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Five Essential Traits of Successful Digital Leaders in Financial Services

One of the most important success factors in any digital effort is strong leadership. Here are the traits we’ve seen prevail, over and over again.

The financial services industry has changed significantly over the past decade or so. As firms continue to drive digital transformation, Hearsay has had a front row seat collaborating with innovative executives on their digital transformation roadmaps, and we firmly believe that one of the most important success factors in any digital effort is strong leadership. Amongst firms that have thrived, we have consistently seen five traits across successful digital transformation leaders.

1. Agility

If there’s one thing digital leaders understand, it’s that today’s world calls for an agile approach. Technology, competition, and client sentiment change too fast to get bogged down in meetings and/or approval processes that take weeks or months. Add to that a paradigm-shifting global pandemic, and agility solidifies its place – by miles – as the number one most valuable trait in a leader.

Take Prudential Financial for example. The corporate marketing team had been working on a new brand campaign, a deep-dive into the company’s mission. The campaign was scheduled to launch in the midst of COVID-19, and the team quickly pivoted their approach. “March 12th, we all met, and we said ‘This is not going to be right.’ Because it’s not about us, it’s about them,’ said Naveen Agarwal, Chief Marketing Officer at Prudential. Agarwal and team developed a new campaign that focused on hope and the heroes on the frontlines, in just eight short days – from concept to production to launch. Agarwal shared, “I actually think that what [the pandemic] has done is allow large companies to think agile. Not agile as a methodology which is in my mind a small aim; the big aim to me, is when the company starts thinking fast and acting fast.”

2. Diverse Knowledge Base

There’s often a push in one’s career to specialize in a particular area. But running a financial services firm’s digital efforts, as CIO, CTO, or CMO, calls for a combination of business and technical skill sets. Brooke Forbes, CIO at Fidelity Investments, agrees, “Digital leadership really embodies the connection between business acumen, technology acumen, and even operational acumen.” And Forbes has a career that spans all three.

After starting out in business roles working for technology, software, and consulting services companies, she moved into a COO role managing the operational reporting and sales and marketing forecasting for a particular technology platform.

She jokes, “I fell over the other side of the fence one day [into a technical role] because my boss said to me, ‘You know what? I’m going to ask you to run this thing.’ And from that moment forward, I found myself in the business of leading development organizations through large scale platform transformations. What I found I loved about it was that I could bring the end user and the business perspective to the conversation. Because it’s not technology for the sake of technology, it’s technology in the name of what client, business or associate experience or outcome we’re all trying to drive. And having that intersection of the conversation I find is where the magic and the innovation really happens.”

3. An Insatiable (and Humble) Hunger to Learn

A smart leader knows that though they may have a lot of experience, there is always more to learn. Dontá Wilson, Chief Digital Client Experience and Marketing Officer at Truist (formerly BB&T and SunTrust), went from regional bank president to oversight across all things digital including product research, UX, client experience, analytics, marketing, innovation, and communications. With his primary area of expertise in client relations, he relies on humility and a team of experts to drive strategic digital innovation.

“I have a fantastic team of some of the best and brightest talent in the world. One of the things that I committed to very early on was to […] know what I don’t know; to be very open and transparent about [my team] being the smartest people in the room and that I’m going to lean on them to make the critical decisions. But I’m also going to lean on them to teach me and educate me to fill gaps, because I felt it was strategically important.”

Wilson walks the walk on this commitment with a once a month 2-hour deep-dive tutorial session, along with a full ‘Saddle Day,’ where he sits with someone on his team and actually does their job with them looking over his shoulder.

4. Client Centric Viewpoint

No matter how much a leader (or leaders) knows or how much experience they have, today’s successful leader must use the client as their compass for every decision made within their organization. Digital leaders need to be thinking about their customer, be it external or internal, at all times.

Wilson’s role is a perfect example of that. It has responsibility “for making sure that we show enough care for our clients and that we wake up every day with our client at the center of every business decision that we make,” said Wilson.

Wilson shared that the reason it’s so important to put clients at the center is because, “client experience is now the differentiator because people have options. There’s product and price parity, so you have this competitive, what I call sea of sameness. So you can get price here, you can get product here that’s similar to your competition. You build a store here, they can build a store there. Most financial services companies move to what I would call a lake of differentiation. So, smaller than that sea of sameness, and they did it based on the human experience.”

5. Understand the Critical Importance of Human Connection

Though Forbes pointed out that she’s “in the business of technology,” she also emphasized the importance of enabling Fidelity advisors to create a human connection with their clients by putting the client at the center of every engagement. Forbes pointed out that in this “economy of customer choice,” it’s imperative to let customers guide their own journey. For her, that means providing an omnichannel experience and creating an ecosystem for clients.

“If you really have the mindset that it’s an ecosystem, the ability to leverage a channel at any given point in time thoughtfully, with personalization in mind for that client experience, it gives organizations and those serving their clients, be it advisors or other kinds of roles, a lot of flexibility and scale. [It also allows you] to deliver the human touch in a really omnichannel way, and platforms like Hearsay really give you a lot of power in that,” she shared.


Agility, a love of learning, customer centricity, a broad range of knowledge, and the belief in the power of human connection have made certain leaders stand out while driving digital transformation. And as the pandemic crisis drove waves of change through many aspects of business, it forced the acceleration of digital transformation. This disruption tested and challenged the agility and adaptability of leaders across the globe. Are there other traits you think will be important for leaders going forward? We’d love to hear from you! Use #FSDigitalLeaders and @HearsaySystems on Twitter.

Leslie Leach

Leslie Leach leads Hearsay’s marketing strategy and execution. She has more than two decades of experience in consumer and B2B marketing, with a B.A. in Economics from The University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

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