Sonia Wędrychowicz and her way to becoming Managing Director and Head of Technology of the biggest bank in Singapore

Sonia Wędrychowicz and her way to becoming Managing Director and Head of Technology of the biggest bank in Singapore

During the last Story Seekers project taking place in Singapore, I met Sonia Wędrychowicz, a Polish woman professional working as the Managing Director at the DBS Bank and an Adjunct Professor at the National University of Singapore. In the course of our interview, Sonia talked about her career, leading people through change, and about some of the leadership lessons that she learned from her kickboxing classes.

Magdalena Petryniak: What stepping stones did you have to take to become a Managing Director at the biggest bank in Singapore?

Sonia Wędrychowicz: The story started 23 years ago in Citibank in Poland. It was my first real job after I graduated. I had an interesting job interview with my future boss of Indian origin. Due to our different accents I didn’t understand 90% of what he asked me, but I passed the interview as being  open and sincere made a good impression, and I got the job. I had a great luck with my foreign bosses at Citibank. They gave me not only a lot of space from the very beginning, but also many challenging tasks,  and a lot of support. At that time, I used to think that every job is like that – we get our challenges, our boss supports us when we need it and we’re constantly moving onwards and upwards. No other world existed in my mind. I was promoted very quickly. A few years passed and I got my own team. My beginnings as a boss were not too easy, though. I used to think that nobody can do the job better than me (laugh). I tried to control everything and everyone until I finally understood the most important leadership rule – you need to attract people who are better than you and let them do the job. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my bosses were giving me lots of space and that’s why I could develop and work on more and more complicated projects.

“Inspiration, support and appreciation towards employees are the critical skills of a good leader.”

Is letting go of control and giving the employees space one of your rules of good leadership?

Absolutely! After the merger of Citibank and Bank Handlowy in 2001 I became head of a big department. I was 32 years old, 20 years younger than the people I managed. It was a really big challenge. I told the young people from my Citibank team that we needed to hand over the control of the department to the hands of the experienced team from Bank Handlowy, as we could learn a lot from them. My people understood that. As a result, over 50 per cent of my leadership team comprised of the ex- Bank Handlowy team. Thanks to that decision we had a very highly engagement of the team from the acquired bank. Everyone backed the new strategy because it was co-written by their former bosses.

One of the key elements of successful collaboration is effective communication and building an organizational culture based on values. What values were the most important for you?

You mentioned a very interesting subject. Not so long ago, someone asked me what value was the most important for me. I told them that the RESPECT for another human being is the most important value for me. I was  brought up in such spirit. My dad was an attorney in a small town. His job was very prestigious but he dealt with variety of different legal cases – from thefts and murders to divorces and divisions of properties. I could see the respect he had for his clients and the way he talked about them. That is why I have very deep respect for other people, regardless of who they are, where they come from and what happened to them in the past.

What did your communication with the new teams after the merger look like?

I was just myself. I tried to understand people, their fears and expectations. The new team treated me with a lot of distrust at the beginning. My ex bosses at Citibank raised me in the model full of trust and support. They taught me to always appreciate a team for successes and – as a leader- to take personal responsibility for failures. It took people time to believe that what I said was true and to trust me. The same situation happened when I transferred to Asia. In Malaysia people described me as “firm but friendly”. I changed countries and teams that I worked with a few times, but I always used the same model – the model of respect for another human being, the model of listening to people, understanding their fears and expectations. I always think how I can help them, what I can do to make them feel more comfortable and constantly supported.

Have you ever experience failure while managing people?

Many times! My first failure was my attempt to control everything. Only later I learnt that the best effects come from giving people freedom to figure out the “what” and the “how”. We as leaders should give people the vision and set the clear strategy. The second lesson took me more time to master. Some time ago I started to think about the Biblical parable of talents. You certainly know the story. It states that everybody has a talent. There are people who bury it deep in the ground and do nothing about it. Others, however, try to multiply it, to invest in it. Earlier, I quickly let go these people who didn’t fit the job I had for them. I transferred them to other functions or departments. Now I think of it as my failure. In the end, however, I understood that I could find talent in everyone and I could shape their duties and utilize their talent in the best way.

What challenges in people management awaited you in Asia?

When I started my work as Consumer Bank Head in Malaysia six years ago, I was surprised by one thing. The management team I took over, comprised exclusively of people from outside Malaysia – there was not even one local person! I also soon realized, that the people on the lower levels of the organization were not allowed to meet me directly. That was related to the culture of strict hierarchy. One of the principles of my leadership is to meet the whole team – from the lowest to the highest position. I always wanted to see the world through their eyes. I realized quickly that people on lower positions, with 15 plus years of experience, were very competent, so every time I had an open position I promoted my local Malaysian employees.

As a result, when I left Malaysia after 3 years, my bank team was almost completely local. People on my team could report directly to the Head of Consumer Bank for the first time in their lives. I taught them to make presentations for the regional managers, to write memos and procedures. They were very fast learners! I remember many “dress rehearsals” we conducted before the meetings with the management board and the feedback I provided to my people to make them perform better. I worked at the grassroots. I passed over to them what I learnt before, tried to guide them and coach them.

How did they react when you left the bank?

That was amazing! Before I left, I went into series of farewell parties ! The Malaysians love to sing, so all my farewell parties included karaoke. The most common song was “You raise me up”. I was crying when my people came to me with tears in their eyes and told me I was their best boss ever. I asked them why they thought so, because I didn’t think I was doing anything extraordinary. I won’t ever forget their responses: “You made us believe in ourselves. Thanks to you we started doing things we did not believe we were able to accomplish before”. After another three years, during the farewell party in Singapore, I heard similar things. One person said: “You can perform miracles”. Another said: “You can see value in every person, you can make people believe in themselves and believe that everything is possible”. Those words were the best reward I could ever imagine I could get.

What do you consider the most important in taking people through changes?

I don’t think its overcomplicated. If you set simple rules for the people, if you tell them why certain things need to be done and what they can expect in the future, they are no longer afraid because they know where the change leads them.

Can you give me an example of how that worked?

I will give an example from Malaysia. My employees complained about not having any interesting products to sell, so I asked them what we had at hand. “Free ATMs,” they answered. “Wonderful,” I replied, “what else?” “Internet and mobile banking, also for free.” “Have we ever sold it like that?” “No.” As a result, we created a product consisting of all the elements that have always been available, but never connected and packaged in an attractive way. Another time I asked my team what interest rate we should offer to our customers. They told me, “something around 7%.” I knew that the Chinese were superstitious so I asked what numbers bring luck. “The number eight is good because when read aloud it sounds similar to the word meaning «luck»,” they answered. I suggested 6,88%. It was a bull’s eye. My employees created the whole advertising campaign and believed the product was excellent. Everyone really engaged in the sales because they felt it was their own product.

Managing multicultural teams demands more awareness and sensitivity. What have you learnt when working with people in Asia?

I have to tell you that my beginnings in Malaysia weren’t easy. The employees were coming to when they had a problem. I listened to their story and then asked what the solution to the problem was. They just stared at me and said, “you tell me, boss.” I was surprised and said, “has nobody ever asked you that?”. That’s how I learnt that they were always told what to do. I didn’t give up, however, and asked, “how would you solve this problem if I asked you to?”. They couldn’t believe me and asked shyly, “am I allowed to suggest a solution?”. “Not only you may, you must,” I answered, smiling. Only then could I hear an answer, “I would do this or that.” Thanks to the questions we always arrived at the best solution. People felt it was them who came up with a solution. When we succeeded, employees themselves presented the results to the board. When problems arose, I always repeated to the team to be open with me and tell me everything so I could be able to react properly. I never asked who was responsible for the mistake. At the beginning, they tested me during a few smaller projects. They were very surprised that I never wanted to find the guilty party. I always focused on solving the problem. I didn’t care who made a mistake. I have never held anybody liable for their mistakes and hence we built a lot of trust and openness in the team.

“The mistakes are there to learn. It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes.”

The culture of finding the guilty party is quite common in that part of the world. When my boss came to me and asked me who was to blame in a particular situation, I always answered it was my fault. I never made an exception. If I had abandoned this rule once, I would have lost the trust of my people. After some time, the employees started coming to me not only with the problems and solutions, but also with new ideas. They weren’t afraid to tell me that they come up with something new! That was fantastic and I could feel like I was in Poland again.

Have you been surprised in Asia by something you never experienced in Europe?

The most surprising and difficult thing for me was a very high degree of respect for hierarchy. I understood the roots of that culture better when I visited Tibet. I also travelled to Bhutan to get to know the Buddhist culture. I noticed that in Asian culture it’s very difficult to even express your opinion when differs from your boss’s. It doesn’t matter if your idea is good or bad. If the CEO said so, you have to do it. No questions asked. During one of the meetings one of my bosses asked, pro forma, if anybody had a different opinion. I was the only person to speak up, but this shouldn’t surprise anybody as we, Poles are famous to have an opinion on every subject and we also have zero respect for authority (laugh). I said very politely and professionally, that we could tackle that problem from another viewpoint. That situation became the biggest scandal of the year!(laugh) It made me realize that the only way to make successful changes in Asia is to have a strong support from the top of the organization. I believe it is  different in Europe. There are a lot of bottom-up initiatives there. People have the courage to speak up and express their opinions. I could see that in Citibank and I still can see that in many different places in Poland. That was a really big cultural difference.

What helps you build the internal power needed to survive in the business jungle?

Kickboxing is one of my ways to do that. It is an essence of positive motivation and leadership. Six years ago, a friend of mine gave me three kickboxing lessons as a gift for my birthday. It was still before my assignment in Malaysia. I fell in love with kickboxing right from my first lesson. At the beginning, I treated this sport as a way to stay fit. But then I moved to Malaysia, where kickboxing was very popular, also among women. I found my first coach, who left the country after a year. Afterwards, I met the best instructor I could have – a Malaysian with Indian roots and a Muslim. I trained for an hour every day of the week.

I used to have problems with my backbone and I was told I would have to undergo a surgery. In Poland I visited a masseur once a week to be able to sit through the work meetings for 10-12 hours a day. Still, I had to deal with severe back pains. I had a choice – an operation or an intensive training regime to strengthen my muscles. Now, thanks to kickboxing, my muscles are as hard as steel. I have not endured a back pain for 6 years, since I started my training.

Kickboxing gives me the opportunity to completely forget my work during the training sessions. The gym acts as an interface between my work and the stress I feel there, and my free time when I can relax. After an hour I leave the gym completely renewed and revitalised.

What else has kickboxing taught you?

Kickboxing became a great inspiration for me. I wrote two articles concerning kickboxing and leadership. The first one was more technical – I wrote about management skills. The second one was all about leadership and the philosophy of martial arts. I will share my few lessons with you.

The first lesson of kickboxing – relax.

My coach always said that I was too stressed. If you want to achieve the best results, you have to reax. The more relaxed you are, the more powerful your strike is.

Lesson number two: when you decide to hit, don’t ever hesitate.

I can recall hundreds of such situations at work. You take your decision, but then you start to think whether to carry it out. You walk from one wall to another. My advice is that you need to follow your first instinct. It can later turn out to be wrong, but it’s better to make a decision fast. It is always better to correct a bad decision than to forever stay in one place.

The third lesson that I can apply to business is “If you want to become a master, you need to develop black belt graduates’.

The highest individual achievement in kickboxing is a black belt. If you want to become a master, you have to groom students who also need to achieve the black belt. That made me think:

It’s nothing about yourself anymore. It’s all about your people.

If you want to go further, nothing depends on you anymore. Your people are the most important asset because they work for themselves and for you to be successful. Now tell me, isn’t it the best lesson of leadership? Look at all the people at the highest positions, thinking only about themselves. They don’t understand that when they forget about themselves and start to empower their people, these people will become the foundation of their success. I analyzed all the martial arts: Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Tai chi, Muay Thai, Taekwondo. They all share this philosophy.

I see a Polish girl who has such determination, such energy, that everything she touches turns into gold. What is your fuel? What pushes you forward? What is the main goal you strive to achieve?

Journey is more important for me than the destination. Right outcome will always come when the path is good. People are the most important element in my life. I couldn’t work without people. When I started my work at Citibank I realized that working with people, watching them develop and grow up, is my passion and has the most value for me. Someone asked me during one of the interviews, about my greatest achievement during the last 20 years. I have to say that I had a problem to answer this question. I don’t remember all my achievements. I remember the people I worked with. I know where they are now, what careers they have made. This is my most cherished value – people that had worked with me and achieved extraordinary results. I know that when I raise my hand, they will want to work with me again. I will try to stick to that path, to help these most amazing people develop, believe in themselves and empower them to do great things.

Where will we see Sonia Wędrychowicz next?

I have been here for 6 years and I already think about moving somewhere else. I have already travelled to all Asian countries. I’m not afraid anymore to change anything. I am open to change. I never say never. When somebody asks me where I will be in a year or two, I answer that I don’t know. I enjoy this uncertainty. Thanks to it I always await the next challenge.


Addendum: Shortly after this interview was conducted, Sonia left Singapore. She changed a continent, a company and a role to become Head of Technology Transformation at JP Morgan Chase in New York City.

Story Seekers Hero Stories is a series of interviews with business leaders led by Magdalena Petryniak, Story Seekers Poland Managing Partner. The interviews show the career stories of leaders and visionaries working in different fields. They talk about what shaped them and share their values, breaking points and leadership lessons they want to pass along.

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