Set up in 2002, Malta’s Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit is, by definition of its key members, a success story. Sharing their part in that story are three of the agency’s female heads: Elena Tabone, Head of Enforcement; Ruth Aisthorpe Gauci, Head of Intelligence Analysis; and Claudia Callus, Head of Supervision.

Hailing from the insurance sector, Elena joined the FIAU in 2015 as a Compliance Officer, going on to lead the implementation of the agency’s first ever Risk Assessment and System and Risk Framework as a Risk Manager. As of 2020, she has headed the FIAU’s Enforcement Section, tasked with managing and coordinating Administrative Enforcement and Follow Up Actions. 

Sharing her thoughts on leadership, Elena begins by saying that self-awareness is important. “You need to keep how you act in mind, and how that will impact others, always ensuring your actions motivate people, help them to grow and learn from mistakes,” she says, emphasising the importance of building relationships. “You should always lead by example – people will always react to a leader’s actions and will embrace change, challenges, failure, and success if a leader embraces them too,” she continues.

“It’s easy to create followers, but your task, as a leader, is to create other leaders. You should be able to understand the qualities of your people, allowing them to use such qualities for the team’s benefit, as well as their own,” Elena says, adding that leaders should also be humble and give recognition in order for people to feel appreciated, feel part of the team and feel the urge to do more. Finally, she makes a case for transparency and keeping your team informed of plans and involving them in decision making, affirming, “you should always have an open-door policy.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Aisthorpe Gauci joined the FIAU as an Intelligence Analyst in early 2015, having previously worked within the financial services industry. From there, growth and transformation within the agency afforded her the opportunity to progress to Senior Intelligence Analyst, followed by Manager and Senior Manager positions before moving to her current role as Head of the same section she joined in 2015.

For Ruth, leadership is about being firm but fair. She defines a good leader as “one who adapts as much as possible to people’s needs and situations, and one who leads by example.” Putting the human element at the forefront is also extremely important, as she adds, “especially when leading larger teams, it is very important for people to feel that they are valued and recognised as individuals not merely numbers.”

Finally, Claudia Callus hails from an auditing background, bringing her experience with one of the Big 4 audit firms and later with a credit institution focusing mostly on audit engagements, internal audits, risk management, project management, financial investigations and other assurance engagements. Joining the FIAU in 2019 as a Senior Manager of the Supervision Section, she then moved to the role of Head of the same section.

According to Claudia, a good leader is one who can inspire others to always achieve more, to develop their strengths and to reach their potential. “A person in a leadership position can be qualified and talented, but if this person is not able to push, develop and maximise the strengths of the team, little can be achieved in terms of targets and results. Behind a successful leader there is always a successful team,” she maintains.

As females occupying key leadership roles, the subject of gender draws some interesting insights from the group. On an individual level, all three feel that they have not faced specific challenges related to gender within their own progression, but acknowledge that women may face challenges in feeling respected in managerial positions, as well as a fear of failure and how that will be perceived. On this subject, Elena notes, “timidity seems to also be an issue at times, where women feel less at ease to showcase their success. Others experience difficulties in balancing their responsibilities between work and home.”

Within the FIAU, she affirms, the team strives to follow three important values: inclusion, respect, and trust. “I have always felt respected at the FIAU, where your opinion matters irrespective of your level of seniority or years of experience, let alone your gender. The FIAU assists in showcasing one’s success primarily by allowing for that success in the first place, and secondly by promoting it at a national and international level,” she states, crediting this respect with having enabled the unit to grow from around 20 people in 2015 to over 130 in 2022.”

Moreover, she adds, “I never felt the fear of failure, since the FIAU embraces failure as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop and to instil courage in our people to embark on new areas and to challenge themselves. I have also always seen great support when it comes to my role as daughter, wife, and mother, but have also seen equal support given to men in their role as sons, husbands, and fathers.”

On her part, Claudia explains that, rather than encountering obstacles because of gender, she has encountered challenges to juggle between work and family commitments – a common issue faced by women in business. “I never experienced any unfair treatment because of my gender, but rather I was always given full support to develop my career. There were moments where I had to slow down due to family commitments, but at the same time I worked with organisations who showcased an inclusive culture and that meant that everyone was given the same opportunities as long as one demonstrates commitment to develop oneself.”

Statistically, Malta scores low among EU countries in its representation of women holding board positions in large companies. Discussing what can be done to overcome this, Elena believes it is about educating people in leadership positions to never include gender as a consideration but to focus on the qualities of the individual, the expertise they can bring to an organisation and the experiences they are able to share. “I also think we need to empower women to take action when gender prevails in decision making. To speak up when inequality is perceived, and if need be, to move on to other companies where it’s not a matter of gender but a matter of skills,” she maintains.

Claudia is in agreement, highlighting that the statistics indicate that overall, there are some barriers that still need to be demolished. “I definitely do not believe that this issue relates to not having women who are sufficiently talented, qualified and experienced. However, I think there are still some gender stereotypes and individual barriers that need to be overcome, such as, for example, the unjustified assumption that women cannot be as effective as men due to family commitments.”

Sharing the most important leadership lessons they’ve learnt throughout their journey, Elena, Ruth and Claudia’s thoughts centre on one primary theme: developing relationships. For Elena, it’s about paying attention and listening to people. “This is the most important link to communication, yet it can be the weakest one too. To harvest the ability to listen is what empowers a leader to achieve successful stories,” she advises.

One of the biggest challenges of leadership, Ruth continues, is learning to adapt to different people. “The bigger the team, the more you need to adapt to different characters, emotions, opinions and learning styles. Training events on leadership help, but ultimately it is experience that shapes one’s leadership style – however, that can be a challenge in itself, as ultimately a leader’s error in judgement can have significant impact on an individual or a team and the way they feel within the workplace.”

Echoing her sentiments, Claudia draws on her experience of leading the FIAU’s Supervision Section when the team was still composed of eight people, and how it’s developed in three years, to comprise 36 talented individuals today. “Every day I engage with these individuals, all with different personalities, ideas, and backgrounds. I learnt that every person is unique, and that leading a successful team requires the ability to recognise this,” she reveals.

Looking towards the future for their work within the FIAU, all three share exciting opportunities ahead. To start, Elena sees an opportunity at both an individual and section perspective. “As an individual, I see the opportunity to further develop my leadership skills both through training sponsored by the FIAU but also as the team further develops and grows, both in terms of human and technological resources,” she says.

At a team level, she continues, 2023 will bring an array of opportunities, primarily in relation to the FIAU strategy, which was developed by the FIAU’s own team members. “Team members will be tasked with implementing the strategy they themselves developed, which will surely lead to interesting challenges that will enable them to research, experience international exchanges, experience possible failure and ultimately achieve success as a unified FIAU,” she smiles.

Expanding on the FIAU’s strategy for the coming four years, Ruth reveals that plans for her section mainly revolve around improving the processes that are in place and enhancing the agency’s international standing through active participation in various international fora. “The FIAU will also be moving premises in 2023, so this should present an opportunity for further growth in line with our strategy, which will in turn see further enhancements in our respective teams and the results we are able to deliver,” she says.

Finally, Claudia maintains, “looking at the FIAU, I see a success story. Management, together with each individual employee, has built this success story. Much has been achieved and the FIAU of today is not the FIAU of five years ago.” Sharing her plans moving forward, she says, “the plan is to continue to invest and build on this success story.”

The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders project. The online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.

Want to know more? Please drop us a line at info@maltaceos.mt

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