WithYouWithMe: helping veterans find meaningful employment

"We think of skills as past tense," says Sean Leong CPA, the CFO of WYWM. "It is behaviours that we focus on."

Ex-military jobs can be hard to find. Sean Leong CPA is using software and training to connect former soldiers with employers seeking to fill skills gaps in their workforce.

At a glance

  • WithYouWithMe is an organisation dedicated to helping ex-military personnel find meaningful employment.
  • Potential, its specially designed software, tests, trains and matches a workforce to a company’s current and predicted skills gaps.
  • Beyond its value for military veterans, the software is believed to have wider application across recruiting.

If you want to turbocharge company profits, don’t start with the numbers, says Sean Leong CPA, CFO of WithYouWithMe (WYWM), an independent organisation that helps ex-military personnel to find meaningful employment. “That’s where a lot of businesses go wrong.

“You need to start from a place that will ultimately motivate your people to perform their best for long periods of time,” he says.

“I may be a little bit old school, but I think that caring and wanting the best for people will automatically produce better results.

“Ask what are you trying to achieve, how many lives will you change, who are you helping. If that’s your starting point, in life and work, the rest will flow from that.”

Leong has applied that philosophy across multiple organisations, from philanthropic (the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation) to financial (Westpac).

The philosophy has taken him from teenage father and part-time dishwasher to the highest level of business. It has, combined with his CPA skills and teams, enabled him to achieve results his peers wish they could emulate.

At Westpac, as head of trading and risk operations (COO) from 2012 to 2016, Leong coached a highly technical worker through a technology contract renegotiation, saving A$1.2 million in fees, and helped the treasury team achieve a 78 per cent reduction in time to market for new product launches.

At UBS Investment Bank, as head of product control, fixed income, FX, cash and collateral trading Australia, early in his career he identified A$5 million in profit for the New York business through his investigation of a trading settlement system.

In 2017, as CEO of the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, he achieved a 30 per cent increase in main revenue source year on year and implemented an extensive program of change.

Currently, Leong is helping WYWM build a highly skilled and competitive pipeline of ex-military talent through free education, skills-gap training and labour force predictive analysis.

Investing in human potential

WYWM focuses on people as the most important and potentially profitable part of a business, rather than on calculations such as years of experience.

Its specially developed software, called Potential, tests, trains and matches a workforce internally and externally to a company’s current and predicted skills gaps. 

Beyond military veterans, Leong says it has a far wider application across recruiting.

“We are working with some of the world’s most progressive companies and they are excited about where it may lead. While the service is free for veterans, it’s important to find a way of funding it.”

What’s also exciting, he says, is that Potential is 15 times cheaper than a traditional recruiter, and companies that use it know that they are ultimately helping talented people who are underemployed find meaningful work.

Agile workforce

“We are an education and technology company solving technical skills gaps and talent mobility,” says Leong.

Founded by young entrepreneurs passionate about solving the problem of underemployment for ex-military personnel – global CEO Tom Moore, global COO Luke Rix, and president North America Sam Baynes – WYWM’s staffing is 70 per cent military veterans.

Its business model reflects the need for, and an emphasis on, an agile workforce, where agility is defined as being able to respond to a fast-changing market with global competition, shorter product life cycles and service offerings, and economic interruptions.

“Rather than saying I need a person with this qualification, businesses need to say I want a person with these behavioural traits as well as this type of learning ability,” says Leong.

For example, ex-service personnel are wellsuited to jobs in cybersecurity, analytics and robotics, as well as being at the cutting edge of what the government wants.

Listen to the CPA Australia podcast: Flexibility at work - making it work

“They’re also analytical. But companies were looking at the way they hire them the wrong way, by starting only with technical skills.

“Our people are passionate about doing something for their country; many also have high-level security clearance.” 

WYWM’s training courses, which prepare workers for an agile market, include cybersecurity, robotic process automation, project management and tech sales, with more to follow.

As with Potential, the online training has been opened up to a broader marketplace to allow businesses to upskill existing employees at risk of job automation and redundancy.

WYWM is also taking educational technology to the next level by disrupting service industries to prove that the training works.

For example, it built a cybersecurity operational centre (CSOC) in a foreign country with limited infrastructure with a view to training local talent to take over the centre.

“It was built in lightning-quick time and employed veterans who had completed our course in the CSOC to run it while a number of the most influential world leaders were in town, with no breaches,” says Leong. (The CSOC location remains confidential.)

A higher purpose

A father at 18, Leong washed dishes at a Brisbane hotel – “it teaches you humility” – while studying for a bachelor of commerce (finance and financial management services) at the University of Queensland.

His mother was a regular fundraiser for charities and his father, a general practitioner, was the local footy doctor with a keen interest in alternative medicine “and all these crazy, innovative friends”.

Leong is a keen hockey and baseball player for the Ryde Hockey Club and the Jannali Comets, and surfs at Sydney’s Bondi and Manly beaches. “I’m scared of the ocean, that’s why I surf,” he says. “You have to conquer your fears.”

Combine all of these things – he calls it “life’s tapestry” – and they help you relate to people, says Leong, now a father of four.

Of his career digression from traditional finance roles into those with a philanthropic base, he says, “I was learning all these financial, project and management skills and I was asking myself is there a bigger, higher purpose I should be using them for?

"The core thing is that people know they're appreciated, that their work matters."

“The reason I wanted to get involved with the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation was that I could see these people didn’t have a voice.

“We needed to show philanthropists who wanted to support us that we were trying to solve the problem in a very commercial way (i.e. by not wasting money).

“The part where I felt I really contributed was showing I had the experience to bring about genuine change.”

As CEO, Leong and the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s team devised an advocacy strategy of community engagement via social media. As a result, the government announced A$100 million in funding over 10 years, half of which is corporate donations.

“A lot of credit for the foundation’s success goes to the former CEO, Catherine Stace, who organised pre-eminent brain cancer specialists to lobby the US Food and Drug Administration to change how it does clinical trials,” he says. “The foundation was very much established and on a good trajectory.”

Behind the scenes, Leong’s PR and communications, advocacy and scientific research teams made sure key speakers were media-trained, and Leong spent his Sunday nights putting together a list of regular donors to connect with, by letter or phone, no matter how much they had donated.

A testament to his ability to put his natural introversion aside for a good cause: he also attempted to eat enough dumplings to break a Guinness World Record and promote awareness of brain cancer. He didn’t succeed, as the dumplings were too hot!

At all times, Leong maintained his focus on achieving the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s mission to increase brain cancer survival from 20 per cent to 50 per cent by 2023.

Getting the basics right

Leong has held other voluntary roles where he’s been able to apply both his emotional and financial intelligence.

For a not-for-profit aged-care provider, he helped a mentee increase funding by 20 per cent through a government submission and move the business out of the red.

"Mentoring to me is about giving people confidence and encouraging them,” he says.

“You get them to have that self-belief. I had been fortunate in my career to have people show me how to have that self-belief and I try to pass it on. Both my parents and previous bosses were pivotal in this regard.

Leong also put a team together for a community-funded drug rehabilitation centre to develop a business model that included experts who could implement a healthcare database designed to measure positive social outcomes in homelessness, reoffending and Indigenous disadvantage.

No matter what his role, he says his job will be about connecting with people, about getting the basics right.

“I do the things other people might not think are very sexy.

“I ask people if they have a plan in place for how they are going to grow within the organisation and their own personal lives.”

Leong says he has never understood why people think working life is so separate from personal life because, ultimately, the two overlap.

“I very much look at the growth of an individual. There’s no rocket science in that. Ideally, I want someone who works for me to take my role and I move to the next challenge.

“The core thing is that people know they’re appreciated, that their work matters and they have an opportunity to grow.”

Key data analysis skills

“We think of skills as past tense. It is behaviours that we focus on. WithYouWithMe wants to kill the CV,” says Leong. The best data analysis behaviours include:

Conscientiousness: a strong work ethic and great attention to detail. “Often, data analysis requires a lot of cleaning of data to stop incorrect signals being highlighted. There’s also a focus on searching for and finding the right data (ideally lots of it, and good quality) and importantly, creating a repeatable process.”

Quantitative skills: “Mathematics and statistics abilities that allow you to create models or understand why a model suggests a course of action.”

Visual ability: “Taking the data, the visual information, and turning it into an insight, i.e. what action to take to solve the problem. The one tool, of course, is our Potential software. I use it to find the best internal or external people to fill hard-to-find skills gaps and to ensure the right cultural fit for the team.”

Read next: In conversation with Dr Moses Cheng FCPA, head of Hong Kong's Insurance Authority


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