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Created on 05.10.2021

“Employees may sense that I have competitive spirit”

Sandra Lienhart heads up the Retail Banking unit at PostFinance and is a member of Executive Board. In our interview she recalls when she first discovered that she enjoyed management and reveals the expectations she has of her 1,300 or so employees as a leader.

Sandra Lienhard

At PostFinance, you head up the Retail Banking unit which covers physical and digital sales, marketing and the Customer Center. In which direction are you taking this unit which serves 2.5 million private and 275,000 business customers?

Our clear goal is to become a leading retail bank in the private customer sector as well as a relevant bank for our business customers, particularly in the field of payment transactions. We’ll achieve this by clearly positioning ourselves as an investment bank, by looking at all our solutions and processes from our customers’ perspective, by implementing them in a customer-oriented way and by investing in digitization. We aim to ensure our customers can always select the sales channel that best meets their needs – whether physically or digitally, through self-service or in an expert consultation at one of our offices. And we ultimately wish to provide them with seamless and convenient banking.

What do you view as important in terms of leading your employees?

Conveying a sense of purpose to employees is crucial in my view. I want to show them where the journey’s heading, which steps we need to take together and what the outcome will be. I also believe it’s important that my employees see me as being open and transparent. I want to create an environment of trust through regular communication. There’s also room for errors and constructive criticism in this environment where a respectful approach is fostered and everyone can be themselves. And employees may sense that I have competitive spirit which also comes to the fore at work. I prefer setting goals too high than too low and take up the challenge of attaining our KPIs – without resorting to excuses.

And what do you expect from your employees?

Essentially, exactly the same as what I expect from myself. That’s to say a solid foundation based on trust, respect, credibility, transparency and fairness. Displaying team spirit and the willingness to go the extra mile also really matter.

How did you end up in your first management role?

Relatively young. I led a five-strong credit team at Credit Suisse when I was 26. I first discovered that I really enjoyed management in this role. My second management position when I took over the  Kloten branch at the same bank at around 30 years of age was a defining moment for me. I can vividly recall the sense of elation I felt when walking up to the branch. I thought to myself: “Wow, I’m in charge of this.” If there was a scrap of paper on the floor, I’d pick it up because I wanted presentation to be immaculate for our customers.

Did you plan your career steps?

No, I wasn’t planning or looking to get into it. I was promoted because my line managers appreciated my commitment and the quality of the work I produced. Over time I began reflecting on whether I could do what the boss does.

You mentioned that in your first leadership role you discovered how much you enjoyed management. What exactly did you enjoy about it?

The same things as today. I like to convey to employees that their work has a sense of purpose, to show them what we stand for and what we aim to achieve together, and to identify where employees have potential and the steps that can be taken to enable them to develop. Spurring the team on to achieve goals really appeals to me. You have to enjoy dealing with people. You also need to challenge them and to remind them that they’re able to go the extra mile. It’s also down to me to assign responsibility and place trust in them. But also to lend them a hand in terms of discussing potential solutions together and developing ideas.

You’re from a family that ran their own business. How significant a role did that play in your own career?

Very significant in many ways. My parents ran a specialist knife shop. Lots of our conversations at the dinner table were about customers. After all, without them my parents couldn’t earn a living. My parents often went the extra mile for their customers, even after closing time at 6.30 p.m.  My parents also told all sorts of stories about employees at home. I think that’s probably why entrepreneurial spirit and pleasure in dealing with employees and customers come naturally to me.

What advice would you give to other career-minded women?

Irrespective of their gender, I’d advise them to set out their goals clearly and to discuss them with their line manager. But in today’s fast-moving world, I also recommend being flexible and receptive to new roles and opportunities. If you’re asked to do something that may not have been on your radar, you should show the willingness to go beyond your comfort zone. And another key piece of advice is that you have to raise your own profile – whether at work, on projects or in presentations  – and always be yourself. People have to sense that you enjoy what you’re doing and are passionate about it.

Are more women needed in management?

Not necessarily in my view. But if you put good women in leadership roles, there’s a chance that you’ll end up with different outcomes and directions when it comes to decision-making. Mixed teams are always enriching as they benefit from the different strengths of men and women – and fresh perspectives too.

How do you encourage the development of women in your environment?

When encouraging the development of women – and men! – I try to assign interesting tasks to employees and then get them to present their results to me. I also discuss their career ambitions with them, give them useful pointers and sometimes help people as a mentor.

Do you give different advice to men and women along the way?

Men tend not to lack self-belief, but women often require more encouragement to take their next career step by showing them that they’ve got the ability and should be confident about themselves.

What can employers do to make it easier for women to pursue careers?

When I look at PostFinance, good work-life balance is well established and put into practice. More specifically, we have the opportunity to hold leadership positions on a part-time basis. But smaller measures are key too: we recently set up Women’s Talk – a series of events where our female members of the Board of Directors and Executive Board discuss various topics with ambitious female employees in small groups. By highlighting which career paths are open, we set an example for other women. But we’ve observed that we’re still not where we want to be in terms of getting women into executive positions and have set ourselves clearly measurable goals.

Where are we still falling short?

Whereas the representation of women on the Board of Directors and Executive Board is exemplary, there’s still room for improvement at middle and senior management levels.

You mentioned achieving a good work-life balance by working part-time. Have you taken advantage of this option yourself?

I’ve always worked full-time  and even a bit more at times. But I don’t have any children.

Career, leisure time and family – which component matters to you most?

All three components are extremely important in my view. I’m very family-oriented. I get a lot from my family. It’s an environment where I can talk about absolutely anything – and have a laugh, including at myself. My career has always been important to me – I’ve always enjoyed working and tackling various challenges. I keep in shape during my leisure time so I can keep on top of everything. I love doing outdoor sports – whether it’s cycling, jogging or hiking. I’m also the president of a floorball club.

You’ve remained in the banking sector since your commercial apprenticeship at Credit Suisse. Why is that?

The main reason I’ve stayed in this sector is because I deal with employees, customers and management in all of my tasks. That’s what makes me tick. Exciting jobs have continually cropped up over the course of time which I’ve been able to put my heart and soul into. I’ve never felt the need to switch sector. What’s fascinating is that I’m still seen as an ‘atypical’ banker in my environment.

What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?

Firstly, the repositioning of Bank Coop as Bank Cler, which meant turning an old-fashioned kind of bank into a modern one. Secondly, there have been various reorganizations involving job cuts where employees’ futures have been on the line. The challenge was implementing them successfully and fairly.

In 2004, you took up a seat on the Executive Board of the former Bank Coop and were heralded as its ‘first female member’. How long will it take before the presence of women on the Executive Board goes without saying?

It’s increasingly commonplace. It would be great if we get to the stage where having women on the Executive Board and in other management positions no longer merits special mention.

About

Sandra Lienhart has been Head of the Retail Banking unit at PostFinance since March 2021. She previously held various roles at Bank Cler (previously Bank Coop), including Head of the Sales business unit and as Chief Executive Officer. She began her career at Credit Suisse. Sandra Lienhart has an Executive MBA ZFH from the University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration Zurich (HWZ) and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in the US.

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