IBM’s Sarah Diamond is helping banks transform their traditions

"Every day we get to help our clients master the present and prepare for the future.”

By | 4 minute read | May 21, 2020

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

Tradition is one of the first things that comes to mind when Sarah Diamond thinks about the beginning of her education at a London all-girls school established in 1850. “My earliest memories of school I think were very much part of joining a tradition,” said Diamond, global managing director for Banking & Financial Markets at IBM.

Honoring tradition, and continuing it, is also what keeps Diamond grounded in her work and with her clients. From financial services to banks, many of IBM’s clients function under similar commitments to tradition while pursuing the future. “It’s very parallel⁠—I enjoy the fact that IBM is 108-years-old—there’s a history here and a legacy that we have to maintain and a future that we have to build for,” Diamond said.

“I remember walking around Oxford just being in awe of the history that surrounded me. As much as things change, you can learn a lot about the future by understanding the past.”

However, Diamond is not just a strong believer in honoring tradition, but also paying it forward to the next generation. By being closely involved in the development and support of women in financial services, she serves as a living inspiration for young girls and women who might be considering a career in finance.

“One of my extracurricular activities has been being very engaged with a group of women that work on and around Wall Street,” Diamond said. “It’s an organization called the Women’s Bond Club⁠—it’s been in existence since 1911⁠—the name comes from the fact that the women who founded it were the first women who sold war bonds on Wall Street.”

The Women’s Bond Club directly supports and assists women pursuing financial careers. Part of their work includes funding scholarships for women coming out of New York City schools that may not otherwise have the opportunity to go to college, have access to mentors, or internship opportunities.

Why studying humanities makes a better leader

Diamond holds two master’s degrees, one in Modern History from Oxford University, the other from Johns Hopkins University. Her education grants her a perspective that is unique to the tech industry. “The study of history is really about understanding why people made those decisions and what their roles were,” she said. “It sounds very abstract, but what that does is it develops a very analytical and rigorous way of thinking.”

“Thinking big and being bold is important and is critical to success, but a leader also needs to empower others to execute.”

“The EQ part of my job, the emotional intelligence, has always been one of my strengths,” she said. This mindset bolsters Diamond’s leadership strategy and is at the core of who she is.

Starting her career as an American banker

In her early career, Sarah Diamond worked as an internal operations auditor for an American bank. “The attraction to me was to understand what banking is all about,” she said. “It was a great entry-point into an industry that appealed to me and was all about teamwork.”

“Working in the banking industry armed me with valuable experience and business insights. But I soon realized that technology was going to be the catalyst for transformation, and that’s where I pointed myself.”

Diamond’s confidence in her own skills since her early career was bolstered by her education.

“I was encouraged very much through the educational opportunities I’ve had, to believe I can make the most of my abilities. I think it’s a combination of great teachers from high school and university, then working with some really talented leaders who helped me to think broadly and globally.”

“Thinking big and being bold is important and is critical to success, but a leader also needs to empower others to execute.”

Finance in the face of COVID-19

Looking to problems and solutions of the future, Diamond believes that technology will continue to make it possible to pave the way forward, especially with the advent of COVID-19 and the global health crisis that followed.

“Companies have had to turn to more technology to help them through the immediate crisis and technology is absolutely going to lead them out of it,” Diamond said.

Despite the promise of technology and the assistance of IBM to other companies looking for virtual private networks (VPN), security, research and logistical support, Diamond is aware of the issues that COVID-19 will force the industry to face.

“The industry is facing multiple challenges all at once,” Diamond is quick to point out. “The compression of interest rates has impacted banks’ ability to drive revenue. In parallel, the current global situation is making rapid digitization of operations mandatory. In Italy, for example, banks closed 70% of their real-world branches, forcing consumers to turn to online services like never before. Throughout all this, security requirements and regulatory compliance issues have not gone away, With employees working from home for the foreseeable future, managing these changes puts unusual stress on our clients.”

“School teaches you how to be a good learner. If you develop a habit of lifelong learning, you’ll be able to handle change—even in trying times like these.”

When asked what specifically helps her add value to her work and IBM as global leader in technology and financial services, Diamond remarked, “The process of learning. We constantly learn because that enables us to bring value to our clients.”

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