Sean Doherty – Head of New Business Innovation, CIB Digital at Standard Bank Group

Sean Doherty, Head of New Business Innovation at CIB Digital at Standard Bank, gives his insights on what it takes to work the innovation process and make it work 

In 2006, when the US housing market crashed, the repercussions were felt globally. It ushered in the worst recession since the Great Depression and as the financial sector reeled from the blow, companies crashed and heads rolled.

There is, arguably, no deeper end for any young junior accountant to be pushed into – but that’s exactly where Sean Doherty, now Head of New Business Innovation, CIB Digital at Standard Bank Group, found himself.

‘It was my first job out of articles and I was at JP Morgan working on the Credit Trading desk when the crash happened. Suddenly, I was in direct contact daily with the CFO of this massive organisation because things were moving so quickly.

‘And because we were in crisis management, the learning curve was quick – what would normally take a few years to learn, I learnt in a matter of months.’


Sean was at the centre of the blitz Bear Stearns take over. ‘On the Saturday, Bear Stearns collapsed, on the Sunday JP Morgan bought them, and on Monday morning we were in Canary Wharf interviewing people, making decisions about who we were going to move across, and how we were going to manage various risks and transition between various technologies.’

The learning was fast, brutal – and exhilarating. In just a few months, Sean had been promoted to Vice President: Business Controller EMEA Credit Trading. ‘During that time, I learnt a lot about decisive leadership and the value of understanding your clients. We always talk about KYC – know your clients – but if you really understand them, if you know who they are, and you can back them through really tough times, you can come out winning on the other side.’

But there was one more take-away from that time that sparked a wider conversation for Sean: the competitive advantage of diversity.

‘When I arrived in London, I was in a team of about 30 people, but there were maybe only five or six chartered accountants – the rest had qualifications in other fields: History of Art, Literature, MBAs…And it was a team made up of people from all over the world. It was a real lesson in diversity and not only diversity in a way that we understand it in South Africa; it was a diversity of problem-solving inputs.’

These learnings stood him in good stead when he returned to South Africa in 2010 with the Standard Bank Group. Here he steadily climbed the ranks to CFO of first the Corporate Banking and then the Investment Banking units.

Last year, he was named COO of Investment Banking – ‘Here is where you get a more holistic view of the company; it’s where we bring all of it together and try to point everyone in the same direction. It’s where we take the purpose and vision of the business and provide people the roadmap and tools to fulfil this purpose’ – and in 2018 became Head of New Business Innovation, CIB Digital.

In each of these roles, and no matter the title he holds, Sean’s portfolio is marked for its interest in driving change. ‘I know it’s a cliché, but I’m very good at this and building things. I’m very good at imagining new ways of doing things and I have a relatively high risk tolerance, which is unusual for someone with a CFO background.’

Not one for sticking to boundaries and organisational charts, Sean is known for having his fingers in many pies. ‘I get very irritable and frustrated – and even very tired – when I’m too comfortable. It doesn’t matter what it is; I don’t tend to operate well when things are too smooth.’

His appetite for risk and excitement, balanced by his CA eye for numbers and C-suite appreciation for measured and lucrative process, has made Sean a voice of firm reason and insight when it comes to innovation strategy and expectation.


Sean is currently putting innovation frameworks in place for the corporate and investing bank of Standard Bank Group. At this level, Sean says there are three things that he believes innovation must achieve if it is to be more than just a trendy buzzword.

First, it’s got to give the company and its people options or optionality. He points to an example found in finance: ‘Think of financial options: it’s a right but not an obligation to buy or sell something – and this is important, because you’re only placing small bets to begin with.

‘We know that banking can look different, but we don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. So, we need to explore all our options so that when a new system hits, we’re right there, ready to act.’

The second thing to consider, he says, is that innovation needs to generate new money. ‘It’s really important that it’s generating top line revenue or cost savings/productivity or capital efficiency; that it’s not just doing something for something sake.’

Thirdly, innovation thinking is about building a company culture where all personnel buy into the organisation’s ‘why’. ‘If you have 5000 people thinking this way, you have more chance of finding “the next Uber”, than being hit from leftfield by an Uber.’

Whatever your aggressive medium- and long-term targets are, he says, you’re not going to get there by doing more of what you did yesterday.

‘But whatever you’re going to do, you have to make dollars and it has to positively impact your culture. Ultimately, this is how I define innovation: ‘creating value through experimentation.’


Sean’s approach to innovation processes is both strategically disciplined and flexible. ‘Structure puts discipline around innovation. In fact, in my experience, discipline and innovation are two sides of the same coin.’

The innovation model Sean refers to often as ‘the funnel’ is one of the ways he structures the ideation through to execution process. It starts broad: a problem statement is presented and ideas around this are then gathered or generated using an ideas management platform or tech to run in-house competitions or just collect ideas.

This is where creating that culture of innovation thinking on the floor becomes important for accessing ideas.

‘I’m starting to think around new ways to generate ideas, and one of them is to invite a speaker to talk on various topics. It could be very fundamental like China-Africa trade flows or it could be something more exotic like blockchain.’

Once the ideas are in, it reaches its first stage gate: selection. The ideas that seem most feasible are then taken through to incubation where they are run through a very disciplined process that takes anywhere between 10 and 25 weeks.


‘In this process, we’ll look at customer viability first. By conducting very structured interviews with clients, we find out if they actually want what we’re hoping to sell.’

Sean believes that skipping this very basic stage is what trips up most organisations.

‘If you come to me with an idea, my first response will be: “Great, now go speak to 10 customers.” It’s not difficult. It’ll take you two hours to do what is essentially high-level research about whether your customer wants this, whether it’s likely to work or not, and it whether it’ll be financially viable.

‘I need to see that you’ve thought this through, that it’s not like you’ve had a glass of wine at night, had an idea, thought yourself a hero, whipped off your one-line email and then let somebody else do the work.’

This part of the process doesn’t have to be wrapped up in red tape, he says. All it needs is a little bit of governance.

From there it’s about product feasibility: Is it something that the organisation can build in-house, and if not, do they buy, partner or invest with somebody?

And then, the last part of the incubation stage: financial feasibility. Can we make money on this idea that will move the dial?

‘This is the “fund/no fund” decision, and if we’re going ahead here, it moves past another stage gate into accelerate. This is about taking the MVP to market to prove your hypothesis. At this stage, it becomes a real business and from there it moves to scale and starts being managed as part of a normal business.’

By following this process, he says, he can take small bets and prove or disprove hypothesis before they become very expensive mistakes. ‘Essentially, de-risking the innovation process.’

Although Sean believes a basic road map for innovation strategy is necessary for success, he’s clear that it’s not a fixed or even necessarily prescriptive entity.

‘I don’t think of this as a centralised function; it’s not something that might necessarily work across all business units within one organisation. To me this is about bringing some thinking into the process and giving people tool sets and models to work through and work within, so that they have a little more certainty.

‘And this is just the model that we’ve landed on after about two or three years. I’ve no doubt if we have this conversation in a year’s time it will have changed because we’re constantly running little experiments to see what does and doesn’t work.’


Sean believes creating and nurturing a thinking culture is as much about diversity as it is about learning. ‘A staggering number of people don’t read. They’ll do their degree and think that’s it. But lifetime learning is really important.’

It’s in light of this, that Sean has joined the Creative Leadership Collective as one of the Founding Friends. ‘The main reason for my involvement in the collective is to learn. The reason we turn to the likes of Rita McGrath and her “map of change” is so that we don’t all have to make the same mistakes. We can learn from other people’s experiences; we don’t have to keep bashing our heads or hurting ourselves on the same processes.’

It’s also about support from like-minded people: ‘Sometimes, when you’re trying to drive these things, it’s relatively lonely. You get smashed around quite a lot. So, it’s quite nice to be with people who are trying this out for themselves.’

Within the wider context, Sean believes that learning and strong leadership is key if the continent is to move forward and maximise its opportunities.

‘We seem to have an issue here with “great policy, great ideas – no execution”. A balance between these would be great and diversity with collaboration is vital to this – having your ideas challenged, having a diversity of problem-solving. Decisive leadership that defines purpose and drives this is critical.

‘We can’t underestimate these inputs if we’re going to be competitive globally, otherwise we’re going to be left behind. This is what I mean by leadership and learning. We can’t just fill out a template and follow a few methods, thinking that our bases are covered. They’re not.’


Anyone in the innovation arena will tell you that one critical requirement for invention and problem-solving of any sort is the space to fail.

‘But I’ve had to learn to get comfortable with making mistakes. Of course, certain things have to be consistently right, such as financial statements. But when you’re dealing with a situation where there’s a lot of uncertainty, you can’t dot every i and cross every t. I had to learn how to get comfortable with this.’

As a person who attributes so much value to change and learning, Sean met his turning point with grace and determination when it presented itself to him three years ago in the form of a difficult conversation with one of his mentors.


‘He was very blunt with me that my perfectionism would likely derail any ambitions I had. He told me I had to get over myself, that I had to be more strategic about, and be more involved with, those sorts of conversations that are by their nature uncertain and opaque; I had to be able to deal with getting it wrong sometimes.’

Sean says the birth of his son at around the same time also ‘woke him up’ to what was important. ‘It changes your perspective. It changed the way I started dealing with people and how empathetic I was. I’m probably still too hard about some things, but I’ll keep learning.’

This drive towards continual learning and the leaning towards authentic interaction is one of the foundations of good leadership. As Sean says: ‘Leadership is not a top down thing, it’s a personal thing. After all, we all lead in our own lives.’

Find Sean on LinkedIn.

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