The Talent Unleashed competition recognises exceptional individuals and organisations who unleash technology in the workplace and community, and Neal stood out particularly due to his authentic leadership and down-to-earth approach to innovation.
In the same year, his organisation – the Singapore-based DBS Bank – scooped the award for being the best digital bank in the world from financial services magazine Euromoney.
It’s quite a transformation by the organisation that was, according to its chief data and transformation officer, Paul Cobban, known to Singaporeans as ‘Damn Bloody Slow’.
So, what has accounted for this incredible turnaround of fortune?
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Appearing on The Leaderonomics Show with host Roshan Thiran, Neal Cross puts it down to teamwork, culture, and having the belief that the bank could be the best innovative financial organisation in the world.
You would think that the CIO of the world’s best digital bank would be waxing lyrical about the technology advances at DBS, but Neal believes that the success has been down to focusing on cultural transformation above everything else.
He said, “People prioritise technology too highly. Technology, for me, is like the bricks and mortar you can use to solve problems. Innovation is a way to solve problems in an elegant manner that’s successful.
When I say elegant, it has to fit perfectly: you don’t want to over-innovate or over-spend. We won the award because of the great work everyone has done, so it’s not just that we’re creating new products and services for customers, it’s also how we do hiring, training, and HR.
“Every single part of DBS is innovating. Last year, we had 14,000 staff out of 24,000 doing something in innovation. But to be the best, you have to be an all-round player, so we have to be very good at business, have happy customers, and you have to do things that no-one else in your industry is doing.”
At DBS, Neal has been at the helm of innovation since April 2014 and, as a strong believer that innovation and culture go hand-in-hand, he has worked to help ensure DBS employees are as empowered as they are engaged as they play their part in helping their organisation to maintain its edge.
He said, “Most people don’t enjoy their work. They spend time with people they don’t like doing stuff that they don’t enjoy, and the rest of the time they’re in traffic.”
“So, it’s great to have a culture where a lot of people are doing exciting things and having more enjoyment in the work environment. For me, that’s really important.”
“A number of forces come together to make us successful. One is the disruption in the finance industry. Secondly, DBS historically have done some good innovation. For example, we were the first bank in India to use thumb prints to open a bank account, even though we’re not an Indian bank. I love that Indian banks must have thought, ‘How did we not see that?‘”
Neal’s transformative leadership led him to being recognised as the world’s most innovative CIO by a panel of distinguished business leaders who have been massive disruptors in their own industries.
Steve Wozniak – credited with being the inventor of the personal computer – spent time with Neal following the award, which allowed the DBS man to learn more about innovation from one of his lifelong heroes.
Describing Wozniak as ‘a very interesting man’, Neal was gleeful as he recalled his dream come true to Roshan Thiran, who asked how it was for Neal to spend time with one of the greatest innovators of our time.
Neal said, “I got to listen to some of his stories from back in the day. It’s good to listen to the things that are legendary and getting the real story – you feel as though you get a real inside scoop.”
“It was a privilege to have the way I operate as something that was been recognised as globally unique, and also to get a reward for it, which was to meet one of my heroes.”
What stands out clearly about Neal’s leadership is his authenticity and his passion for what he does, not to mention the levels of engagement and care he provides to his staff at DBS.
His success as a leader boils down to the fact that he walks his talk and ensures his leadership principles offer the best working experience to his people.
Currently, Neal is writing a book on his principles, which includes the idea that all problems are the “same but different”.
That might sound like a Zen puzzle, but he explained to Roshan that all problems tend to have similar core models that point to their solution.
He said, “When people look at two different problems, they think they’re vastly different. But actually, if you look beneath the surface and why the problem’s happening, they’re the same.”
“That’s important, because then, if you start to notice these similarities across the world, you can develop the tools to solve different problems.”
“So, you have to get passionate about the problem, and see the different parts involved and how they’re influencing each other.”
“You might think you’ve seen these particular interactions before, and you’ll then know how to solve that particular problem.”
When it comes to leadership, Neal offers two pointers on how new and existing leaders can develop their authenticity and deploy the kind of effective leadership that retains talents and keeps the workforce engaged.
He advised, “You can never fail by helping someone to hit their bonus – and that’s a tip for any part of life.”
“So, you want something achieved, and the other person has a KPI or a bonus. So, if you can apply what you do to helping them achieve that, you very rarely lose.
“Secondly, as you go up the corporate ladder, please stay human.”
“You find the higher you climb, the less human people become in that rarefied air, so be sure to stay human. It can force a certain personality type to occur…don’t let that happen.”