Luba Uram, COO and CIO for Central Europe and Eastern Europe, tells us about her IT and financial career, how she does her outmost best to keep her team engaged and motivated, how it is important to adjust to changes around us to succeed and the role technology has in reaching that success, looking at a brighter future.
UniCredit’s series Women in Leadership highlights the roles, expertise and commitments of some of its female executives working in the different countries and areas of the business in which the bank operates.
Our fourth interviewee is Luba Uram, COO and CIO for Central Europe and Eastern Europe, who walks us through her long career path in the IT and banking sector, highlights how she faced the pandemic challenges supporting her team and customers and how technology is a key enabler for success and a better future.
Can you tell us more about your career journey and your current role?
My career has been connected to UniCredit for the last 10 years. Before that I worked in the IT industry and in Management Consulting. Often colleagues ask me how I got into the IT area and they are surprised that it is connected to my original field of study which was applied statistics. At university I had an amazing senior professor who opened new horizons for me and engaged me into the field of data analytics and statistics. If you deal with statistics and modelling you can’t do it without technology - even 20 years ago.
This is what led me to my first job at SAS, a US company specialised in statistics and data warehousing. During my 10 years of experience at SAS I led and delivered several data warehousing projects in different Slovakian financial services institutions, including DWH in UniCredit Bank Slovakia.
To highlight an example, the one we delivered in UniCredit is still in place today and later was also rolled out to the UniCredit in Czech Republic.
Given I worked with the same technology for 10 years, I have grown to known it quite well, including its strengths and weaknesses. I saw more independence and freedom in the consulting role and in 2008 I became part of Capgemini management consulting, advising financial institutions how to transform their IT infrastructure and optimise their IT costs during the crisis following the 2008 events. One of my major customers was UniCredit Bank in Slovakia, which I joined in 2010 as Head of Change Management and IT.
Since that moment I have worked in several banks on different projects and challenges. If I look back and summarise the experience I have gathered during the last years, I can still hear what Luca Rubaga told me when we discussed my career. He said “Luba, when I see what you did and do, you are like parachuter - we have a topic, a country, or a project where we struggle, and we call you. You go there, work hard and make things happen, you change the situation and settle the things.” And yes, I do it – from Slovakia where we outsourced the IT business, to Bulgaria where I started a project for changing the core banking system, to UniCredit Services, where I turned around the CEE IT delivery up to my current double role. Of course, during these challenges, I was always surrounded by an engaged and committed team which I have worked with throughout my journey.
I currently have two different roles which perfectly match my curiosity and interest in different topics – CIO and COO for Central and Eastern Europe. I have the responsibility for the shared IT infrastructure of CEE in UniCredit services and for the coordination of all the COO area in region.
What was the biggest challenge in your career up to now?
Without too much thought, I can say I faced my biggest challenge when I took over my current position.
I expected it to be a natural next step for me and was counting on my previous experience. But I have underestimated not only the level of complexity of this job but also expectation towards the level of leadership skills needed.
I will never forget how difficult and painful it was to listen to the feedback from my managers. It was during the COVID-19 crisis, while together with all my colleagues we had to organise our banks, our business and our people. We worked many hours a day to find out what our next steps should be. In the middle of this crisis, during feedback sessions, I had to listen to challenge words that made me see myself from a completely different perspective.
I had to understand that what had worked before is not going to work now and in the way forward – more than being focused on delivering results, I had to focus on my leadership skills and on leading my team.
What started with struggle and challenging feedback, made me more resilient and in the end brought me to a new level of managerial leadership skills. With the support of the people around me and the many changes I have done from my side, I managed to turn around the whole situation and within one year I received a completely different feedback and got the trust and the opportunity to lead the IT part of the Omnichannel program in CEE.
The lesson I have learnt was very simple – do not take things for granted, each change requires you distance yourself a bit at the beginning, to understand the new setup and the expectations. If you recognise this, you must put efforts and adjust to it, to gain new, but different skills. The ability to adjust and develop along the changes around us, is key to any success.
Have you seen change in your area of responsibilities during the pandemic crisis and how are you dealing with the current challenges?
The IT and Operations areas of our banks and UniCredit Services were certainly places where I could see so many changes during the crisis. Within just a few weeks, topics which previously were only discussed and planned, became a reality. Within just a few days we allowed our colleagues to effectively work from home, while continuing to provide the same level of quality services for our customers.
This pandemic crisis highlighted something we sensed beforehand and that suddenly became very visible – if we invest in technology and make it work, everything is possible, no matter if our banks have years of legacy behind them or not. We could clearly see that technology is key for the future of our operating model and the way to provide the best services to our employees and customers.
Going forward, the main challenge is how to make the most out of this experience, while further accelerating our digital transformation in the way of working with our people and our customers. On the other hand, we face challenges to make this new way of working sustainable for our teams, especially in IT and operations areas, but also in the business areas. During the crisis, they became much more engaged and have put extraordinary efforts, while now we need to bring this to more sustainable levels.
You are part of the team implementing the Omnichannel platform in CEE. What is its goal and how do you tackle the challenges to make it happen?
For me, the Omnichannel is the most engaging and inspiring idea I had the chance to work on and contribute to in the last 2 years. With this platform we aim to change the way we do business and IT in CEE. It stands for a single platform covering both key products and the related processes on all the channels.
The idea is that all our clients have the same customer experience and go through the same journey, no matter if they come to a branch, open their mobile phone or contact the call center. Our colleagues from the business areas don’t need to define different IT requirements for the mobile banking appl, branch front end systems and Internet banking anymore. Once our colleagues from IT apply a change on the omnichannel platform it will be available on all channels. It is a simple idea bringing the business and IT at same table to make things happen. We have started with a pilot in our bank in Czech Republic and Slovakia and now we are now also onboarding other two countries.
What’s the leadership lesson you’ve learnt that makes it unique to be a female leader in the technology area of the financial sector?
Having worked in the tech sector also outside of the banking industry, I have learnt that it is a bit more difficult to start your tech career in this industry than in any other. It is not easy to single out one lesson that is unique. I would rather select the one which I consider the most important.
I almost always regret not speaking up. I think a lot of women might feel lack of confidence, especially if they’re not an expert in the field. You end up not asking basic questions or sharing your views. Now, when I am in a leadership role, I have learnt to be genuine and to contribute more. Even if you ask basic questions, your understanding of the situation is much better afterwards. And most importantly - if you do not speak up, you can not influence things.
I am optimistic. I see more and more female talents joining the IT area in our organisation and I highly recommend the technology and finance sector for everyone, especially women.
I’m always willing to mentor, meet with young people and encourage them for a career in IT. Usually I give them a very simple set of advice: 1) Focus on your role and how it contributes to the success of the company. 2) Seize new opportunities and don’t be afraid to ask for support; 3) Build relationships and your network; 4) Look for support and guidance from someone experienced, if you struggle. 5) Enjoy what you do, if not, do not do it.
What are your expectations for the future?
This crisis has shown us how we can bring our business forward, if we embrace technology even more as part of our operating model. I expect that in the upcoming months this will drive a new wave of further digital transformation in our organisation.
I see digital transformation not only as transformation enabled by technology, but also as a transformation of the people around it. Our people come first in our digital strategy and transformation, which is why this type of culture must be approached with a growth mindset. We must find ways to enable our people not only to bring and implement technology, but also to make the best use out of it for our customers.
On the path of our digital transformation, I will concentrate on also including the transformation of our people by mapping out our digital competencies and identifying areas of attention that will help us to improve the customer experience. Some of these include the ability to confidently move between different devices and building relationships via digital channels.
Looking forward, the key values for me are speed, openness, and autonomy. Technology can improve the processes, the productivity and the customer experience, delivering direct value to our company and our clients. Following these values, we can progress much faster and deliver a completely new experience to our teams, the business and the customers.