In this interview, Anita Sands discusses Corporate Innovation as it pertains to large enterprises experiencing disruptive change as well as some experiencing hyper growth. She has perspective on both, and generously shares her thoughts.
Sramana Mitra: Anita, you have spent the first part of your career being a physicist. That’s a really interesting training ground for someone who went on to be in the innovation ecosystem. Would you actually tell me a few things about your journey as a physicist and how that ties into where you are today in the innovation ecosystem?
Anita Sands: As you rightly said, I started as a physicist. My undergraduate was in Physics and Applied Mathematics. My Ph.D. was in Atomic and Molecular Physics. Midway through my Ph.D., I realized that I wasn’t destined for a career as a research scientist, but rather, I was very interested in the application of science and technology in the world. I decided to take myself to the United States.
I had grown up in Ireland. I did a Masters in Public Policy and Management. That was the first of my career pivots, if you will. After I finished my studies there, I then lived in Canada for seven years. That’s where I undertook my second career pivot which took me to financial services. So four major financial services institutions, one crisis, and about a decade later, I ended up back in New York where my last role in financial services was as COO of UBS.
This was around 2012 when everybody in Silicon Valley was really lighting the world up with mobile, social, and Big Data. I found myself inside this bank getting a lesson in physics every day in what happens when an unstoppable force like innovation meets a movable object. I decided that I would pivot again and move out to San Francisco where I now work in the tech industry.
As you mentioned, I spend most of my time in Board work for public and private company boards. I have speaking work on top. The lessons from my personal career trajectory is that learning how to deal with change is a very valuable skill to have in today’s age where, as we all know, the pace of change is increasing. It’s a helpful skillset to develop even if it was somewhat by accident rather than design.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s break down today’s conversation into major segments. One is, I want to understand your perspective on innovation and transformation in the financial services space that has gone through a huge amount of change during your tenure. In the second part of the conversation, I’d like to focus on your Silicon Valley board work.
You are on the board of ServiceNow which is a hyper growth company that Silicon Valley and the technology ecosystem is watching very closely. What insights can you bring from the point of view of innovation management in the context of a hyper growth company. Let’s do the first part. What are the vectors of change that were sweeping over the financial services industry that you particularly had to pay attention to?
Anita Sands: That hits on one of the most valuable lessons I learned about leading corporate innovation. Innovation is very contextual. It’s a function of both the time and the cycle that the industry is in. It’s also a function of the industry that you’re operating in. The definition of what innovation meant for a financial services firm like UBS is very different from what people at Apple and Boeing would think when they think about corporate innovation. Context very much matters.
I started running innovation teams before the financial crisis. During that time, we were focused on emerging technologies. It would have been the start of today’s digital world. We were very much looking at emerging technologies and trying to think about new ways to enhance the customer experience and drive revenue growth. Once the crisis hit, the context changed entirely.
Our mandate was then to figure out how to re-engineer processes and do that as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible because you have to manage a lot of operational risks. Your starting point matters too. I still talk to a lot of my colleagues in financial services. They express frustration sometimes that they wish they could just do everything as quickly and with the same level of agility as a startup can.
The fact of the matter is, if you’re operating inside a large established firm, you have a lot of inherent complexity. You have a lot of legacy. That legacy takes all kinds of forms from legacy technology, processes, practices, and particularly legacy mindset. The starting point where you’re coming from is really important. If you don’t have an adequate awareness of that, I think you’re destined to set up yourself for the wrong situation with the wrong context. You’re setting yourself up for failure.