Member Spotlight: John Stewart, Royal Bank of Scotland

Silicon Foundry’s expanding network of Corporate Members are driving transformation at some of the world’s most respected global brands — from leaders in mobility, mining and telecom, to beauty, retail, energy, financial services and beyond.

John Stewart joined Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) in 2011 as Head of Strategic Outsourcing and in 2014 relocated to Silicon Valley to establish the bank’s first innovation outpost. He was appointed to his current role, Global Head of Scouting & Research, in 2017 and is now responsible for scouting teams across the U.K., Europe, Israel, the Far East and the Americas.

In your current role as Global Head of Scouting & Research at RBS, what are you focused on?

I am focused on three things. First and foremost is serving customers better by solving customer problems and enhancing the service through the use of new and disruptive technologies. Secondly, I have a role to educate our leaders and corporate clients on the five technology trends we track and the 10 main disruptive technologies we think are impacting society, our customers and colleagues. Finally, I try to find ways to educate our leaders on why innovation is important by sharing great examples of individuals and companies who think and behave differently. This final one is a lot of fun because I get to host our leaders on field trips to cool places like Israel and Silicon Valley.

You’ve been at RBS for over eight years now, can you tell us a bit about the progression of your career?

I began my RBS career as Head of Outsourcing, which oddly wasn’t part of the procurement team. The role was part of our Services Business strategy team, a $10B+ organization spanning IT, Payments, Data, Property and much more. The bank was still trying to reduce its cost base, deal with upcoming regulation around Ring Fencing and the recommendations of the International Commission on Banking who wanted U.K. banks to separate Retail/Commercial Banking from Institutional and Investment Banking. This would have a profound effect on the way we were organized and delivered our services. At the same time, my team was managing a number of $100MM+ deals and a portfolio of outsourcing programs. In 2013, the strategy function started to get its head around what we needed to do to be more innovative as an organization. We made a number of organizational changes, and I was asked to lead a pilot of Scouting for new technologies in Silicon Valley.

As part of your role at RBS, you spent almost five years in Silicon Valley, what were the most interesting learnings from your time here?

I learned so much during my time here in Silicon Valley. On my first day someone told me “there is more on the buffet than you can ever eat.” What they meant was that there are thousands of startups and incubators here so it’s impossible to see them all. In places like Israel, you can almost see them all — but here the ecosystem is so vast, it’s simply not possible. So, I’ve learned you need an effective filtering mechanism, and we chose the VCs who know what to invest in (generally). Secondly, I’ve learned not all startups are exciting, and even though we wanted them to all be awesome, the reality is that many are not. Bill O’Connor has a great expression — “IBNU” — “interesting but not useful.” Another key lesson was realizing that landing ideas from 5K miles away with an 8-hour time difference requires help back home and isn’t as easy as you might imagine. Finally, I’ve learned Silicon Valley operates on networking and goodwill. It’s important to give as well as take, and I spent a lot of time coaching and mentoring startups about how to engage with a corporate entity.

What specific superpowers have you picked up from your past roles that you bring into your current role?

I don’t think I have any superpowers, but I have learned to spot the difference between a frog and a prince (most of the time). Not all startups are princes.

I’ve also mastered how to get up at 6.00 a.m. for U.K. calls (some of which were video calls!) and still manage to have porridge and a shower, cycle and ferry to work by 9:00 a.m.

Over the years at RBS, what projects have you been most proud of? What’s been some of the more challenging work?

I am really proud of our innovation program which is really a journey that we are on. I have been there since day one and seen the bank move through different phases — from small ideas and solutions to building moonshots. The most challenging things are always getting ideas into production at scale. That’s when they make a difference to our customers, and that’s my aim. Finding startups, POC’s and pilots are great, but don’t move the dial.

When thinking about innovation by industry, certain sectors have historically been more aggressive and efficient in their approach, while others have often been labeled as traditional laggards. Where do you see financial services sitting within the spectrum?

It’s hard to generalize. I have met over 50 banks here, and I would grade RBS in the top 10 percent for our efforts and achievements. Some industries invest billions in research, and we have a very modest budget in comparison. Financial Services has to modernize and digitize, because customers expect it. I think RBS has done a great job, but there are more things to do which is what makes life interesting. Someone once said British people complain about Financial Services, the Weather and British Rail. The difference is that we have got your money, so we have to provide great customer experiences. In general, I think retail banking has come a long way; commercial and private banking is a more complex world and so will take a little longer to crack, but we have made a great start with some of our new ventures.

On the topic of payment innovation, are there any particular examples of corporations and startups in the fintech landscape working together in a way that you can point to and think ‘now that’s how it’s supposed to be done’?

I have to give a personal answer here and say: TransferWise. Not all retail customers want or need to move money from one country to another, but generally the experience across the industry has not been great. TransferWise provides a service with surety about cost, timing and value and keeps the customer fully updated as the money moves. They have taken a fairly simple transaction and created a customer experience that is outstanding.

If we were startup founders sitting here, what’s the advice you’d give about working with RBS? Is there a specific technical area you are especially excited about?

This is an area I know well. One of my teams in London has written a paper for HM Treasury on this very subject to share with startups in the U.K. It describes the workings of a large corporate and how to engage, what to expect and some helpful information. RBS is similar to many large corporates in that we are complex and big. The advice I would give is this: be realistic about timescales, check whether there is a budget, confirm if this a real problem and ask yourself if the individuals you’re speaking to can commit budget and prioritize to fix the problem and therefore deploy your solution. Will it truly make a difference or is it IBNU? Do you expect to sign NDA’s and contracts that might need a lawyer to review? In terms of RBS, we know how to move quickly and have demonstrated that many times. We have a great track record of finding and delivering solutions. One thing I said to a founder recently was “please don’t try and do 10 things here and succeed in none.” Start with one thing, blow the doors off and then come back with a plan to do more.” Thankfully he listened and we had an amazingly successful project that is now being rolled out across the bank.

And finally, I am super excited about Quantum Computing. I don’t claim to understand the technology, but I know its potential to be a game changer. I have had the privilege to be a Board Observer on the company we invested in. If the hardware and software continue to develop at the current pace, I think we will see a new era of computing with incredible possibilities. I hope to be ready for it when it comes.

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Silicon Foundry is an innovation advisory platform that builds bridges between leading multi-national corporations and global startup ecosystems.

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