‘People associate a tech career with coding – it’s much more than that’

16 Mar 2021

Lavinia Morris. Image: KBC

KBC Ireland’s Lavinia Morris discusses digitalisation in the banking industry, gender diversity in STEM, and how her dad helped her discover a love of science.

Lavinia Morris is chief operating officer at KBC Ireland, responsible for driving technology and innovation at the bank.

She has a background in electronic engineering and held senior tech roles at companies including Friends First and SMBC Aviation Capital before taking on her current role in late 2019.

‘As a young girl from the west of Ireland, STEM would not have been a focus in our education or a career path that was as well considered as it is now’

Describe your role and what you do.

I lead teams across operations, IT, enterprise change and innovation, and information security. I am also the innovation leader for Ireland within the wider KBC Group.

KBC as a group has taken enormous steps in the digital transformation of its business, both in the company itself and in the way it serves its customers. Building on that progress, in February KBC Group announced that they want to make an investment of €1.4bn in the next three years in digitalisation.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am a firm believer in having a plan. Each year I begin setting out what my goals, aspirations and must-win battles are for the year. I look at these goals holistically – so what do I want to achieve both from a personal and professional perspective. I can then define what my key priorities are to help me achieve these goals. The plan is then set!

To make sure I achieve my goals, I revert to this plan every week to see where I am. It’s really important to be clear on your priorities and avoid the ‘noise’ taking over the agenda.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

There is no doubt that our world is changing, and at a faster pace than we could have thought possible. Like all sectors, banking is facing significant disruption as customers now demand fast, digital, hassle-free products and services. Financial services is being reimagined and it is an exciting time to work in the sector.

At KBC we are focused on bringing a new way of banking to Irish consumers – digital with a human touch. For example, recently KBC launched a differentiating pensions offer, controlled through the KBC app.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

We are constantly responding to the changing needs of consumers, and we continue to drive transformation across the banking sector by bringing innovation to the market in response to growing customer demand for easy, secure and digitally led solutions.

Digital payment methods have undergone rapid change in a short period of time. We have seen a significant rise in the use of digital wallets as a result of the pandemic, up 57pc year on year compared to 2019. We will continue to add to our list of innovative firsts for customers throughout 2021.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I’m often asked how ended up in a career in technology. As a young girl from the west of Ireland, STEM would not have been a focus area of our education or a career path that was as well considered as it is now.

I always had a love of maths and science, which was fostered and encouraged by my dad. He was a lab scientist and regularly brought home Bunsen burners and pipettes for us to experiment with as young children. For me and my siblings – all of whom went into STEM-related careers – anything was possible because my dad taught us that you can be anything you want to be.

I originally qualified as an electronic engineer back in the mid ‘90s and my very first job was working as a power engineer with the ESB. From there, I held a number of IT roles in financial services and professional services before moving to one of the largest aircraft leasing companies in the world, SMBC Aviation Capital.

I was part of the management team there responsible for business change and ICT. I ran the programme to transform the IT platform, digitising a whole host of manual functions and insourcing a number of back-office functions that had been previously outsourced. After around five years in aviation, I moved into KBC to be part of creating a digital bank of the future.

How do you get the best out of your team?

For me, teamwork is essential. Every member of ‘team blue’ at KBC is encouraged to share their ideas, express their opinions and use their initiative to find and drive programmes that support our customers’ interests.

I have run many large and complex transformation programmes through my career and I have found that creating an overall sense of purpose, a single goal that everyone can strive for, is key. Instilling belief in that goal is very important, as well as taking time to celebrate all the team successes on the way.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

There is certainly a gender imbalance in the STEM sector and this is something I have felt passionate about ever since my very first days as an engineer. It is disappointing that there hasn’t been more progress made in addressing this balance in the last 25 years.

I think influencing young girls – and their parents – at an early age is critical and we need more awareness of what exactly a career in STEM means. I have spoken to many parents and young girls at career evenings who associated a career in tech with just coding. And of course it’s about much more than that.

I have a young daughter myself and I take every opportunity to make her aware of STEM even in everyday things – for example, building Lego is like engineering, making bubbles with washing-up liquid is a chemical experiment, as is mixing food colouring to make different colours. I want to make it fun and something anyone can do – just like my dad did for me.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

From my formative years, my dad was always a mentor to me. In later years as I progressed through my career, I have worked for some amazing leaders who helped shape my career by believing in me, giving me opportunities and encouraging me to believe in myself. To this day I still have a mentoring relationship with a number of them.

And of course I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of my husband Gareth who has been with me through it all.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times by Lionel Barber
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

As a technologist, I don’t think it would be a surprise that day-to-day technology is key to keep me on the right track – my phone, iPad and electronic diary. And then of course the support of my amazing assistants, Siobhan and Colette, who keep me on track and where I need to be!

My challenge, like many people these days, is how to achieve harmony between my work and personal life. I recognise taking time for my other interests improves my overall focus to deliver my professional goals. So planning in time to exercise – even if it is in my kitchen now – or playing piano, spending time with my daughter building Lego or watching cartoons brings me back to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to deliver.

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