Philippa Watson on Leadership, Innovation, and Career Progression in Banking

by Barbara

Philippa Watson, the CEO of UBank, a digital division of National Australia Bank, is known for her unconventional approach to career development and her keen interest in the younger generation’s technological prowess and trends.

“I’m wildly excited about the 25-year-olds in our business,” Watson shares, noting their advanced personal use of technology which she believes is reshaping thought leadership within the organization.


Watson’s career has been marked by lateral moves and skill diversification rather than following a traditional upward trajectory. She argues that moving solely up the ladder can leave professionals with skill gaps and blind spots. “If you’ve just gone up in one line, you have skill gaps and weaknesses and blind spots that you could have dealt with earlier,” she states in a recent episode of the “15 Minutes with the BOSS” podcast.


Morning Routine and Career Insights

Watson starts her day at 6:15 a.m. with a black coffee and a podcast, juggling her morning routine while ensuring her children are up and ready. Her podcast choices range from news snapshots like The New York Times’ “The Daily” to personal finance and celebrity news, the latter serving as both a source of entertainment and a way to stay attuned to pop culture.


Reflecting on her career, Watson points to the 2008 global financial crisis as a pivotal moment. Transitioning from sales and marketing to working as chief of staff for the CFO of Comm Bank just before the crisis hit provided her with invaluable exposure to high-stakes financial management and leadership under pressure.

She learned that effective leaders under acute pressure make precise judgment calls and communicate decisions clearly. Maintaining personal routines for rest and recovery was crucial for clear-headed decision-making during this period.

Advice and Risk Management

The best career advice Watson received was to focus on lateral moves rather than chasing promotions. “Look laterally because the best opportunities are not necessarily the opportunities that look like a slightly better title or a slightly better pay bracket,” she advises, emphasizing the importance of a broad skill set for future leadership roles.

To her younger self, she would recommend taking measured risks and gaining diverse experiences. She highlights the importance of understanding the risk profile of roles and being adequately prepared before taking significant career steps.

Engagement with Technology and AI

UBank’s engagement with AI and machine learning is robust, particularly in fraud detection. Watson sees AI as an evolving tool that requires careful risk management to ensure today’s innovations don’t become tomorrow’s problems. She relies on younger employees for insights into the latest technological trends and customer engagement methods, noting their candidness and unfiltered feedback as valuable.

Personal Interests and Future Plans

If given a year off, Watson would cycle across New Zealand with her family, staying in hotels rather than camping, and spend time exploring Australia, New Zealand, New York, and London.

Watson’s leadership at UBank is marked by her focus on technological innovation, the importance of broad career experiences, and her ability to stay connected with both her employees and the rapidly changing digital landscape.

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