Transforming financial services

Sonia Wedrychowicz is a digital transformation practitioner with a storied career in the fintech space. Here, Digital Bulletin speaks to her about her biggest achievements, challenger banks, leading digital change and being a black belt in kickboxing.

You have a long and high-profile career leading the digital charge at some of the largest banks in the world. But you’ve left that behind and are starting something new. What was your motivation for making the change, and what does the future hold for you?

October 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of my banking career and it was the day I decided to stop working inside the financial industry. It does not mean, however, that I will not be dealing with banks or other financial and non-financial institutions anymore. I would like to be able to share my knowledge and expertise much wider than just within one institution.

I decided to continue my career in consulting, and I joined a major consulting firm in January. I believe the consulting career will allow me to not only have a much wider impact on digital transformation worldwide, but it will also allow me to grow and develop more as an individual and professional.

You’ve been featured in Forbes recently under the headline “CEO with a black belt” in reference to your martial arts prowess? Could you tell us about that – when did you start kickboxing, and how has that informed your journey to success at the highest levels of banking?

I see a lot of emotions arising around my kickboxing journey, so many people might be disappointed with its modest beginnings. I got an unusual birthday gift from a friend, three kickboxing lessons. After the first lesson, which finished with me sweating and almost crawling on my knees from exhaustion, I realised I loved it and would continue.

I realised that many instructions that I got during my lessons I could apply to my professional and personal life. I started writing articles about it and making leadership power speeches on how kickboxing can help people in their professional journeys all around the world. Finally, I got my black belt in December 2017. I was very proud of it and I realised that it was going to be the most important item on my CV. And I meant it.

Getting the black belt does not depend on luck, being in the right place at the right time, or having supportive bosses. It’s all about trying hard, failing more than succeeding, and getting up every time we fall in order to learn our lessons and start again.

What would you identify as your biggest victories in your roles leading digital change at the financial institutions in which you worked?

My digital transformation projects date back many years, back to the internet bubble in 2000. I worked at Citibank then and helped introduce a few very innovative products on the B2B side, such as electronic bill presentment and payment and prepaid cards. None of them succeeded in their pure form at that time, as I believe they were very much ahead of their time 20 years ago. The failures, however, did not stop our team from trying harder; instead of giving up or trying to keep selling the products in their pure form, we reimagined them completely.

We reversed the logic of the electronic bill presentment and payment which was a business-to-consumer solution and made it a platform for invoice discounting between the bank and our corporate customers. We did not even have to change the software too much and it worked perfectly well. It was our imagination and open-minded approach that led to a success.

A few years later, when I was heading a consumer bank in Poland, we developed a very innovative product called a multi partner card that allowed users to collect and redeem points against a few high impact benefit programmes. That card has been in the Polish market for more than 10 years now and is still a big hit.

In recent times, my most impactful achievement was designing, developing and implementing, together with a small team in Singapore, a digital-only bank, based on a mobile application, that we launched in India and Indonesia. That bank was created with no branches, no contact centre, no operations. It has never physically interacted with its customers, did not use signatures and was completely paperless. And yet this bank achieved huge success and was named by Euromoney as the best digital bank in the world.

And, what about your biggest challenges?

The biggest obstacles to achieving success are usually originating from insecure bosses and peers who are not comfortable having talented and achievement-oriented people around them. Corporate cultures are traditionally very hierarchical and top-down driven. They usually leave little room for people who think differently, challenge the status quo and are able to bring the organisation to the next level. Global firms repeatedly make the mistake of applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach that is killing the creativity of their local staff disbursed all over the world.

Genuine change agents are rarely successful inside big organisations. They are brought in with good intentions, but very soon they start being labelled strange characters or troublemakers. Their performance appraisals in traditional organisations put their biggest strengths – customer centricity, delivering at speed and delivering true value – as ‘areas of improvement’, making them frustrated or keen to start something on their own.

As things stand today, what are the biggest remaining obstacles to digital success for the big legacy banking institutions of the world?

Success can be your biggest enemy: many companies and people have failed while being at the top, including Nokia, Kodak and Blockbuster. It is no different for successful people, being at the top, continuously promoted and making more money blinds us from seeing the early signs of the changing world that one day will make our company, business and position redundant or irrelevant.

Many banks see the transformation as a threat to their continuous success, rising profits and increasing bottom lines. Change means risk so many organisations think they still have time to do it. Top management of the most successful companies in today’s world fails to acknowledge that the best moment to disrupt yourself and make a big change in our lives and careers is when we are at the top.

What would you say banks can learn from the big tech companies when it comes to customer experience and meeting expectations?

A lot. From a true focus on customer needs and centralising the whole company around fulfilling those needs, and through non-hierarchical, flat structures that truly empower people, working on multidisciplinary, autonomous teams that are focused on delivering customer value at speed.

These companies have changed the role of senior management to become the carriers of vision and new corporate cultures, allowing experimentation, risk taking and learning from mistakes as a new way of operating. They have created a space for employees to take informed decisions based on data and smart analytics – this is the new way to be successful.

How are traditional banking institutions dealing with the emergence of digital-only challenger banks that have elbowed their way into the market in the last couple of years?

Some banks appreciate the power of customer centricity and the value proposition of such banks and they will either invest in them or buy them out. Such strategies work best when the challenger bank is left intact with its progressive management and execution team. Unfortunately, some banks decide to incorporate such challenger banks into their structures, which usually means the end of them.

Other banks decide to create their own challenger banks, but such strategies can be a double-edged sword. The best examples include challenger banks which were launched outside of the core markets of the founding banks. They allow them to conquer new markets in a more inexpensive and efficient way, while remaining platforms of continuous innovation that is over time passed over to the core markets.

How effectively are financial institutions leveraging emerging technologies like AI, machine learning and RPA to drive transformations and improve customer experiences?

The true success of applying these technologies lies in answering simple questions – why do we want to implement them and what problem are we trying to solve? In far too many cases, the answer is ‘because everybody is doing it’. Such an approach usually leads to wasting a lot of money with no true results.

The most successful organisations start with the list of problem statements and use cases and then start looking for solutions to resolve them. AI, machine learning, RPA or blockchain might be suitable solutions for certain use cases but they are not a secret remedy to all the problems. We have to change the mindset to start with the customer and identify the tools that will be most effective.

What technologies do you think will be the main drivers of transformation in the financial sector in the next five years?

Biometrics, cloud, AI/machine learning, quantum computing, 5G and blockchain, each of which has a different role to play. A wide adoption of biometrics will allow us to get rid of login names and passwords and will make fraud in digital channels non-scalable.

Cloud will increase the security of data, will prevent massive data losses, and decrease the cost of storage. It will be a major driver of progress as far as using the most advanced tools by developers and ordinary people all around the world, therefore democratising access and bridging the gap between most of the world and the leafy developed countries.

AI/machine learning will allow for the most personalised and seamless services we could imagine as they will be the underlying technologies for smart bots and advanced analytics.

Blockchain will further increase security in the digital networks, as well as protecting the longevity of a lot of physical assets like ownership titles, for example. It will also allow for determining the origin of goods in an unambiguous manner.

The biggest impact, however, which is still not fully understood, will come with the wider proliferation of quantum computing and 5G technology. Quantum computing will bring processing power and efficiency to new levels that, combined with the capacity of 5G, will allow us to completely redefine our digital experience. The majority of our digital devices as we know them today will disappear and we will be able to be constantly connected across so much of what we use.


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