Interview with Adam Banks, NED & former CIO of Visa & AP Moller Maersk

Non-executive directors

5 min read

Adam Banks was CIO/CTO of Visa and AP Moller Maersk, and has had an extensive career in digital transformation. He is now a NED at TSB, sits on the board at Dakia, and Euroclear UK&I, and is also advisor to the CEO and CFO at Rio Tinto. Here, Adam reflects on the moments that shaped his career, what it takes to successfully lead a transformation, and shares his perspective on the challenges facing businesses today.

What lessons from your career influence your decision-making in the boardroom?

Three stand out:

  1. I was 28 and the most junior person in the room for a large programme for which the budget was 70% of the company’s costs; if it failed, the company failed. The CEO went around the room asking all 30 people there who was accountable for the programme succeeding. I was sat to his right, and so the last person to answer. Everyone else had said not them. So, I said, “Looks like it’s me, then”. He then empowered me to execute, ignoring the structural hierarchy. It showed me how important accountability is, and how good leadership can nurture it.
  2. The cyberattack on AP Moller Maersk back in 2017, which is still the most expensive attack ever. The Russian hackers involved were trying to destabilise Ukraine and so destroyed the data processing capabilities of companies that paid tax in Ukraine just before tax return day — 98% of our infrastructure was affected and we had to shut it all down. I’d been brought in on a digitization agenda, and once that crisis hit the chief commercial officer said to me: “I thought we were trying to become a digital business. It’s obvious we already are.” It taught me that crises can be penny-drop moments that change corporate culture, and that genuine IT crises will eventually make the arbitraty distinction between “IT” and “the business” disappear.
  3. And finally, the moment I really understood the difference between “being” and “doing”. At one company we had finalised a brand new vision, mission, and strategy that I was to lead. But then someone asked me, “Can everything be different if I am the same?” It took me 3 months to find a satisfactory answer and eventually admit to myself that I couldn’t be the catalyst for change unless I could change too.

What’s keeping you and the many directors and executives you interact with awake at night right now?

It won’t come as a surprise that inflation in the economy is weighing on their minds, and rightly so. We have an entire generation of CEOs and executive teams that have never had to go through a crisis like this one where the implication of failure isn’t non-growth but non-existence. Of course, there are still those around who remember 2007, or even the early 90s in relevant terms — but that knowledge and experience isn’t as accessible to executives as it could be.

I also think that the union of two problems is creating an interesting opportunity and challenge: the new model of hybrid working; and the need for systemic business change provoked by the economic situation. We’ve seen that working independently and remotely is efficient for execution — however, I’m not convinced it is quite as efficient for cross-functional, large-scale problem-solving i.e. what we’ll need to survive the impending crisis. I doubt that many businesses are structurally set up in a way to compensate for that. Those that manage to combine the two trends will be better equipped to perform well.

“For the last 30 years the principal agenda has been for growth. Today, it’s about survival.”

What does it take to transform an organisation? And what do boards most often get wrong?

First and foremost, you need a hypothesis that there is untapped value somewhere, and an idea where that may be even if you’re not sure what specifically needs to be done to unlock it. For example, at Visa we believed that the future value of that organisation was around completely seamless payment processing — think tap in/tap out as you do with TfL, or car number plate recognition that knows when you enter the congestion zone. None of this existed in 2004 but the potential was clear. Our logic for this was fairly simple in that the biggest competitor to electronic payment is cash and not another payment scheme.

Armed with your hypothesis you can then start your transformation journey, and it makes a lot of sense to deliver this in an agile way. However, lots of people misunderstand the point of agility and think it’s about cost and speed, whereas it’s provably more expensive and often takes longer to do it in an agile way. What you actually get out of agile working is the ability to perceive a moving target and deliver value along the way — and most importantly, you get the chance to work with your customers. It gives you the chance to respond to feedback as you go and incorporate it into what you’re doing to produce a better product.

Secondly, you need humble leadership and structured thinking around capability. We’re used to a world where the executive know what’s best for the organisation, but to do a transformation you have to accept that you don’t know the answer, and that the skills you have today probably aren’t the skills you’ll need tomorrow. For example, let’s say we’re fantastic at playing football, but then we discover that the world cup series is rugby. We can kid ourselves that we’re all fit and great ball players, but it’s more likely that we’re the wrong size and don’t know the rules. We need the integrity to acknowledge that and go find some rugby players. We still have a role to play, creating the desire to succeed, identifying the right talent and removing obstacles to progress but it’s unlikely we’re on the pitch.

Lastly, in terms of the board’s role during a transformation, the most useful thing a director can do is to focus on direction and vision rather than control. Without oversimplifying it, it’s the same as the conversion from management to leadership: in management, questions flow up and answers flow down. In leadership, context flows down and answers flow up. Boards should be asking, “What do we need to be world-class at for the future we want to be true?”, and then exploring directed questions for each area raised.

You’re a strong advocate for cognitive diversity. What should boards look out for when assessing their diversity of thoughts?

Cognitive diversity is about the ability of a collection of individuals to better process information, share perspectives and experience, and uses debate to come up with an answer that’s better than any of them could produce on their own. The great challenge in bringing this about today is that we lack a measure of cognitive diversity.

The reason I’m so passionate about this is that I worked in an organisation that did well on normal DNI measures, but nine out of the 11 board members had spent their whole careers in the company. They had therefore been trained to think the same way, with the result being they didn’t know how to make a decision other than by consensus — with everybody processing the same information individually and collectively coming to the same answer.

In my favourite company I’ve ever worked for, I would be sitting on the train home maybe three times a week thinking, “Wow, I never thought of it like that.” Someone will have said something that caused me to change my frame of reference around that point, and to achieve that you need people who think differently and ask different questions.

“A debate when you’re seeking consensus, in essence, is a race to the bottom because you have to remove any outliers or any controversial aspects of any part of the conversation.”

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