leader, not only do you need all the analytical skills that you're going to get here in the business school, but you need to understand the business that you're in, the market and the competitors, and focus on where the growth longevity is,” she explained. “This means that you need to know more than your traditional skills. You need to know something about data. You need to know something about business insights. You need to know something about marketing. You need to know things outside of your core discipline.”

Ferris has held a variety of roles in the 20-odd years since her time in Miami, from audit supervisor at PricewaterhouseCoopers, to chief financial officer for a Fifth Third Bankcorp division, to her current role as chief operating officer at WorldPay. She noted that at many points along the way, she had to lean in and be willing to embrace change to grown and take on new roles.

“They asked me if I could be a risk manager and I said, ‘I have zero experience in risk management.’ Now, with my education experience here and the work experience that I've had, I had great risk management and controls expertise. Did I have a lot of passion around risk management? Not really. But I took the opportunity because I saw they were trying to drive transformation and change, and made it work for me and for them,” Ferris recalled. “I took the role, I did it for a year. I learned a ton about how regulators think, and that benefited me years later as I became the CFO of a company and had to interface with regulators.”

When WorldPay was acquired by FIS earlier this year, Ferris said the CEO asked her to be the firm’s first chief operating officer. But she said she didn’t take her own advice. “I said, ‘No, I don't want to. Sounds really risky. I’m comfortable in my finance role,’” Ferris recalled. “I have absolutely no experience in operations, technology, global development. I've never been to India. I don't know how to manage programmers. I've never managed marketing.”

“He called me again. The board called me. He called me again,” she said. “Finally, I said to myself, ‘What do you tell everybody? Lean into the change.’”

“It's about doing things outside your comfort zone, because you can use your financial skills and put them to work in, really, anything you want. And so actually think about, whether it's strategy or driving transformational change, make sure that you lean into those opportunities or those risks, and don't be afraid of taking them,” she advised.

While encouraging them to take risks, Ferris gave students two more pieces of advice for their future inside and outside the Farmer School.

“Increase your depth and breadth. And it doesn't have to be a minor, and doesn't have to be a major, but there's so many things happening on campus. Take advantage of it and do something,” she said.

“Build out your skills around data and analysis. I cannot emphasize enough that if you're able to differentiate (yourself), it will be the thing that will get you promoted, and it will be the thing that will drive you to leadership, because you will show differently than everybody else,” Ferris explained. “Not to mention, it’s fun.”

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