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Greg Baxter

Greg Baxter

Global Head of Digital, Citi

Greg Baxter Banks on Digitization

The Australian champion of technology and triathlons discusses his winning strategy for leading Citi into the future.

by Jen Swetzoff

Helping transform a 200-year-old financial institution is no job for the faint of heart. It requires someone at the helm who does not easily get discouraged or shy away from changing the status quo. Meet Greg Baxter, a lifelong athlete and former software engineer turned management consultant who now serves as the global head of digital at Citi.

One of five siblings, Greg is the only one who moved farther than a mile from his parents’ house in Victoria, Australia. An avid runner and cyclist, he doesn’t seem intimidated by distance. He has held elite marathon qualifications, and won third place at the world duathlon championships. But academics were as important to him as sports. When he finished his bachelor’s degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Greg joined IBM as a software engineer, then went on to work as a systems integration project manager on large-scale projects in financial services and telecom. After about eight years at IBM, he completed his MBA at Melbourne University. “Apprenticing through software engineering fueled my excitement about the technology industry,” Greg says.

After graduating from business school, he accepted a job with Booz & Company that took him to London, where he quickly rose to the partner level. In the U.K., Greg handled a multiyear project that spanned technology, finance, and public services: the country’s pension service transformation. “We created a phenomenal agenda of change, and we did it in a way that demonstrated how the new system was fundamentally better for people and why it mattered to society,” Greg says. “That was one of the highlights of consulting for me.”

Greg lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, 8-year-old son, and 4-year-old daughter. During a recent conversation with Strategy&, he explained how some organizations are like icebergs, why he has six mobile phones, and what he does to prepare for competition.

How would you describe your work to your children?
Citi is the world’s most global bank, and we have customers in just about every country. My role is to make use of all the new digital technology and make it easier for our customers to organize their money — like managing money on your mobile phone. (Of course, that last part of the answer hasn’t worked as well as I expected because my children keep looking at my phones, expecting to find money.)

Why did you decide to move on from consulting?
Many organizations operate like icebergs. From the outside, you see some of the pieces, but underneath are the dynamics that actually make things happen. The culture, capabilities, people, processes, technology, and partnerships. You only have access to all those aspects when you sit on the inside. Citi has approximately 230,000 employees and operations in more than 100 countries, so the exposure and experience gained from being inside has been uniquely insightful and rewarding.

In the beginning of my career at IBM, my role was to use technology to execute the agenda. At Booz & Company, I had remarkable chances to shape the agenda. Then I moved to Citi in 2011 for a phenomenal opportunity to actually own the agenda. I love working on strategic, large-scale transformations, and this role offered me the chance to do it — from the inside out — and take accountability for it.

What has surprised you about Citi?
Despite being an institution with a history that spans 200 years, Citi retains the ambition, energy, and focus to innovate, transform, and reinvent itself. It’s a collective responsibility across the leadership team, but, for me, driving this transformation across Citi is the centerpiece of digital leadership.

How did you accomplish this transformation?
We built a compelling and unifying vision of where we wanted to go. We made sure everyone bought into why we had to get there, and then we started to build out critical capabilities and what I call exemplar projects: initiatives that demonstrate what is possible for the organization to achieve and rapidly create momentum and belief.

At this point, we’ve done a very good job of digitizing the company. In fact, last year, Global Finance named Citi as the “Best Overall Global Digital Bank.” But the next big priority is going from digitizing the company to becoming a digital company. That means truly understanding a future where technology trends and client expectations continuously reshape the economic and competitive landscape, and then transforming the organization so that it’s relevant, resilient, and prosperous in that digital future. For many, this requires a cultural shift. It means driving a strong vision and strategy from the top of the house down, supported by leadership, governance across the entire organization, top talent management, and an organization that is agile, innovative, open, and client-centric.

What have been some of the challenges over the past five years?
We are an industrial-scale company: steady and strong, but not as speedy as a startup. Our foundation is built out of iron, designed not to fall over, capable of handling trillions of dollars every day. We have a presence in the world’s fastest-growing cities. The key to our success is being able to take advantage of our global footprint and utilize our unique capabilities, including our talent base. But we also complement that by continuing to invest in our people and collaborating with companies that can help us innovate and accelerate.

A great example is the Citi Mobile Challenge, where Citi, our corporate partners, and thousands of developers from around the world have come together to create and test hundreds of ideas and solutions.

What are the most fulfilling parts of your job?
The global scale of my role, the breadth and depth of our company, and the assets that I have to work with are phenomenal. My job excites me every day. And, while I am based in New York, I regularly connect with people from around the world, which I really enjoy.

What’s a typical day like for you?
First thing in the morning, I exercise. Right now, I’m training to compete for Australia in the duathlon championships later this year, which is like triathlon [ed. note: duathlon is run–bike–run rather than swim–bike–run]. Aside from that part, which is predictable and focused, one day varies quite dramatically from the next. But there are a few key things that I do.

Whether I’m in the office or traveling, I try to spend part of my day with clients and the CEOs of the business, working on their agendas with them. I also spend a piece of every day on content. That might mean reviewing strategy, feedback from clients, or what customers are saying about us. And finally, I focus on looking outside our own organization. Maybe I’ll meet with an innovative company or review research on what happened in the last 24 hours that pertains to the digital space. Customer-centricity and being externally engaged is absolutely core to what we do.

How does your consulting experience play a role in your leadership today?
Unfortunately, some of the core skills I learned — like living out of a suitcase and dining from vending machines — don’t necessarily come into play as often as they once did. But I certainly value the ability to step back, think big and objectively, identify fundamental questions, then apply rigorous logic in order to problem solve from beginning to end. That way of thinking, asking “why?” “so what?” and “where’s the data?” — which I learned as a consultant — helping focus on the most critical opportunities and issues.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I’m quite proud of the collective progress that we have made at Citi and the direction that we are continuing to move in. Representing Australia in triathlons and duathlons, and maintaining a happy family, are also at the top of my list.

What are your most marked characteristics?
Creativity and passion

What is your greatest extravagance?
Sleep, smoothies, and training every day. I’ve also got six mobile phones, but that’s because we deploy on different platforms with different devices and vendors.

What is something you could live without?
Fundamentalism. And television.

When and where are you happiest?
When I’m in the zone. That could be when I’m running, when I’m cycling, when I’m playing Legos with the kids, or when the organization clicks around something that we believe in.

Who or what do you most admire?
Curiosity. And my mom.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Foresight.

What advice would you give to people starting out in their career?
Do what you do because you’re passionate about it. And always try to have a sense of humility, curiosity, and confidence in whatever you’re doing.

What’s next for you?
Enjoying my family and maintaining this professional energy and enthusiasm for what I do. I’m Australian. My wife’s Danish. Our two kids were born in London. I love traveling, but we truly want to live in a place that excites us collectively. And right now that’s New York.

Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

Disclaimer: Please note that historical references to Booz & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton are found in this article/section since the alumni featured here left the firm prior to Strategy& joining the PwC global network of firms.

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