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The road to leadership is different for everyone. For TransUnion SVP of U.S. Markets Technology, it meant juggling change on multiple fronts, embracing experimentation, and learning by doing.
“When best intentions and ideas come along with actions, that is the key to change the future.”
—Swati Shah, senior vice president of U.S. Markets Technology, TransUnion
Tanya Ott: We’ve come a long way when it comes to gender equity in the workplace, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
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I’m Tanya Ott and we’re talking to women in the financial services industry to get a sense of how they navigate that space and where they draw their inspiration. When I first talked to Swati Shah back in February, she was the senior vice president of emerging technology and head of open banking at U.S. Bank. We’ll hear that conversation a little later, but first an update. Swati has a new job! She’s now senior vice president of U.S. Markets Technology with TransUnion.
Swati: People know TransUnion as a credit scoring organization, but we do much more than that. There are certain other business units which are not part of my organization, but, as an example, health care. We have a very big presence globally and international. TransUnion’s technology expertise allows us to provide “modern data” to our business customers, ultimately giving consumers greater experiences and economic opportunities, be it in the financial services, health care or other industry.
Tanya: Swati is responsible for all of the technology in U.S. markets, especially technology aimed at consumers. Her first day on the job at TransUnion was May 4—right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Swati: That’s correct. It was not in the earlier part of it where we all were going through some real tough time in terms of moving all of our people [to] working from home. So at least it wasn’t that. But yes, it was still middle of the COVID-19 and I still think we are [in the] middle of it.
Tanya: We are. What is that like moving from one company to another in a major position at a time when things are in a little bit of upheaval?
Swati: Once you make a decision—or at least you think you know—what you are doing, what makes it possible is the speed of trust that your leaders could win with you. Of course, I was fortunate to meet many of the leaders before COVID-19 hit. I knew some of them going through the process, and it gave me pretty good confidence in terms of the decision that I’m making. At the same time, they created a wonderful candidate experience going through the process—making sure there are great check points, making sure that there are no issues, making sure technology works for virtual. That has been tremendously valuable in a time when you cannot see people in person.
Tanya: We’ve had some conversations on this podcast about what the first six months of an executive’s job is like in terms of the volume of meetings and the volume of interaction that you have with your direct reports and also your peers. And so much of that for six months is really sorting through what all do I have to pay attention to? What are some of the things that I can set aside? What do I have to accomplish, when? That’s hard at any point, but I would imagine now that might be particularly challenging.
Swati: Right. Especially working from home—that kind of tells you that there are no boundaries. As a leader, you need to focus on which areas are critical for the organization. I came at the time when we had some of the priorities set up for 2020, both from the business and the technology sides, so that plays a part in terms of creating your own road map. But it’s a balance that one has to figure out in terms of making sure how you get to know people. Relationships and getting to know people are extremely critical. And then focus on what is causing issues right now that are impacting our customers. The third part is what are the big pain points that we want to focus on? Are there more meetings than regularly that you would have? Probably, yes.
Tanya: It strikes me at a time when we’re working from home and we’re doing a lot of online meetings with video, you actually get an accelerated look into someone’s life. If you can see pictures of their kids or their partners on a wall or that sort of thing, or what books are on their bookshelf, that probably gives you a completely different dynamic of understanding, maybe, than you would have in a normal transition.
Swati: I would say totally. Everybody is opening up their personal space when they come to the video. I have been saying hello to kids of the leaders that I talk to. And it’s been just amazing to see how much we know about each other on a personal level than what probably you could have done pre-COVID. That’s the positive side of it, that you kind of connect with the whole family, not just the person that you are working with.
Tanya: You have moved to this new role from a previous role. What are the things that remain constant regardless of where it is you’re working? What is it about your approach to leadership that remains constant?
Swati: Focusing on people. That is extremely critical in terms of culture, in terms of talent, in terms of where we want to go building relationships with business, understanding the business perspectives. So people are a very big part of it.
Second is from a technology transformation [perspective], [to] continue to focus on what’s the business value of what we are going to modernize. Continue to focus on business value, impact and keep learning about what we can do better from [a] modernization perspective. I have seen that in most of the organizations that I have worked with.
The third one I would say is collaboration, especially working in a global organization, working with the teams that are very broad in terms of knowledge. It’s extremely important to have the collaboration where we understand each other’s success, each other’s objectives, and how we can enable each other. One of the ways that I have done it in the past is to have [an] innovation day or [an] innovation week, where we bring everybody together in terms of creating and working toward the same success, but with the contribution that comes from across the organization that truly brings people together, that truly helps to accelerate with the talent that we have, and most importantly, to get to the market much faster with the ideas that we would have.
Tanya: As I was talking with Swati on video conference, I couldn’t help but notice that on her desk, she has a picture of a baseball player at bat … taking a swing … with the strike zone clearly marked. Which at first surprised me. But then I remembered something she said during our conversation back in February, when she was still with U.S. Bank. Swati grew up in India and credits her parents for instilling in her the idea that it’s important to balance education with taking thoughtful risks—to, as Swati told me, every once in a while take a swing at a ball that’s outside the square just to see what happens.
For Swati, it’s all about believing in the power of possible. … Something she’s experienced in her own career.
Swati: From the startup in India, at some point I got an opportunity to come and work for State Farm Insurance. It was a big life change going away from family and for the first time this far [away]. But it’s about a tremendous amount of opportunity and what it means to build your dreams in the United States. It’s about taking the thoughtful risk and seeing what’s there in the other side of the world. That’s what brought me here. I got married after coming to [the] United States and moved to Chicago. When the U.S. Bank opportunity came in, we started our digital transformation back about little more than two years now. What made me super excited [is] the commitment that our leaders have in terms of digital transformation, as well as the role, which is horizontal across thousands of engineers that we have at U.S. Bank. So, it’s more about taking the learning that I have—how can I build the influence and make an impact on a much broader level? That brought me to U.S. Bank.
Tanya: It sounds like you were dealing with a whole lot of transition on a lot of different levels, personal, cultural, business and otherwise; all, sort of at one time. What was that like for you?
Swati: That’s an excellent point, Tanya. That was one of the changes I had when I took the role of U.S. Bank, which also included quite a bit of travel, which I had not done that much travel before in my career and what I was signing up for. So, what I have learned [is] that you cannot focus on one change. When there are multiple changes happening together and you make that decision as a family or as a team, either in your personal life or at the workplace, they all bring the dots together which you can connect in the past. In my perspective and in my experience, you deal with the change much better and faster when there are multiple of those going on. Of course, you have to believe in it. You have to be very mindful of what you are getting into. And have focus on what is that you won’t compromise [on] through the change that happens.
Tanya: We’ve been talking a lot in the series about gender equity in the financial services industry. That’s important to you both personally and also to the industry itself. But why?
Swati: Gender equity or equality is linked to sustainable development. And it’s also vital to the rationalization of human rights, overall. Right? It should be very important to all of us as individuals, society, and as a business. The reason I say that is we would want women to enjoy the same opportunity, rights, and obligations that men have. And how do we do that and continue to bring that equity to the table.
Tanya: I’d love to hear from you how your personal thoughts, but also the public dialog that you heard around gender equity or gender equality was different when you were growing up and initially working as an adult in India versus when you came here to the United States.
Swati: When I was growing up in India, I would say that probably I didn’t focus on that much just because my parents were so much focused on it for me. Right. You become more responsible and then you understand more what’s happening in this society and what you need to contribute. What I have seen changing and I genuinely believe this, that there are a lot of leaders, a lot of organizations that are making a tremendous amount of effort to keep moving this in the right direction. One thing I have noticed recently in the last few years is that our leaders and organizations are taking more actionable approaches. So, awareness, education, which is fantastic. I also believe, though, of blending more our best intentions and best ideas with actions that are going to change the future in terms of gender equality. And some of the organizations have already started to take those actions and publicly talking about it. For example, having at least one woman on the board and kind of pushing that. It’s not only the private sectors, but my hope is that even the government sector would continue to take a deeper dive and help fit those actionable plans.
Tanya: You talked a moment ago about education. And I know that a learning culture is something that’s really important to you. When you think of learning culture in your business and in your life, what are you thinking about? What does it mean?
Swati: Learning culture is extremely important because that helps us to learn and remember. It also helps us to be open to experiment with the safe space. We are in the 21st century, and we all know how fast markets and technologies are moving. We all want to and we all have to keep up with it. How do you keep up with such a fast pace? What I think, and learning culture is one of my personal values, is especially in the technology perspective it’s not about someone just taking training or reading books, but it’s also about how you have your hands on the keyboard so you can remember that for a long time. With technology moving this fast, waiting for someone to build those trainings, you are going to lose the opportunity of being a leader there. So that’s what I call “learn by doing it.” Absolutely, training and books are important, but personally I have learned tremendously by doing it and I see tremendous value in it. So I encourage that with the teams that I work with, the leaders that I work with, and then whenever I have opportunity to kind of make that more possible. I also think that culture is extremely important, Tanya, because it’s important to continue to uplift the talent and build the talent and to attract new talent. With that kind of culture it also helps for them to know how they would continue to build their talent once they join our organization. And, of course, retaining talent. You want to make sure that your talents are getting the opportunity to learn new things happening in the market, which actually result in your business value.
Tanya: How has the increasing importance of tech changed the landscape for women in the industry?
Swati: The industry has changed in a way that there are a tremendous amount of products that we use. Buying groceries online or buying a car online, and if you think about it, a lot of those decision[s] have been made as a woman as a consumer. So, with women being a consumer, how do you build those digital products in technology that resonates with the consumer? That has changed tremendously. I’m in technology, so probably I have bias there. But that has changed tremendously how we think about a woman leader as technology landscape is changing.
Tanya: Are tech roles leading to a path to CEO?
Swati: Let me take an example. Last year in [the] summer, we [visited] Girls Who Code, which has a partnership with U.S. Bank, to attend their graduation ceremony. There were these two girls who came to me and we were talking about it and they were like “are you CEO?” And I was so touched to see how the reality has been changing. So, am I hopeful? Absolutely. I’m hopeful for it, because the talented leaders that we have, women leaders we have in technology, how persistent they are, how they continue to give forward. And I see that landscape continuously changing. The question is going to be about how fast and it’s going to take the whole world as a village to come together to accelerate that.
Tanya: In Girls Who Code, are they, 13 to 16 or 17 or so, or what age were they?
Swati: Yeah, they’re teenagers.
Tanya: If you were thinking about the, let’s say, 20 years down the road when those girls are women and they are in business themselves, what would you hope that the conversation around gender equity would be at that point, say, 20 or 30 years from now?
Swati: My hope is that we don’t have to talk about gender equity and it becomes the way of natural leading. Just like as I was talking about voting rights many years ago and we don’t have to talk about it now. My hope is that it gets to the place where it’s the way of what we do in society and industry, whichever angle that you would look at it. I continue to think about it in terms of how us as leaders of the government sector, the private sector, all of it coming together, taking action, actionable plans, which continues to change this in terms of more acceleration than only enablement.
Talking about gender equity or equality is an extremely important piece. And what I would hope [is] that every individual who is listening or who is part of making decisions, they all look at this very deep and focus on actions, because, as I said before, when best intentions and ideas come along with actions, that is the key to change the future.
Tanya: Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a great conversation.
Swati: Thank you so much for having me here, Tanya.
Tanya: That was Swati Shah, formerly senior vice president of emerging technology at U.S. Bank … and now, as of early May, the senior vice president of U.S. Markets Technology with TransUnion. She’s one of several women in leadership roles in the financial services industry that we’re talking to on the show. You can find more of the interviews on our website, deloitte.com/insights. You’ll also find reports and videos and all kinds of resources.
The Press Room podcasts is available where you get your podcasts, online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.
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