As the General Manager of Visa Taiwan, Michelle Jao oversees business operations, strategy development, and management of Visa’s businesses. Jao first joined Visa in 2016 as the company’s vice president for strategic projects and planning.
With more than two decades of multi-market experience in information technology and financial services at Lenovo and IBM, Jao has a proven track record of business stewardship and a strong understanding of the market. She graduated from National Taiwan University with a BSc in international business and an MSc in business administration.
TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström met with Jao at the Ghost Island Media recording studio in mid-November to discuss leadership, flexibility, and the future of payment technology. An abridged version of their conversation follows. Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
You’ve worked in several prominent technology companies before, including Lenovo and IBM. How does Visa’s industry differ from the tech industry?
Visa is a payment technology company, and we possess the traits of both technology and payment services companies. In a way, we have the best of both worlds. It enables me to lead and drive impact across regions, markets, and societies through innovative technology.
Visa is connected with over 200 countries worldwide, and we process over 270 billion transactions every year. We support a diverse customer base, including merchants, financial institutions, consumers, and governments, by providing the best way to pay. I’m so proud of working in this industry.
What emerging trends have you seen recently in the Taiwan payment market?
Taiwan is an interesting market. The total population eligible for credit cards here is around 1.1 million, but there are around 5.5 million credit cards in the market today. In other words, the average eligible Taiwanese consumer has five credit cards.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a change in consumer preferences. We are moving toward a cashless society very fast. According to our recent Consumer Payment Attitudes Survey, almost 100% of the respondents said they want to keep using mobile payments and wallets with the same frequency or even more than they currently do. This kind of consumer preference change also triggers the financial sectors. Our industry continues to provide more solutions to address consumer needs.
We also notice that e-commerce is not only impactful to the consumer side but is also very important for small local businesses. Now, they can expand their markets globally, and that presents greater opportunities for scaling up.
Taiwan is one of the most digitally ready economies in the world, but there are still some challenges, particularly for SMEs. What is Visa doing to bridge the digital gap?
Small and medium-sized enterprises don’t always have sufficient resources to go digital. Visa has set a goal of supporting and digitally enabling 50 million SMEs worldwide by the end of 2023. We actually already helped over 40 million at the end of last year, so we are confident we’ll reach our target.
Payments work within a complex ecosystem of financial institutions, merchants, and consumers, and ensuring that the payment ecosystem is safe and secure is a huge challenge. We need to build a robust cybersecurity foundation and the necessary tools to protect sensitive financial and personal information, and it’s an area we will continue investing in.
Have you had any mentors in your career? What did they teach you about leadership or business?
I’ve had many mentors for different subjects and in different stages of my career. For any area I’m unfamiliar with, I will ask someone to be my teacher and educate me on the subject.
At Visa, we set up something we call a reverse mentoring program during Covid. This program is very interesting because typically, mentoring programs put the senior leader as the mentor who provides junior colleagues or young professionals with coaching and advice. But for Visa’s program, which is a nine-month program, the senior colleague chooses a more junior colleague to mentor them.
When I participated, I wanted to learn more about the business-to-business money movement, which was a new area for me. My mentor and I had a total of six sessions on different aspects of the B2B money movement. And I learned about the topic but more importantly, through observation and personal interactions, I also learned the perspectives of the young generation.
My mentor taught me a lot about how younger people analyze market trends and how they sharpen their own competency. Before we concluded the mentoring program, I also offered a mentoring session with her, providing feedback and advice on professional development. I liked the program so much that I’ve since introduced it to my clients too.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Leadership is a big word. Visa has its own leadership principles, and we believe that everyone is a leader – not only the manager or senior executive. Our principles are to lead courageously, obsess about customers, collaborate, and execute with excellence.
When leading my team, I particularly emphasize leading courageously. The payment industry is very fast-moving, and we need to set ambitious goals, challenge the status quo, and think big to provide compelling value to our clients. As a general manager, I need to cascade this culture onto my colleagues.
Leading courageously also includes being unafraid to make mistakes. Okay, the important thing is really to learn from your mistakes. No one is perfect, but we can all work to improve and unlock our potential.
What does a typical work week look like for you?
I believe my tasks are pretty similar to those of other executives. At Visa, however, we’ve implemented a flexible working scheme. We’ve set three collaboration days – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – when we are all expected to be in the office to work. On Monday and Friday, you can choose to work from home if you feel it’s better for your efficiency.
You can also choose to work from another location. For example, as a Taiwan employee, I can work at the Singapore office for up to four weeks per year, as long as there are no regulatory constraints or taxation concerns.
I love to work in the office, and I feel the most productive in the office. But as a leader I must be mindful and work from home from time to time because I don’t want to send out the wrong message to my employees and make them think I don’t want them to work from home.
A number of global companies are taking a similar approach to work flexibility. It’s becoming an important aspect of attracting talent. Younger people in particular are looking for flexibility and increased autonomy as long as they deliver the required results.
What qualities do you look for in team members?
We’ve had a lot of hiring during the past three years, growing from 29 to almost 50 employees. To work at Visa, you need to know and understand how payments work, regardless of whether you already know it or learned it after joining the company. The payment industry is ever-changing, so you also need to keep learning. Since payment links to so many things, you also need to be curious about industry movement, technology, and trends so that you can keep learning.
Lastly, soft skills matter, and feeling aligned with our leadership principles is important for success. That includes finding your inner leader and being bold in your work. You also need to embrace and champion diversity and inclusion. Having people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise enables us to learn from each other.
We currently have job openings, so I encourage anyone who believes they fit this description to apply.
What do you like to do in your spare time to relax and recharge?
I love outdoor activities. I recently started to learn fishing. And I love it. Every Saturday, early in the morning, I drive to Keelung, get onto the boat, and go fishing. Typically, we’re a group of around 10 people in one boat, fishing and competing together. Then, I go back to Keelung in the late afternoon, drive home, and enjoy my work achievement for dinner.