Standard Bank head of human capital Sharon Taylor has mastered introverted leadership

Sharon's 29-year stint means she has shaped the people philosophies that define the bank today.

Last year Sharon Taylor, head of human capital at Standard Bank, walked away with the Strategy & Leadership Award and the Transformation & Empowerment Award at the inaugural CHRO Awards. These accolades are a testament to her 29-year record of introducing many of the people philosophies that define the bank today, as well as making great strides with transformation. 

For Sharon, her work is made possible by the bank's unwavering commitment to world-class leadership: “As a services business, our success is built on the quality of our people. We have a lovely mandate to do the work that we do. I’ve never had to justify HR’s seat at the table, fight for budget or prove why our work is important.” 

She joined Standard Bank in 1991 and has since never sought an opportunity elsewhere, thanks to colleagues who energise her, various generalist and specialist roles and a career that has adapted to banking’s continued evolution. She held several head-of-HR positions within the group, before taking on her current role in 2014. She was appointed to the group executive committee in 2018. 

Real lives and real impact 

Sharon is heartened to see a groundswell of the recognition of the importance of people development. She refers to Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft since 2014, who made changing the culture his number one priority. Moving from a product-focused to a people-focused organisation has supported Microsoft’s share price in tripling in the past five years. 

She believes that a fulfilling experience at work has a ripple effect on families and communities. As a large employer, Standard Bank has a staff complement of 55,000, which means the bank has a massive responsibility to influence lives positively. 

She is also cognisant of the positive role that banks play – both by developing economies and also helping people on their personal paths. Finance plays a part in every major life moment from studying, buying a first home or saving for a goal. 

“My team worked on a compelling leadership message to describe our purpose. We decided that our primary job is to create an environment where people can give their absolute best, and by doing so we will grow Africa’s economies.” 

Sharon has always been attracted to commerce thanks to the dinner table discussions with her businessman father. Her role is the perfect combination of commerce (the numbers) and the people (the psychology). 

A diverse workforce 

Sharon dispels the perception that the bank (and modern banks in general) are populated by ‘little grey men.’ Outsiders are amazed to learn how diverse Standard Bank is. 

The bank is culturally rich. With a 156-year local history, Standard Bank is a home-grown brand. Yet, the company is the largest African banking group by market capitalisation with a presence in 20 African countries. 

The bank is also diverse in terms of skills. There is a core of financial skills, but the bank also employs engineers, behavioural scientists and IT people. Approximately 60 percent of the bank’s employees are female. 

Collaboration and reflection 

Sharon describes her working style as collaborative. When grappling with a thorny issue, she’ll call on a colleague to be a sounding board.  With her team, she actively encourages two-way feedback by asking questions like ‘how do you think that went’.

This is not always possible as the barriers of status inhibit frank feedback:  “As you become more senior, people tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear. In a way, the more senior you become, the lonelier you get.” 

As an executive, she finds introspection or self-checking to be an important skill. In recent years, she has focussed on developing a mindfulness habit. This involved being present and reflecting on how she could have done better and what she could have done differently. 

Finding time to unwind 

Balancing a high-powered career and family demands is difficult, but as an introvert, Sharon tries to carve out some time for herself. Reducing noise and finding the space to think is essential. Her ideal day would include a long walk on the beach picking up shells. 

She's an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. To unwind, she likes nothing better than to curl up with a Kate Morton novel. These books ‘come to life’ in Sharon’s head drawing her into the tangles of family, mystery, history and memory. Business favourites include Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and much of Lynda Gratton’s writing on the future of work. 

Spending quality time with her husband and two children is also a priority, and she enjoys travelling with them as a family as well. Whenever

The age of banking disruption 

According to the criteria, the winner of the Strategy & Leadership Award has dealt with intense changes in their business environment. This is true for Standard Bank. A flurry of new players entered the market looking to compete with established banks. 

In March 2019, the bank announced its plans to cut up to 1,200 jobs and close 91 branches to become more competitive. Implementing this was incredibly tough.  Customer behaviour is changing driven by smartphone adoption, exposure to global best practice user experience (we compare local digital experiences with the likes of Airbnb) and a desire for painless convenience. On the horizon, tech giants like Apple, Facebook and now Google are making inroads into finance. 

“Banks tend to obsess about the obvious competition. In time, we will compete with non-traditional competitors. While this is a challenge, it also provides significant upside opportunities to partner with fintech startups.” 

Standard Bank now owns a majority stake in SnapScan, the wildly successful start-up and easy payments provider. 

Sharon rejects the ‘machines are coming’ narrative. Rather, she predicts a marriage between technology and human capabilities. While many roles are tech-enhanced, she is yet to replace a person with a bot. “People forget that the computer replaced the typewriter, but we still need personal assistants. The ATM did not replace the bank teller. These roles are different, but in some ways, they are more value-adding.” 

She anticipates exciting new career opportunities that come with a higher level of skill and pay. The demand for uniquely human traits (creativity, empathy and understanding context) will not disappear. 

While banking may be very different in five years’ time, Sharon believes that when customers have a real problem they’ll still want to talk to a real person. To succeed, organisations must recognise that life is built on relationships and not transactions.