Amy Radin believes in the importance of innovation—but unlike many of today’s top pundits of the latest and greatest, she possesses a clear vision of how innovative concepts can be put into practice. And don’t expect to impress her with plenty of sizzle but little steak. An Innovation Circle judge for the 2019 BAI Global Innovation Awards, Radin says innovation means finding new-but-practical ways to tackle real-world needs.
Perhaps the key to Radin’s success lies in her openness to the ideas of others. In her book, Radin features contributions from 50 executives who tell their own stories of turning a challenge into a success, thanks to their willingness to embrace innovation.
With the time to submit Global Innovation Awards nominations open through April 26, BAI spoke with Radin about her problem-solving, boots-on-the-ground approach to moving the financial services industry forward.
BAI: “Innovation” of course means different things to different people and in different industries. So what would your overarching definition include?
Amy Radin: Sometimes innovation is just seen as “cool stuff” or the next Google or Amazon. The definition I stick to is this: Innovation is a viable new way of solving a real problem that real people have. Innovations can be simple and low-tech, and still have a big impact. Or they can be highly complex and take years and lots of experimentation to achieve.
BAI: So if solving problems is crucial, how can banks modify their own definition to best serve clients and employees? Do they rely on market trends? Customer needs? New business?
Radin: The best innovations come from listening to the market to identify unmet needs. Yes, some innovations start with an instinct or hunch but even those hunches are probably based upon something the innovator has observed in people’s real behavior.
BAI: How do you see your role with the Global Innovation Awards and what will you seek in the nominees?
Radin: For 2019, I hope to continue to provoke a good dialog among the judges and learn from them. It’s a great group. In particular I’m looking for continued progress on metrics. Measuring innovation is different than measuring a pre-digital business’ performance. Also more work on business model innovation. Much of the innovation in financial services is around the edges, automating paper to digital experiences, or creating product and feature enhancements. We continue largely to operate in a centuries-old business model and with the changes in demographics, the economy, and how people conduct business, there is room to push the envelope on the business model itself.
BAI: Are financial institutions missing out if they don’t expect all employees to emphasize innovation?
Radin: I don’t know how anyone can have a viable career without playing some role in driving innovation. Innovation isn’t the domain of a department or function, especially in a financial institution. Every function touches the ability of a new product, service or experience to succeed. Marketing, tech, legal, risk, ops, customer service, compliance: Everyone can play a role in figuring out how to do new things. No one should be an obstacle.
BAI: How has this value shaped your own career? Can you share a specific instance that set you down a different path?
Radin: I had pursued a traditional career in direct marketing, beginning at American Express, which was a fantastic place to learn and have early career experiences. When the dot-com era began, I picked up on the connection between my background—which was all about working with lots of data and technology to deliver insight-based products and services to card members—and what it would take to leverage digital capabilities in financial services. That led me to redirect myself, and I was fortunate to begin my digital career leading the digital transformation of Citi Cards, which represented around 20 percent of Citigroup’s earnings at the time.
The second big moment was when my CEO, Steve Freiberg, told me one day that he wanted me to “make the business more innovative.” That led me to network and meet some of the leading experts on how to execute innovation, not just dream big.
BAI: How can innovative practices enhance employee hiring and retention, especially in terms of technology? Have we reached the point where any applicant who lacks extensive tech skills might not be considered worth hiring?
Radin: Any financial institution that wants to grow their franchise and balance sheet must innovate to stay relevant in a market that is rapidly changing. This will require people with a fresh and more diverse set of skills, empowered to operate in a culture that is far more flexible, open to change and collaborative than what most financial institutions may have imagined in the past.
I hear some executives who believe that by hiring all digital natives their innovation problems will be solved. But that’s a risky path. Innovation demands diversity and leadership skills that may be years in the making, alongside the perspectives of people who have had a different relationship with technology in their own lives.
BAI: How much should those in the job market or considering a new career focus on a potential employer’s commitment to innovating?
Radin: Anyone who wants to work for a growth business should ask what the company’s doing to stay on top of customer trends, attract diverse talent and keep pace with fast-changing technologies and competitive maps. Also, look for indications of collaboration, experimentation and openness. This has little to do with whether there is an open floor plan; it’s more about talent and culture, where resources are invested, how fast things happen, how decisions get made and whether the business accepts failure as a necessary part of what it takes to iterate a concept and achieve market success.
BAI: How important are influencers to today’s companies in terms of approach and practice? And where do these influencers come from?
Radin: We are all influencers insofar as we make our views known to an audience who find what we have to say useful. My kids influence my buying habits. People whom I view as authorities serve as sources of insights and answers to tough problems.
BAI: Is it possible for someone to create a reputation as an influencer, or reinvent themselves so that people can see them in a new light?
Radin: To be an effective influencer you need a point of view that’s of value to an audience—then be willing to connect with that audience, tell them what you have to say and listen. Influencing is not a one-way street. It’s definitely about dialog.
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