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The best of the best in financial services innovation

Amy Radin, the first chief innovation officer at Citi and now an author and speaker on innovation-related themes, joins us on the BAI Banking Strategies podcast to discuss the latest BAI Global Innovation Awards results and financial services innovation more broadly.

Jan 3, 2023 / Consumer Banking
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Winners of the BAI Global Innovation Awards are out, and they cover a wide swath geographically and in the industry challenges that they address.

Amy Radin, who works with financial services executives to anticipate and adapt to change, is our guest to talk about the BAI awards and financial services innovation more broadly.

A few takeaways from the conversation:

  • The contest itself featured a couple of key innovations, including the elimination of specific categories in favor of an open format to spotlight “the best of the best.”
  • BAI also added recognition of individuals in the industry: While innovation is a team sport, those teams often have star players who inspire others toward change.
  • A “growth mindset” is central to being an innovator – this means being able to bring people together and being tenacious because meaningful change doesn’t come easy.

Amy Radin, welcome to the BAI Banking Strategies podcast.

Great to be here, Terry.

Amy, BAI recently announced the winners of the 2022 BAI Innovation Awards, and you again served as one of the judges in that competition. Can you give us an overview of the awards, sharing things like the number of entries, breakdown between banks and fintechs, geographic reach, and also some of the things that you and the other judges were looking for when you were selecting the winners?

We’re really looking for the best of the best in terms of what’s going on in innovation in the financial services industry around the world – in consumer, in commercial, in the traditional FIs, but also in fintech. So, we cast a very broad net this year and we were really excited to get over a 25% increase in application submissions. We included fintechs and commercial, not just our traditional strength in retail, and it was great to see very strong global representation. So, new submissions from Africa and Latin America, and as always, great participation from Europe, Middle East, Asia and North America.

I know that this year we made a big change in the awards program. Whereas in previous years, entries were made and winners were selected in specific categories, this time around we didn’t have categories, so it was more of an open format. So, tell us, what was the thinking behind making that change?

We really wanted to listen to the market and say, “What is the market telling us about where great work is happening?” and not artificially constrain submissions by presupposing categories. We want to recognize the best, irrespective of category. Innovation happens in product, in technology, in experience, in process, in how we engage with the broader community, and we just wanted to, if you will, see where the chips fall. And in the end, we had very broad category representation, and I think encouraged submissions that may not have come in when we held ourselves to specific definitions of categories.

Since things weren’t organized according to specific categories, what can you tell us about those broad trends that you mentioned so far as innovation themes for the winners?

Well, we saw definitely a lot continuing in digital and payments, a lot of great submissions around HR and talent, and we acknowledged some of those really strong winners, and also community focus. I think we’ve always had the digital and payments focus. It was really noteworthy to see the focus on talent. We all know coming out of the pandemic, all organizations, not just those in financial services, have to really rethink all of their workplace strategies because people are asking for a different kind of employee experience. That was a little bit to be predicted, and with particularly noteworthy submissions in digital, in payments, in talent, diversity, equity and inclusion, and also in more innovative ways to serve the broader community.

We’ll get into a couple of the winning submissions here in a moment. Before that, I want to ask you where, if anywhere, the pandemic may have fit into the 2022 competition. Certainly in the previous two years, COVID-19 was a dominant factor in spurring innovation out of necessity. Was that also the case this time, or did you find fewer tiebacks to the pandemic?

Well, I think the thing is the pandemic has defined new ways of operating and delivering that have created lasting change. Last year, as I think back to the submissions, there were definitely specific ones that related to that moment of crisis, and now for better or worse, the pandemic has created yet another new normal, and that has forced institutions and startups to think about new ways of operating, serving the community, delivering, working with employees. And so that’s why I think you see a lot of impact and increased focus on digital delivery. People couldn’t get to their physical location, if that’s what they were used to doing. You already mentioned employee experience, and even how do you engage employees in innovation because I think one of the “ahas” that came out of the pandemic is innovation is more important than ever, so you’re seeing financial institutions, as in a lot of sectors, saying, “We have to raise our game yet another few notches.”

The first Global Innovation Award winner I want to ask you about, Amy, is the financial wellbeing platform created by Dreams Technology, which is based in the U.K. Can you tell us more about this product, including what it does and what makes it innovative?

First of all, Dreams, I loved their submission. I think that there’s a lot going on in all markets around this notion of financial wellness, and what does financial wellness mean to different segments and how do we really help increase people’s financial wellbeing. And Dreams has a very unique fintech solution that helps engage people in taking more control over their financial lives. So, I liked that one a lot. Another one sort of on the same theme, but more focused on SMEs, is one coming out of the Philippines called Growsari, and Growsari is a specific innovation focused on giving access to the economy to up and coming small businesses. And I really liked that one in particular because they’re looking beyond the banking transaction and saying, “How do we help this really important economic engine, the small business segment, in ways beyond just the banking transaction itself, but helping them achieve financial wellness for their business so they can grow and expand?”

We hear a lot from banking institutions about connecting with customers at a personal level, and particularly via digital channels, and also about taking care of them beyond just facilitating transactions. And the Dreams platform sounds like it may offer capabilities that would help in both of those pressing needs.

Absolutely, because it’s really thinking about not, “Can we get you to open an account or take out a loan?” It’s, “Can we really help you more broadly in accomplishing your financial objectives related to your broader life goals?” And the traditional products become an enabler of doing that, but they’re not the reason for the conversation. There’s an authentic desire in financial wellness products to help the people who do business with them improve their financial wellbeing, and that goes well beyond the account.

Another award winner that caught my eye as I was looking down the list was the Talent Lab & Skills Accelerator from Banco Popular in Puerto Rico. Like the wellbeing platform, it’s people-focused, but this one is on the employee side instead of for customers. You mentioned a little bit before about talent being a key focus from this year’s competition. What can you tell us about the talent lab, including how it plows new ground?

What’s really great about it is that it takes a very people-centered approach to the kinds of talent market challenges that all financial institutions and frankly all businesses in all sectors are experiencing. The business problem is talent scarcity. How do we attract and motivate and recruit and develop talent in a market where employees have a whole new set of expectations and demands, if you will? May not be coming to the office, there may not even be an office, and how do we do that? And what I love about what they’re doing is it is very centered on thinking about “What does the employee need, what do we need from them?” It integrates coaching, it integrates continuous learning and using technology to engage in role-based skills assessment and really think about what kinds of training do Banco Popular’s employees need. So, really exciting to see that. Because of the huge pressure on talent, it’s not surprising, but also very gratifying to see financial institutions focusing on innovating in that space.

You talk about the challenge there. In BAI’s latest survey of bankers regarding top business challenges heading into 2023, catching and keeping talent ranks in the top three. I’m curious how you are looking at the talent issue and how innovations like those from Banco Popular, and there was another one in there from Union Bank, I believe, might help address this issue.

Union Bank of India was one of the Global Innovation Award winners, and they’re really focused on “How do we drive a culture of performance, of employee satisfaction, of objectivity?” And their whole approach is built upon their desire to ensure that their HR function really is a strategic function that helps employees make decisions about their careers, about their jobs, at all levels of the organization using data analytics, using digitalization of key processes, and fitting this into the overall leadership development framework for the bank. So, it was another very exciting submission that we were really proud to recognize. And I’m seeing this in my advisory work – that there’s not a client I’m not working with who doesn’t have talent challenges on top of their list and has to really think innovatively about, “How do I get the best people who’ve got the skills and abilities to take us on a very different journey, where what’s going to make us successful in the future is not necessarily what made us successful in the past?”

This year in the Global Innovation Awards, BAI got rid of categories, but it added something new: the Rising Star program that honors individuals. Amy, please explain a bit about Rising Star, including why we created it, what key qualities you and the judges were looking for in determining those winners.

Back in the spring, we said we really wanted to refresh the program, and coming out of the pandemic, like everybody, rethinking your assumptions. And so we went out and we interviewed past winners and finalists and a number of the judges, and one of the key recommendations that came back from prior winners and finalists was that we recognize individuals. And while we know that innovation takes a village – it’s always a cross-functional collaborative team that makes these things successful – there’s somebody out in the front of the line who’s leading the charge, who’s inspiring others, who’s building followership, and those are special people. They could be at many levels of the organization. We’ve recognized business division heads this year and people who are more up and coming managers, but it’s really important to give a shout-out to those people. It’s an aspect of the program that I really see growing in future years because it was so well-received and so exciting to see the people we’re able to recognize.

All of the Rising Stars winners by definition stood out from the field, but can you talk about one or two of them that you think had especially compelling backgrounds or achievements – things that positioned them to continue innovating in the future?

Let me talk about two of the Rising Stars in particular. One is Brad Roper at FNB, and he was called out by his team as somebody who has been exceptionally committed to growing people, has a people-centric leadership style, and he has a great deal of humility, which I love reading that. And those qualities have translated into his ability to constantly improve the performances of the businesses that he has run. So, I think that’s a really exceptional quality, just translating how you’re able to work with people and motivate them into helping a business achieve its objectives in innovation. And then the other person I’d like to talk about is a woman named Snigdha Kumar. She’s in the fintech space, and she’s been working throughout her career on increasing financial inclusion and supporting financial health for low-income people, for the underserved, leveraging technology. We want to recognize her as a very mission-driven leader – somebody who, again, is inspirational to her team. You’ll see that as a quality that comes out all the time, who’s achieved extraordinary business results. Digit, which is the business she’s part of, was ranked a top money saving app by Bankrate. And not only has she been effective in her work, but she has shared her thought leadership through publishing and research. So, I think that’s also really worthy of recognition, because innovators can really help each other succeed. These are hard journeys, and here’s somebody who not only has had a really demanding career where she’s produced results, but has also invested and given of herself to do research and share that with the broader community of innovators.

Amy, as we’re talking about innovative individuals as opposed to organizations, I want to end our conversation by asking you, what makes someone an innovator? The previous answer, you were talking about humility, you mentioned being a motivator, you mentioned being mission-driven. Of course, being in the right situation is important, but in your experience in this space, what do you see as the individual qualities that make an innovator beyond the ones you just mentioned, and are there common traits shared across people who are the ones pushing for ways to improve on the status quo?

There’s definitely common traits, and I think the overall characteristics of people who can succeed as innovators is that they have a growth mindset. What are the elements of a growth mindset? These are people who are curious, they are never done learning. They not only welcome feedback, they seek feedback. They’re highly collaborative — they’re able to bring people together. They’re able to influence others, which is really important, because innovation is all about change and you have to be able to convince people to take steps in new directions that may feel radical. They have obviously a high degree of courage. They’re going where maybe nobody has gone before, and they have to do that convincingly in a pretty conservative industry, and they’re very tenacious. They don’t give up. At the same time, I think they’re extraordinary listeners. I always have said to my teams working on innovation projects, a great innovator, you sort of walk this tightrope where you have to be very stubborn and have the courage of your convictions, and at the same time you’ve got to be a great listener, because people are trying to tell you stuff. So, it’s a matter of filtering out the good stuff from the noise, but not losing the courage of your convictions. Balance is really hard.

I lied just a minute ago, I do have one more question. Those traits that you’re talking about, is this something that can be learned, or is this something that you’re born with? What’s the nature/nurture on that?

I think some of it is nature. I’m an optimist and I think we all have a little bit of this in us, but it’s got to be cultivated. I think if you’re going to head toward a career in this direction or toward roles that evolve innovation, I would advise anybody to really read up on what does it mean to have a growth mindset, and be honest with yourself: Do you have it and do you think you can cultivate it? I think some of it is definitely those are muscles that can be developed, but it’s not for everybody.

Amy Radin, judge in the latest Global Innovation Awards, many thanks again for being with us on the BAI Banking Strategies podcast.

Always a pleasure.