Cathy Yuncken, General Manager of Business Banking for the St.George Group, emerged as “a wide-eyed baby banker” during a thrilling time in Australian banking. “It was the late 1980s,” she tells The CEO Magazine, “and deregulation had seen the Aussie dollar floated and a wave of foreign banks coming into the market, as stock markets, and then property markets, boomed – before they went bust. I had a crash course in banking and financial markets.”
After spending the first half of her 30-year career “basically learning to be a banker”, Cathy has since progressed through a range of leadership roles, and these days she oversees a division of the Westpac Group incorporating St.George Bank, Bank SA, and Bank of Melbourne. The three brands are “very different, operating in different geographic markets with very different histories and cultures and in very different competitive positions”.
Facing an increasingly digital world
Suffice to say, hers is an incredibly dynamic role. It is one, too, in which Cathy is constantly taking the opportunity to learn, and she uses her knowledge of historical market conditions “to inform my leadership within the current market context”, welcoming the constant flux in the banking industry. “I love the perpetual contest of business – the race is never run,” she says, and she is making sure the Group is in a position to welcome the challenges presented by an “increasingly digital world”.
In particular, she sees an “absolutely fascinating” challenge arising from “the intersection of the human element of banking and the digital opportunities afforded to the industry”. It can be summarised as a test of how well the industry can “manage the human and the digital mix”. “This comes down to our customers’ needs, preferences and expectations, which are changing rapidly because we’re in an era of increasing real-time responsiveness and one marked by a need for immediate gratification,” she adds.
Going into further detail, she explains that across the spectrum of small businesses to the Group’s largest business clients there “is an expectation for their simple needs to be serviced online – quickly and easily”. For a banking organisation, this is a “huge opportunity to innovate”, and translates to significant investment in new and legacy systems. “This is a major challenge for the industry, particularly when we consider that these same customers still want relationships to service their more complex, unique needs. They want to feel like they are special, and that’s where the human element – their banker – comes in.”
What happens next involves determining the optimal blend of these elements. For Cathy, this is much more exhilarating than it is daunting. “Our customer relationships, still fundamentally about supporting entrepreneurship and risk-taking, are now a synthesis of the human and the digital. Managing the mix is paramount.”
“Our customer relationships are now a synthesis of the human and the digital. Managing the mix is paramount.”
Cathy’s fundamental leadership priorities and inspirations
Cathy recognises that, in aid of the Group’s support of Australian entrepreneurship and business, a strong internal culture is vital. One of her leadership priorities, culture, as she sees it, is about three fundamental things: “Messages that you communicate from your position of leadership; the cultural expectations that I set for my leadership team, who are themselves leading large teams of people; and role-modelling.”
She communicates the importance of the attitude that employees bring to their roles, and is acutely aware that actions will always speak louder than words. Cathy’s proclivity to continually seek learning opportunities is surely an action observed and emulated by many of the Group’s employees, and she makes a point of mentoring promising young individuals, seeing the mentor/mentee relationship as a two-way street.
“I’m learning a lot from younger women,” she says, “about how they think about operating in the digital world. They are a different generation, with digital natures; they want to learn from me and my experience, but at the same time I can learn so much from them, their ideas, and the way they think.” She’s had a digital mentor herself for the past three years, and has been building up the skills that will allow her to meet the challenges of a digital future head-on.
“I’m learning a lot from younger women about how they think about operating in the digital world.”
Cathy shows no signs of trepidation about what the future holds for the St.George Group, and is confident that its three brands will respond to change in a way that will allow them to maintain a strong market position. “Our organisation is a system operating within a financial system, operating within a broader economic system, and because there’s so much change going on in all of that, every decision we make will have an impact that we need to think through. That constant evolution is part of what creates the challenge, but it also provides the opportunity for us to problem-solve for our clients and create value for them,” she says.