Cultural changes and digitalization in banking

19/09/2016

I’ve always thought I became a banker by chance. I once met a Markets expert at a student fair, got interested and soon applied for a summer trainee position in a Nordic bank. I was chosen to their Foreign Exchange Sales. And that’s the road I’m still following. Was my career then not just a coincidence?

I started my studies at the University of Tampere to become Master of Economics in 2000. Since I’ve always loved math I selected my majors, Economics with specialization in Finance, based on which were described to be the most mathematical subjects. At that time Economics was considered one of the most masculine majors. I was never discouraged by the many comments regarding women and maths. On the contrary, the narrow-minded prejudices only strengthened my passion for the subject and also inspired me to apply for the trainee position. I heard the dealing room staff would be more than 90% men, and the working environment challenging and competitive. Today the world is fortunately more equal.

The first years of working in a dealing room did not disappoint my expectations on the amount of testosterone and tension. The dealing room was one of the biggest in Helsinki and digital trading tools were still the future in 2005. That must have been one of the reasons behind the openly competitive culture. As far as I remember, the first digital platforms for currency trading came in 2006-2007, and at the same time the working culture started to shift away from the “Wall Street spirit” described in so many movies. Looking back I feel grateful for having experienced working in the Markets front desk both pre and post Lehman Crisis – what a remarkable turning point that was for the entire industry.

Joining SEB in 2008 was a yet another cultural leap for me. The interbank traders were so kind the first months that I was wondering what their motives were. Later I realized it was the change of culture in all dealing rooms, in all banks. The market had changed, needs of the customers had changed and now bankers needed to change.

Speaking of trends, today all banks focus on digitalization. Some people argue that Fintech will challenge and eventually kill the dinosaur banks. I understand the seed of truth, but I also disagree. The digital development of banks has already years ago taken a huge leap forward. For example, when I was working at Markets, the trading platforms where customers could directly make a stock exchange order or OTC trades were launched. Soon there were also multibank tools for trading, and electronic systems where banks could match their positions between each other. This was a big step from the times when deals were confirmed by fax or when traders gathered in Restaurant Kalle every evening to compare their notebooks and agree their positions by the pints of beer. In my view banks’ Markets operations are the true Fintech pioneers. Digitalization is not a revolution. It is evolution.

Banks have different strategies how to handle the digitalization boom. SEB has a good external cooperation and resources for new acquisitions. However, the best point of view in my opinion is how SEB is getting its employees to engage. At SEB we have global innovation events, Innovation Days, for employees where anyone can participate and pitch an idea. Ideas with best potential are selected to the Innovation Lab. I participated with some of my colleagues in April and we got the tickets to the Lab, located in Stockholm’s external hatchery, Epicenter. This experience has undeniably been one of the finest in my career. In addition to developing our idea, we received innovation and start-up training by some of the hottest names on the Swedish startup scene. One of the finest moments was in June, when we were invited to pitch our idea to the board of Investor, the majority shareholder of SEB. What a place to perform! l always remember how it felt when we finished the presentation and Annika Falkengren, CEO of SEB, looked into my eyes, smiled and showed me her thumbs up.

I’m soon off for my third maternity leave. I feel positively about this opportunity to take a break from the career, see more objectively and reflect upon future paths. Returning to work has each time brought me to a new job position. Fortunately I have had supportive supervisors, who have encouraged my self-development. Returning after my first maternity leave I was chosen to a position where I was responsible for Emerging Markets cross-products at Markets department. This role matched well with one of my passions; exotic cultures and languages. Every day was different and exciting with one eye on Eastern European equity markets and the other on Chinese currency market. After the second leave I became a Client Associate within Corporate Coverage. The Corporate Coverage unit is the point of entry for all corporate clients throughout all countries and across all products. We are responsible for the balance sheet usage towards clients and internal processes related to that. I would describe this work as being the conductor of a large orchestra. The most important thing is to get people to play well together. But sometimes you must give a good ground and space for the solo artists as well.

So was it a coincidence I became a banker? The answer is actually clearer than ever, no it wasn´t. There are so many choices I have made through my whole life and things I have enjoyed since childhood, all of which unconsciously have led me to this career. My tip for students thinking about your own future is: Trust your intuition. The inner skills and passion will drive you to the right direction. Have confidence on that and enjoy the ride.

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