Sonia started her career in banking over 23 years ago as a junior product manager in Citibank in Poland. At that time banking was in early development stages in her country so during the first couple of years Sonia was given high responsibility to introduce a number of innovative products to the Polish banking industry including direct debit, prepaid cards, T and E-business cards or electronic banking. Sonia’s career was progressing well with promotions coming every year as she was supported and appreciated for her efforts. Sonia says: ‘’My bosses made me believe that I could accomplish things I never thought I would be able to accomplish myself…’’
Sonia: So the first lesson that I learned in my career was that it is important to have a supportive boss - always choose to work for someone who will be able to make you perform at your best. People are working for people and our bosses are playing an important role in our careers - choose them well. Follow the right people!
During that time I got married and had 2 kids. Every time I was getting back from maternity leave there was a bigger job waiting for me. And it was not that I was online on email or phone during my maternity. I was fully disappearing and disconnecting after giving birth to my kids and was coming back after 4-6 months fully energised to engage professionally again. It felt amazing that I was appreciated as a person and my life choices were respected.
That led me to learn my second lesson - always work for an organisation that is allowing you to achieve your life goals as much as it allows you to accomplish the professional ones.
Shortly after I came back from maternity leave, there was a merger with a local bank and I was promoted to head a large department. I was the youngest and the least experienced among the crowd and yet I was offered to manage a huge department of over 300 people. I was 31 then while my people were all well in their 50s or 60s. I did not hesitate to take this job and never doubted I would be successful. And surely, I was running it and growing it for the next 6 years with lots of innovation and impressive business growth.
This move made me realise that there is never a job that is too big for you and hence you should never hesitate to raise your hand or accept a big job when it's offered to us. And yet I had so many cases in my career when I had a job to offer and I had an equally competent man and woman as potential candidates. While interviewed, the woman would always doubt her abilities to do the job while the man would almost always think the job was surely too small for him! So, ladies - never have doubts about yourselves - men never do! They always think they are awesome ... and surely we both are !:)
Sonia: As you could imagine, managing a team of people from a merged bank that were 25-30 years older than me with more experience, came with lots of challenges - their kids were at colleges, while mine were just born. There was the whole generation difference! I had to think about ways of engaging the leadership team as I knew that will bring their people on board. So, I made the experienced people the core of my management team, and I persuaded my younger colleagues from Citi to report to them as they could learn so much. That move led to fantastic engagement levels and the two teams from two banks which were merged started working as one team very quickly! At that time, I was promoted to managing director at the age of 33 which only now, from a distance, I realise how much faith people had put in me then;)
The situation with the teams made me understand an important rule - you are as good as your team - the people that you attracted to work with you. Always reach out to people who are better than you in their respective fields. Attract them, motivate them, engage them, inspire them, support them, appreciate them and they will always be the building blocks of your success. As a leader, you don't need to know everything - it's the leadership skills, the people skills that are the foundation of your success.
Fast forward a few more years and I got promoted to head the consumer bank and be the deputy CEO of the merged bank. At the time of my promotion, I knew nothing about the consumer bank with exception to owning a credit card and a bank account. The business was big with 7000 people, 1 million customers, a few hundred branches across wealth, deposits, credit cards and Consumer finance. So, it was a big leap of faith on the management side to take someone with no expertise. Against all odds, I again managed to bring the business to heights while leading it through the crisis of 2008 and beyond.
Sonia: So, what I learned from this situation was - never be afraid of going into the area that is out of your immediate expertise. It will allow you to learn and develop faster. It will make you a better, more versatile leader, broaden your horizons and widen your career options. It became so much more obvious to me when I further moved from the consumer banking into digital and recently into technology after 22 years of my business - only career. And again - I had little knowledge about technology only willingness to learn and embrace change...
After 18 years of a successful career in Citi, I got an offer to move to Asia to head the consumer bank in Malaysia for Standard Chartered Bank. It was over 5 years ago and everything was new - I never worked in Asia before, and have not even been to Malaysia. I landed in a country with three different ethnic groups - Chinese, Malay and Indian, different culture, Religion, laws, regulatory regime, cuisine and climate - and basically loved it here from day one! The same rules applied with one caveat - my husband left his job after 20 years of being a CEO of an Italian publishing house. He joined me and continuously supports me and our 2 kids. If not for him I would never be at the point of my career where I am now. So, the last thought I would like to leave you with is:
Interview conducted by Magda Chelly.
Who is Magda CHELLY :
Magda Lilia Chelly, is the Managing Director of Responsible Cyber Pte. by day, and a cyberfeminist hacker by night.
Magda calls herself a cyberfeminist and a cyber evangelist. She is involved in public speaking and international conferences as a keynote speaker where she addresses industries' challenges with cybersecurity as well as diversity in the sector and the presence of women.
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