What Makes A Great Digital Banking Transformation Leader?

As the head of Consumer & Community Banking Technology at JPMorgan Chase, Sonia Wedrychowicz is helping to lead the digital transformation efforts at one of the largest banks in the world. In this exclusive interview, she shares her insights and experiences with The Financial Brand.

Sonia Wedrychowicz joined JPMorgan Chase in 2018 after being the Head of Technology Consumer Bank Group for DBS Bank, where she was a key driver of the implementation of digibank by DBS in India and Indonesia. Her scope of responsibilities at DBS included digital product development and management, UX design, risk and control as well as operational delivery.

Sonia was the former Country Head of Consumer Bank at Standard Chartered in Malaysia, where she was responsible for the strategy, development, and management of the bank’s consumer business. She also chaired the bank’s financial education program initiative and was part of the bank’s Women Initiative Network.

Starting her banking career in Citibank in 1994, Sonia rose through the ranks and held various roles in transaction banking before becoming the Vice President of the Management Board and Head of Consumer Banking in Citi Poland.

Sonia holds a Master’s degree in Foreign Trade from Warsaw School of Economics and a BA in European Business Studies from Brunel University in London. She relocated from Singapore to the United States with her husband and two children.

I sat down with Sonia to discuss the opportunities and challenges in building a digital banking unit. She shared leadership lessons, some secrets to success, as well as some challenges in trying to build a digital banking organization within a traditional bank. Her insights are unique since she is a practitioner as opposed to someone who is providing advice from the outside.

Beyond the interview below, I expanded our discussion in a Banking Transformed podcast interview, where we discussed some of the reasons humans still should be involved in the digital banking process, why it is so difficult for financial institutions to ‘buy into’ the digital bank model and what she has learned from working with both DBS Bank and JP Morgan Chase as a digital transformation leader.

Additional Banking Transformed Interviews:

Is developing a digital-only banking unit the only viable option for most organizations wanting to become a ‘digital bank’?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: There are many options that a bank can pursue. In the past, I was leading a team that built a digital-only challenger bank within a traditional bank. The aim was to enter into a new market and conquer it. We designed it in a way that eliminated the need for branches and a traditional contact center.

By leveraging technology, digital banks are able to safely acquire millions of customers, through social media and digital marketing, while using biometric verification for customer authentication.

Digital-only banks might also be used to enter a new customer segment in an existing market where the bank operates. I have seen implementations mostly targeting Millennials. I also think it could be a great channel to acquire the unbanked, often mature people, who are heavy phone users chatting and communicating with their loved ones. The secret lies in an easy, simple, “few steps only” user interface that can be easily understood by customers.

Lastly, technologies that are tested in challenger banks can easily be applied to the core operations of  multi-channel banks, to enhance the existing and new customer experience.

What are the biggest challenges facing financial institutions in their digital transformation process?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: In my opinion, the biggest challenge to the digital transformation lies in the mindset of banks around the globe. Banks in Asia are moving quickly to keep up with Alibaba, Alipay, Tencent, WeChat, Ping Ang group and others. Europe is fragmented by many smaller countries with different customer behaviors, lots of challenger banks, and EU regulations. In the U.S., consumers trust their banks and there hasn’t been a big shift away from them, even as challenger banks emerge slowly.

Therefore, the feeling of urgency varies and it largely determines all the decisions that the banks are taking in this space: starting from the digital customer value proposition, into creating internal processes to support it, and finally modernizing the technology platforms to enable the pace of change that is brought about by digital transformation.

What is the biggest gap between what consumers want and what banking is currently delivering?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: The big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Apple or Netflix have mastered personalization of their offers to the customers. They are serving millions and even billions of customers, but when you are using them as an individual, it feels like it was designed especially for you. The difference lies in the mindset of those companies. They truly put the customer first in everything they do, and recognize that each individual might have different needs.

While the interfaces where those needs are fulfilled are largely standard and ultimately simple — look at Google — it’s one window! The information that flows through them is amazingly personalized.

In the past, banks put their efforts into standardization and slicing customers into “segments”. This led to an outcome of “few sizes fit most” and not only left behind a large numbers of potential customers, but also failed to efficiently service those that somehow met the upfront segmentation criteria.

Personalization driven by an effective usage of analytics is therefore, in my opinion, the biggest gap that the banks need to continue to bridge quickly in order to be able to effectively compete and win in today’s world. The world, that is dominated by non-banking players that started from the customer-centric mindset and have mastered it over time.

How important is speed in the process of building a digital bank?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: It’s all about speed these days.  Increasing the clock speed of customer delivery is the ultimate proof of customer obsession. The new entrants to the market are delivering new value to customers in a continuous manner. And while agile delivery and applying new technologies play an important role in cutting lifecycle, the most important element is being constantly close to our customers. It’s all about understanding their needs, delivering better solutions, testing and experimenting, iterating and releasing value at speed over and over again.

One of your unique achievements is that you are a black belt kickboxer. How has kickboxing helped you in your career?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: We can conduct a separate interview on that subject only I think. First of all, I realized that a lot of the techniques that I learned during my intense training with a coach in Malaysia can apply to both kickboxing as well as to our desired behaviors in the corporate world. And they have nothing to do with fighting back! They are all about focus that leads to a targeted outcome; relaxation that allows us to think clearly and direct our muscles into the goal that we want to achieve. And  finally, it is about servant leadership.

Kickboxing also made me realize that anything is possible if you dare to dream. I got my black belt in kickboxing in late 2017 and I still cannot believe it — it’s been my big dream that came true! With a black belt you cannot count on luck, being at the right place at the right time or having great bosses that support you. You can only achieve it if you work hard, fail over and over again, stand up and try again to get a bit better next time you try. For me it’s not about competition, it’s about achievement and trying to be better at it every day. It took me six years of practice but it was worth every moment of it!

How would you describe your leadership style?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: I started managing people very early in my career and made lots of mistakes along the  way. At the beginning, I thought I was the only person who could do things the best and was micromanaging the team all the way through. Over time, I started to realize that true leaders are only as good as their people working with them, and that my role was to attract the right talent that can move mountains for the company. Thus, rather than telling your people what to do, continue to inspire them, support them and appreciate them for everything they do! You cannot go wrong with that strategy. Over time, I learned that such style is called servant leadership.

Frankly speaking, it is much easier to have a servant leader above you than to be one yourself! Servant leadership requires the ability to distance yourself from the “what” and the “how”, and instead be able to make people understand the “why” we are doing certain things. Setting up the right context, having people buy into the “why” and letting them figure out the rest is the most powerful and empowering technique of leadership that I learned and experienced so far.

What inspires you and what has helped you become so successful?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: I was born in Poland in a small town that is so little that it was not even on a majority of maps a few years back. You can find it now thanks to Google Maps :-). My source of inspiration in my early days was mostly my family, and especially my father. He taught me to be respectful to every human being irrespective of their background, race, religion, gender, wealth etc. I believe that trait has helped me to enjoy working in diverse environments all across the globe, and make tons of friends throughout my personal and professional life.

My other source of inspiration is books. Literature opened a completely different world for me and the books that I read inspired my biggest dream to travel and see the world. And although that dream seemed to be completely unreal back in my communist times, I was lucky to experience the profound transformation of my country that allowed me not only to study and then work in four different countries across three continents, but also visit over 65 countries and meet amazing people along the way. People remain my  biggest inspiration — each and every day I learn something new due to my interactions with my friends, colleagues, peers or bosses.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: When I moved to Asia, I realized that “life balance” for me in the past was mainly related to my time spent with family … and that it was not enough. A missing element was the “me only” time, when I could spend some time pursuing my hobbies, being with friends, reading books. This is when I discovered kickboxing.

Every day, seven days a week I trained with my instructor for 1-2 hours. That gave me not only a feeling of accomplishment, but also allowed me to relax and clear my mind from work related issues. Thanks to kickboxing, I realized how important it is to spend a bit of time every day with yourself and for yourself only. That continues today — I am at the gym every day and practice my kickboxing there. My family knows that it’s a secret “me only” time. In addition, I don’t believe in working without holidays. I never had any carried-over holidays in my life. I believe in working hard and resting intensely as well.

You are a significant LinkedIn contributor. What is your social media strategy?

Sonia Wedrychowicz: My social media presence started slowly with posting short pieces about my conference presentations around three years ago. Over time, I realized that I built a substantial group of contacts and followers that are inspired by my publications. So I started posting more on leadership and digital transformation. I realized that not everyone had a privilege to gain experience like I have and that people see value in my sharing … so I continued on that journey.

I am inspired to see how people engage around my posts and that everyone sees something different in them that is relevant specifically to their situation. I am happy I can contribute to people’s lives by showing them sometimes a little bit different perspective to seemingly obvious subjects or issues.

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