- Insider Intelligence spoke with Michael Naggar, head of digital at Citi, about the role he’s played in the bank’s digital transformation.
- This Q&A is an excerpt from one of 15 interviews we conducted for our new report, The Banking Heads of Digital Report: 15 Leaders on Priorities, Challenges, and Opportunities.
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When Insider Intelligence asked Michael Naggar, chief digital officer of Citi’s U.S. consumer bank, about what success would look like in his job, he emphasized his multifaceted role weaving together digital product development and the consumer lines of business.
“Our business processes are also becoming Agile—not just our development processes—and I’m overseeing that,” he said. “This fundamentally changes the way that the organization works.”
As Citi’s leading disciple of Agile, Naggar is pushing cultural change and better business processes to support swift development—which includes the drive to working in Agile sprints and cultivating the interdisciplinary partnerships that quicken products’ time to market.
“In polls, consumers say they still largely believe that banks are about trust and security,” Naggar said. “If we can adjust our thinking to drive forward rapidly and securely and then partner with fintechs and other firms where it makes sense, we can have the best of both worlds: We can stay safe and secure, but at the same time bring products to market quickly and adopt agile, innovative thinking within our digital ecosystem.”
Naggar is one of the executives Insider Intelligence recently spoke with to better understand how heads of digital define their roles and their place in the organization, how trends are shaping their responsibilities, the greatest challenges they face with digital transformation, and the priorities they’ve set for the future.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Insider Intelligence (II): Could you talk about your professional background and path to CDO at Citi?
Michael Naggar (MN): I’ve been chief digital officer of the US consumer business for a little over a year. I’ve worked for about three years in the product space at Citi, responsible for everything end to end, including payments and servicing and acquisitions.
I wasn’t always in banking. I spent the first 17 years of my career in telecommunications. At Verizon, which had a large consumer business, I built scalable enterprise consumer products for millions of people. That was way before the official digital business role existed—when you had business product heads that were separate from development.
[When he left Verizon, Naggar planned to start his own business, but Barclays called—the beginning of his career in banking.] Did you see that Apple announcement about digitizing your ID and bringing it over to Apple Wallet so you can use it at airports and other places? I actually have a patent on that from Barclays built around bringing a consumer’s highly sensitive documents—passports, identifications, things of that nature—into digital and certifying it.
After that, I spent three years at Chase working on consumer payment products and the emerging payments world. That’s when all of those pay wallets were developing, like Chase Pay, Apple Pay, and Samsung Pay.
II: If you were to write a job description for yourself, what would you say are the biggest components of your role?
MN: My main job is to understand what the business objectives are and help drive them digitally.
A few years ago, my group focused on digitally enabling what the business developed and sent to market. Since then, my job has evolved into participating in thought leadership when the business comes up with new products.
My secondary job is to evolve the organization into a digital-first mindset. Our business processes are also becoming Agile—not just our development processes—and I’m overseeing that. This fundamentally changes the way that the organization works. In the new way of working, you say, “We have an idea. How do we wrap up governance, ideation, and evolution all within a week-by-week cadence, such that every 28 days, we’re rolling out something that has already been through our governance and risk management processes?”
Last but not least, I spent a lot of time on team-building and culture. A big part of that would be how we create what I call “full-stack” product management.
Traditionally, there’s the business-centered side of digital—whether it’s the lines of business or “the digital business.” Technology is separate, centered on writing functional and nonfunctional requirements to implement those ideas.
At Citi, we combine the two, as they do at tech companies. Our product managers understand both business and technology and roll out things in one way across the business. That requires a different mindset and skill set, and it’s part of my job to build that culture.
II: In the last year and a half, what challenges have you faced, and how have those affected your priorities in your job?
MN: One big challenge is that I’m spending 50% of my time not just on product innovation but also on organizational process innovation, helping our business become Agile.
The organizational mindset doesn’t change overnight. We’re a bank, and customers expect us to be safe and secure. It’s not easy to bring people on the legal and the risk-function side who are used to taking time to think through things and assess risks into the fold of working quickly. We call our solution “controls by design,” which means that you’re designing the risk function as part of the product design.
One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that anyone who wasn’t thinking digital now is. Citi is evolving as a technology company, but so is everyone else, and the market is hot right now for digital talent everywhere. As I’m evolving our culture and bringing this talent up a notch, I’m thinking about how we retain that talent and knowledge. People don’t leave just for money; they leave for culture or lack of culture and lack of leadership. And so our challenge is developing that culture, a leadership mentality, and ownership and accountability.
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II: In five years, what does success in digital look like for Citi and for your group?
MN: In our five-year strategic planning, without going into too much detail, success is that the entire business is working in an Agile way—and that every product we deliver at Citi is digital first. Chase, Bank of America, and many of our other friends in the industry are heavily branch-based. We have to think differently in that environment. We have to create ideas and go to market with digitally led propositions.
Another part of success is breaking down barriers. Today, digital means taking transactions out of the call center and branch and digitizing them. But our goal is connecting analog and digital so that people can’t see where one ends and the other begins. If we have a 360-degree view of the customer and we are wherever the customer is, then we’ll be successful.
II: What has surprised you about the job?
MN: Not much surprises me at this point. I’ve done a lot of building and creating—which means getting into messy situations. But I’ve been somewhat surprised by how difficult it is to move an organization to Agile. You’d think everybody would want to get things done fast for the customer and work on a 28-day cycle—but it’s surprisingly hard to get people’s buy-in.
II: You talked about turnover as a potential issue. What other risks do you face in reaching your goals?
MN: The regulatory environment is another risk. Fintechs and technology companies that are coming after our business are not as highly regulated, and they can work at a much faster pace than any of the large financial institutions. While that’s a challenge for us, it’s also an opportunity. In polls, consumers say they still largely believe that banks are about trust and security. Fintechs are still trying to evolve to that point.
If we can adjust our thinking to drive forward rapidly and securely and then partner with fintechs and other firms where it makes sense, we can have the best of both worlds. We can stay safe and secure, but at the same time bring products to market quickly and adopt agile, innovative thinking within our digital ecosystem.
II: What skills and experience have been most important to your success now in your role at Citi?
MN: At Citi, there are three leadership principles that Jane Fraser, the CEO of Citibank, wants everybody to follow. My main focus is accountability: “You touch it, you own it.” Even if the project is not 100% digital, I tell my team that we must be accountable for everything we touch, end to end, and bring it all the way through. The product manager is the mini CEO of any product that they oversee, and they have to pull together all the functions to roll out the product.
You can’t just sit there and say, “Well, I did my part.”
One thing that I learned from crossing industries is it’s important to not just look at what Chase or Bank of America does. You need to look at other industries. Particularly around how we engage our customers, we’re learning from the airline industry and the retail industry—taking the best from them and applying it to banking.
II: If you were to give one piece of advice to your peers, what would that be?
MN: Never settle. Even if you roll out something and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, always challenge it and continually strive for improvement. Don’t ever be satisfied with what you’ve done. Celebrate your successes, but always question them and look ahead to what competition they face and where they might fall down.
And continually work to make customer experiences simpler, but understand that it’s going to be hard. When someone says, “Oh, just simplify it,” I tell my team: “Simple is hard.” Every time you try to simplify something, whether it’s a customer experience journey or an internal process, it’s like an iceberg. What’s above the water doesn’t compare with what you have to change to actually make that thing look simple.