September 29, 2008

How does one go from a Ph.D. in atomic physics in Ireland, to a master's in public policy in the U.S., to being the youngest-ever SVP of Canada's biggest company, to becoming a managing director of Citi in the city that never sleeps — all by the age of 32? One does it in part by welcoming change.

Anita Sands, a self-described "career nomad" and a member of the migrant "creative class," is an official agent of change. In her last role, as SVP of Toronto-based RBC — Canada's largest corporation, with US$600 billion in assets — Sands was head of innovation and process design. She is recognized as a catalyst in RBC's reinvention as a Web 2.0 organization.

Sands has just been hired as a managing director at New York-based Citi ($2.1 trillion in assets) — an organization with more than three times the assets of RBC and a far more global reach, into 100 countries worldwide. She has come to work for Marty Lippert, who was her boss at RBC before being appointed CIO of Citi last summer. [At press time, Lippert was promoted to chief operations and technology officer.]

So what characteristics equip Sands, who is head of transformation management at Citi, to serve in her new role? "Anywhere in the organization you have a responsibility to be an agent of change," she says. But "some [executives] are more comfortable with that."

Anita Sands, CitiTraining in various disciplines has helped, Sands explains. "Grounded in quantitative analysis" from physics, Sands won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University, where she obtained a master's in public policy and management, and became executive director of the university's Software Industry Center.

To effect change, Sands continues, "You need two things: the right mind-set, starting with challenging the status quo; and the right discipline. Then you have to find and retain a team of talented people and make them comfortable that more often than not you're going to fail." And when that happens, she adds, "It's your responsibility to be upbeat."

That reflexive optimism was evident in Sands' "we'll make it work" pre-interview texts — encoded in a shorthand often understood only by Gens X and Y. It also, perhaps, makes her loath to discuss any examples of failed ideas, or even to use the word "failure" — "I prefer to say, 'learnings,'" she indicates. The biggest lesson for her, she says, was realizing that you can only change a corporation once you understand its culture, a prerequisite to "finding a common language." "As I used to say to my team, 'You need to accept that you're not working for Cirque du Soleil; you're working for a bank,'" remarks Sands.

A Vision of Transformation

Fortunately, RBC has been a visionary bank. When the financial institution became one of the first banks on Facebook in August 2007 and began paying student bloggers to get its message out to their peers, Sands was only five years removed from her own student days. While RBC saw it as somewhat important to have a young person lead its use of Web 2.0 technologies, when it came to recognizing the full implications of Web 2.0, "I wasn't the only one that got that," she says. "The thing that set Royal apart was a broader vision of transformation. Web 2.0 was just a piece," Sands adds.

"Web 2.0 is not about the tools," she explains. Rather it's a new way of communicating that empowers the individual. "You're only as good as your most disgruntled customer on Facebook at night," Sands remarks.