Examining the National Bank of Canada CIO’s approach to tech and teams

Aug 09, 20237 mins
Business ContinuityBusiness IT AlignmentCareers

CIO.com Canada editor Lee Rennick recently sat with Julie Levesque, EVP, technology and operations, and CIO at National Bank of Canada to discuss her approach to technology’s role in leading teams, and ensuring that the leadership roadmap is inclusive, supportive and founded in mentorship.

Julie Levesque
Credit: National Bank of Canada

Being accountable for the execution of the technology strategy for National Bank of Canada, delivery of all projects and initiatives, and running daily operations and back offices functions, Julie Levesque has a lot on her plate as EVP of technology and operations, and CIO. In the role now for three years, she’s applied the skills and methods learned throughout her career in tech and financial services that speak of her commitment to building strong, capable teams, and taking risks rather than encourage complacency—an enduring adversity for women in the industry despite improvements.

“I was once asked to apply for an executive position, which I didn’t consider,” she says. “This is something some women usually look at: the criteria for the job. And for this executive role, I thought I only had half the criteria, so I shouldn’t apply. But my boss said I needed to go through the process. In the end I got the position and I was able to develop in my first executive position at the bank.”

Pushing boundaries, however uncomfortable, is always a valuable practice. The same mindset also applies when working with different points of view since the opportunity to learn from varied opinions usually proves to be more valuable long term than finding solutions with only those in lockstep with one strategy.

“What I learned is whatever work I use, it’s being interpreted or repeated in great magnitude,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Julie said this,’ or ‘Julie said that,’ but you still have to make sure you understand the impact on the receiving end when you say something. To me it’s something really beneficial getting that connection with every level in the organization, making sure you have that rapport with them. You get that continuous loop and people feel there’s a purpose why they’re there. They’re not just coding lines. They also understand that what we do is serve customers.”

CIO.com Canada editor Lee Rennick recently spoke with Levesque about getting out of your comfort zones, the advantages of being bilingual in technology, and tackling calculated risks head on. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On establishing a foundation: I had a non-typical path that led me to the position I’m in. Technology was something I was always interest in, but I ended up in a software company by fluke and then really fell in love with technology. I worked there for a couple of years and it was difficult from a life balance point of view with two small children. I was traveling a lot and realized as much as I love my job, it was too much of a burden on my family. So I decided to take not a step back, but a lateral step and that’s how I ended up at National Bank as a dev lead and in a web development team. This was new to me. Then I fell in love with financial services and realized I was meant to work in both. I could learn so much around the different lines of business, and it’s motivated me throughout my career and still today. So I embraced that and realized when I’m passionate about something, results come in a timely matter, and you perform better because you’re motivated in what you do.

On understanding scope: In 2010, the CIO at the time said he had an initiative for me, but it wasn’t clear what I’d be doing. It was something important for the bank and he said I needed to lead it. I trusted his judgment and it turned out to be a huge transformation project. Along the way, I remember being asked to manage a project, and having already managed projects, I felt this wasn’t where I was in my career. But my boss said to forget the label and look at what needs to be done, the scope of what needs to happen, and then let him know if I was interested. I think scope and breadth are much more important than a label. I thought I had passed the point of managing projects but this was the cornerstone of what led me to everything. After that, I was leading a huge team and it was a strategic initiative for the bank, which allowed me to learn a lot about complexity and managing stakeholders. It was a tough learning experience running that program but I also learned about myself, what I was good at, and how I could continue developing, which led me to different opportunities I didn’t think were in my path.

On diversifying: When I started my career, I felt like an imposter. That’s something I think a lot of us feel throughout a career at some point. The imposter syndrome never really left, though; it still shows up once in a while. But throughout my career I had mentorship and sponsorship, by identifying people along the way who complement things I needed to work on. I’m very driven and energetic so I usually gravitate to mentors or sponsors similar to me. But that just increases those aspects, so at some point I realized I needed to find people to develop other aspects of my leadership to balance it out. So I’ve been lucky to have great managers and people I’ve kept in touch with when they move to other organizations. This is something I found, that balancing is not on a day-to-day or weekly basis. It needs to even out over time. Otherwise you put too much pressure on yourself.

On building teams: The first thing I did as CIO was work with my new team on the strategy for the organization. I felt that in order to rally people, we all needed to understand the objective and the north star, but they need to participate in the elaboration of that strategy. Sometimes I find leaders work strategy but they’re in their offices all by themselves. I involve my team, they participate, and they buy into that. I also go beyond just my direct reports and include people who have different perspectives to make sure we have full coverage and that everybody knows where we need to go. I find this is really the roadmap, which involves everyone. But we have to make sure it’s clear, crisp, and fits on one page since I have about 5,000 employees. It also needs to be repeated over and over again. We have a tendency to put PowerPoints together with lots of words to cover everything. It’s difficult to mobilize a big group of people when it doesn’t speak to everyone. I’m lucky to have a team that’s super mobilized.

On being bilingual: I always say that from a technology point of view, you need to be bilingual. You need to speak technology as well as business when you work. When you get into where this technology is heading to, it’s toward that more: technology supporting the business.