Meet Sarah Barslund Lauridsen, Chief Product Officer, Banking Circle

Sarah Barslund Lauridsen

Sarah has been working in banks and FinTechs for over 20 years. She is a role model in the payments tech space and regularly takes part in panels, webinars and speaks at events. Before joining Banking Circle, the tech-first payments bank, she was a director at Nordea – one of the biggest banks in Europe. She is well versed in organisational collaboration across executive management, sales and group functions and throughout her career has delivered this at both payment scale-ups and large incumbent businesses

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

As a mathematician, I have spent the majority of my career at the intersection between technology and product. In my first role as a quantitative analyst in investment banking in London, I was able to draw upon my maths and coding skills. I then went on to work in client facing digital platforms, and latterly pivoted into products and services, which is how I’ve landed my role as Chief Product Officer at Banking Circle.

Banking Circle is the unique combination of a technology company and a bank. Our payment processing engine is at the heart of many of the payments experiences that consumers and merchants use every day. To give a little idea of size, we process some 6% of European e-commerce flow annually.

In my role, I am responsible for making sure that Banking Circle has the product portfolio to enable our ambitious growth strategy and to keep our clients satisfied. Similarly, I am also responsible for making sure a number of our internal systems are solving the right problems for the business.

I am fortunate to work very broadly across the business and to have multifaceted responsibilities. My organisation is responsible for turning ideas into a product design, and we collaborate with teams across the company to develop the product and its roll out. Once a product is live, we interact with our clients to support the use of the product on their side to ensure we are adding value to their services.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t plan my career in the sense that I decided exactly what my next role ought to be. You cannot guarantee anything goes to plan, and I have learnt that the next opportunity almost always comes in a different shape and form to the one you had imagined. My main consideration has always been about whether my current circumstances are right. If the answer is no, I actively work to make the change that I think is needed.

One of the most important parameters for me in my job is whether I have an impact. I ask myself; am I getting things done? Am I making a difference and creating change? I have always strived to be in a position where I can fuel the right changes – whether that is explicitly asking for a larger mandate or team, working for a strategic change within the organisation or advocating an organisational change. Navigating the working world and evaluating my own contribution tells me whether I have outgrown a position, or whether there is still more to learn and give to reach the next level.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My biggest challenges have had the same thing in common: the absence of a sponsor. A sponsor is different to a mentor in the way that they have a personal, vested interest in your success. A sponsor is someone in your workplace who is more senior than you and who will support you and advocate for you. When you meet a challenge, a sponsor can be key in addressing that challenge. They will utilise their network to provide you with opportunities you couldn’t otherwise get on your own, and help you overcome hurdles faced.

There have been occasions where I have outgrown my sponsor, or they have left the organisation. It is in these situations where you can feel as though you’re in hot water when a challenge arises and it is time to step up. What I have learnt from this is to cherish my sponsors and actively work to build good sponsor relationships.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As a leader, it is the organisation you build that determines what you achieve. In my previous job, my team and I introduced modern digital product development methods, with the client experience at the centre. We went from four annual releases of technology updates to full, continuous deployment as the first team in the bank. When all is well aligned, the things a passionate team can achieve and deliver is phenomenal. The feeling you get from being part of an engine with a clear business purpose – and then having the capacity to deliver on that purpose – is just fantastic.

In my current role, I am once again working with high-performing teams, building on almost a decade of technology innovation to deliver payments and account solutions for banks and other financial institutions.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

The belief that you can make anything happen if you really want to. If a change or goal is important enough to you, you are able make it happen – no matter how ingrained the status quo might be in the organisation.

For example, regulations on software development in banking are extensive and somewhat influenced by, let’s just say, more traditional development methods. These regulations are often interpreted in a way that stands in the way of modern development practices. However, modern development practices are designed to solve the very problems that regulations are here to prevent. So, interpreting and implementing regulations to allow modern, agile ways of working is one of the battles that I have fought to win more than once, with the help of colleagues.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Progress within the technology sphere is happening at different speeds, with different focus areas across different domains. Some of the most important changes my teams have made have been driven by managers that had previous experience in entirely different spheres. In my time in banking, I have employed managers and specialists from media, production companies, the gaming industry and other industries that all in one way or another, were ahead of banking in terms of technological maturity.

Some of the most important moments of clarity that I have had, have been based on input from employees who bring a fresh set of learnings to share. A key takeaway is that you need to take inspiration from other domains to better execute your own ambitions. So if you are in a leadership position, hire people from other sectors to teach you something new to strengthen your weaknesses and bring new perspectives.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Unfortunately, unconscious bias is still the biggest barrier for success for women anywhere, just as it is for other under-represented groups.

For young women, it may stand in the way of being spotted for the next career move. At a more senior level, it can feel like a boys’ club, and not being one of the guys can stand in the way of building authentic relationships and gaining trust. It’s those interpersonal relationships and skills that are so vital in business and progressing your career, no matter the industry.

Personally, for many years I pretended these barriers were not there, and that I too could be one of the guys. But that is not the way forward as that was not authentic to me. Be aware of the barriers and work actively to overcome them.

At a systemic level, working to make successful women more visible is key. Often, it’s in our nature to see what is familiar, which means men in leadership will spot other men like themselves. They need help spotting women and so, creating visibility of women and their successes, is a leg up for women in the competition for positions in tech and beyond.

What do you think companies can do to support and to progress the careers of women working in technology?

In short, we need to enable women to succeed as women, because they are women – rather than try to teach them how to be men. So, I want to point to two things that can help women succeed and in turn become role models for other women: coaching by an outside professional coach and sponsoring.

I am a big believer in coaching as a means of finding your personal leadership style and being true to your values. In any role, but particularly in a male dominated world, that has been a great foundation.

When it comes to sponsors, I have benefitted from having male sponsors who have taught me about the organisational dynamics in a workplace and have also been honest about how I was seen by others within those dynamics. These insights from an impartial party have given me an opportunity to navigate the working world in my own way, not to behave like a man, but instead to take into account the aspects of the world I am in and how best to work within it.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The answer to this is in the grass roots, starting at the bottom with education and early career aspirations of young women. There are lots of young women who like maths – less so young women who say they like programming. In reality, those two disciplines are not worlds apart – but they are worlds apart in terms of how we introduce young people to them, so this is where we need to start seeing change.

If I did have a magical wand, I would add more technical disciplines to the school curriculum such as programming or digital design. From that starting point, we can start linking those disciplines to education choices, and education choices to early career choices. In doing so, this should equal the playing field, arming women with the knowledge, certifications and aspirations to steer themselves in whichever direction they choose.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Look to see where your interests lie and become part of a professional network. You can find networking circles facilitated by well-established groups or government bodies to make those initial connections. Over time, you may even find yourself in a position where you can set up your own networking groups to stretch yourself in line with your aspirations and find the right sparring and inspiration to level up and reach your full potential.