Head of Customer Experience Transformation at BBVA
You started your career in nuclear research in Geneva. What led to your interest in financial services?
My contribution to CERN (European Center of Nuclear Research) in Geneva lasted four years. It happened in parallel with the IT boom or dotcom bubble, back in 2001. At that time all sorts of engineers were needed to bring technology to companies and enhance operational efficiency. The banking industry was in real need. Banking plays an important role in Switzerland. This combination made easy and obvious a transition to the financial world for an engineer.
“I was in the wrong career for 16 years. I only truly discovered my passion in 2012.” What did you mean by this?
(She laughs) I didn’t think you would keep this sentence for the interview! Well, this is somehow true for 2012. I always consider two worlds within large companies: the operational world and the innovation one. The first is about processes, procedures, risk control, reporting, really needed to keep the company running and to remain competitive in the market. The innovation world is about taking risks, try and fail, inspiration, new business models, which is required to survive to technological transformations like the one we are living. I gave all my energy to the operational world for 16 years, understanding the keys to make the business run and improve. In 2012 I ended up in a 5 hours conversation about the year 2020, disruption, new technologies, business models, and design methodologies. All of this during an interview with my boss-to-be at BBVA. I loved what I heard, what it went through my head during those hours. I realised that I had finally found my passion.
Note: Today the digital transformation has overtaken companies in such a way that any role comprises strategic thinking, looking forward and operational tasks. No differentiation of roles can be really made any more.
What makes BBVA unique in the banking industry in your opinion when it comes to digital and innovation?
Innovation has a lot to do with people. Innovation starts with people’s new eyes to see and understand new realities. It is only at that point where action can take place. Banks are risk-averse by nature and usually characterized by hierarchies and non-collaborative cultures. Difficult to see innovation happening in such scenario. There must be space for employees to give ideas, to collaborate, to think business different, to share information and try new things. BBVA is unique because of a visionary chairman that early enough communicated the urge to innovate and challenged new ways of connecting with customers. He empowered the management board to invest resources and to focus on innovation over the last 10 years. The result is a company that has tried different corporate innovation models, has failed and learnt in some, has succeeded in others. But most importantly, BBVA is full of people that want to hear and learn from tech companies, that want to implement new business models, that want BBVA to excel in their Customer Experiences.
“The source of innovation is people. Always.” I personally love this quote by you in our conversation. Why is this and how is this enacted at BBVA?
Technology, methodology, ecosystems, investments and partners are vehicles that allow innovation to happen. Regardless of a big corporation or a small company, all those elements only make sense if people are really pushing for things to happen. For some time we searched for the “keys” to motivate people to innovate and take action. We observed that in big and hierarchical corporations the “army” approach was working, if your boss says it is a priority, then it is really a priority. On the other hand, we saw people taking part in innovation initiatives because they were truly interested in progress and benefits for our customers. There was then external (you have to) and internal (I want to) factors that urged people to innovate. In time we stated that internal motivation was a must for projects to succeed, the same that happens when you are an entrepreneur. Success is related to the passion people dedicate to a goal.
What are some of the keys to implementing (over time) a true innovation culture at a large organization?
The culture and values of a company are built over the years. Modifying any of them is not an easy thing and can not be achieved so easily. Nevertheless we can introduce initiatives that allow employees to experience the benefits of working different and thinking out of the box, helping innovation be an integral part of the business. I always talk about the fine rain for a cultural change (bottom-up), combined with some incentive-oriented measures from management (top down). Among the bottom up approach we find measures like organising design thinking workshops to solve a known business challenge, create sessions with entrepreneurs to exchange knowledge, make business teams open up their challenges to the community, bring in innovation experts for talks, creating online communities to discuss innovation in a business area, creating daily news email about innovation in the company’s business. For the top down approach we find actions like including innovation projects in the business unit agenda or priorities, organising design camps for leaders to make them experience the benefit of creating solutions together with customers, including design thinking – scrum practices in management offsites, bringing top management to sessions/events with start ups (prizes announcement for competitions, etc.). Experiencing empowers people to change and see the world with new eyes. It also works with banking managers.
“I went to HR and asked for the ‘weird’ ones.” Another of my favorite quotes of yours. Can you explain this?
Ha ha. It sounds terrible when I read the sentence as such. Around four or five years ago we could find different profiles in BBVA attending to the desire to innovate. We found a good 60-70% of people that we defined as “followers”. If my boss says this is the way, then I go the way. Another 10-15% were people complaining about the current solutions or way of doing things, but with no intention to make things different. Then, we found a good 10-15% of people that were challengers. They stated how things could improve, challenged the status quo and were always bringing new initiatives on the table. They wanted to take action. Identifying those profiles can be difficult as you would not know where to start. Talking to a professor in MIT I learnt that HR was aware of those profiles, as follower profiles would define them as “weirds”: “they always want to change things”. Those were the profiles we were looking for.
Fortunately, the proportion of followers in companies has gone down in the last five years, and more and more, we observe a swap in the role definition: the “weird” ones today are those who want to grab their chair and keep it, and have no intention to invest any effort in adapting to any transformation.
What makes Madrid stand out with respect to innovation in banking in your opinion?
Madrid has become a pole for innovation, entrepreneurship and start-up investment in the world of financial services. The main secrets are time and passion. Early enough companies like BBVA, La Caixa, Spain Startup, Opinno, among others, invested resources and energy in opening up to the innovation ecosystem and creating events, innovation labs, competitions. Spain created an open environment full of talented people ready to tell and exchange methodologies, projects, and ideas for the banking business (among other industries). Later on, these artifacts attracted a global audience who was curious about how innovation was happening. It all started in 2008, today we see an acceleration of this process taking place.
A proof of this innovation interest made Google selecting Madrid as a place for their entrepreneurs Campus. We also experienced IN3Spain (innovators, investors and institutions), The South Summit, the Money Conference, IIF innovation, TR35 prizes and Open Talent, among others.
You are an active supporter of IN3. What is this initiative and why is it so important to you personally?
IN3 has the objective of bringing investors, innovators and institutions together, it allows for connections and wonderful things to happen. Entrepreneurs meet investors, ideas are shared and combined to create new businesses, workshops allow for corporate and entrepreneurs to exchange their knowledge and learn, investors can get closer to people’s concerns to innovate.
Personally this initiative is important to me because it has allowed me to talk to so many inspiring and talented people. You share your visions and you suddenly realise your ideas have an unsustainable business model behind, and you feel grateful to experience “Fail fast and cheap” in time. This event is so rich in knowledge and inspiration that you get out wanting to change the world, wishing you had the money to invest in so many ideas.
Who(m) do you believe has had the most influence with respect to your own career?
I always say that we are a mix of the people we have spent our time with. Love relationships tend to be intense and leave a lot of the other person in us. At work I believe it is the same. I believe I personally work and think as many leaders I have interacted with during the last years. To name a few, I can think of Peter Weill from MIT, Jay Rao from Babson College, Beatriz Lara Bartolomé (ex-CIO at BBVA), Ricardo Wehrhahn (ex Roland Berger partner) or Kerstin Kindling from my current team. I am inspired everyday by a lot of people, and I specially love those who constructively criticise what I do and allow me to do things better.
Who do you consider to be strong women leaders in the FinTech space?
I really like the energy and passion of Leanne Kemp founder of Everledger. I also admire and love to get inspired by Carina Szpilka, founder of K Fund, an early stage VC firm aiming to energize the evolution of the Spanish startup ecosystem. Those two are my favorite.
What do you see as the 3 leading future trends for FinTech?
My favorite one is the marriage between global banks and fintechs. This relationship already started several years ago for BBVA but now it is consolidating with both parties coming and “living” together. More and more banks (and companies from other industries) look for fintech acquisitions aiming to integrate speed, customer experience and operational excellence.
I believe there’s a second trend in the field of banking business channeling: the bots, also known as conversational UX. They represent an important customer interaction platform, and fintech startups are developing and testing solutions in several fields. It is a question of time, of innovation adoption on the customer side (shorter every time) to see this technology available. The possibility to attend individual needs on the spot through the use of AI and easy and straight conversations will be extremely useful for customers. Let’s not forget that digital customers love simplicity, personalization and immediacy.
A third trend in my opinion is regulation. The PSD2 directive will encourage the banking industry to innovate, and will represent a great opportunity for fintechs to help in this task. Banks will need to reshape the infrastructure, the processes, the technology to accommodate for every country’s new regulation derived from this single directive. PSD2 doesn’t specify anything about APIs, but we all know this will be the technical mean to comply with it. When banks expose their platform, we will see APIs associations and dissociations that will improve the payment system at a whole and will find new sources of income in the fintech world.