December 17, 2019

"Start with the why, and break out of the company mould "

Claire Calmejane, chief innovation officer at Societe Generale, on how she is teaching the 150-year-old French bank to move faster.

Kimberly Eynon

5 min read

Claire Calmejane has been chief innovation officer at Société Générale for just over a year, with a job description that includes identifying future trends and helping the 150-year-old French bank partner better with startups.

Under her watch, Société Générale has acquired startups like Treezor, the banking-as-a-service platform, invested in Reezocar, the second-hand car startup,  and launched an intrapreneurship programme that has created 60 startups (seven of which look like they might have a future). More than that, Calmejane says the fast-paced programme has served as a cultural shift for the whole company, especially because the senior management team has been pulled in to take part. 

This is what Calmejane says in on the horizon for the company now:

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What new technologies and areas of innovation are most interesting for Société Générale right now?

Société Général has 31m customers across the world and they are fast adopters of digitalised financial services.We rely on three levers to support our scaling-up innovation strategy:

  1. An open innovation movement to bring the outside in. We want to provide best in class customer experience either through digital services built in-house — Société Général was the first bank to provide a chatbot, first to offer aggregation in the Czech Republic or seven-minute loan in Russia — or through partnerships such as YUP, an m-wallet in Africa launched two years ago with 1.2m customers co-built with the start-up TagPay.
  2. Accelerate our artificial intelligence and data strategy to bring efficiency and personalisation to customers
  3. We want to accelerate our open banking and platform strategy. For this we made the acquisition of Treezor, a fintech providing account management, KYC [know your consumer], cards, payment services to other fintechs. Treezor enables us to accelerate our open banking strategy and launch neo-bank type offering quickly on the market. Financial and non-financial asset aggregation and crypto-assets are on the radar with live testing. With our startup Forge, we are the first use case using the French law to distribute utility token and Banque de France has just announced that it is entering the digital currency race, a topic that was also pioneered by Christine Lagarde while head of the IMF at the Singapore Fintech Festival in 2018.
What do you think will be the biggest threat for your business in the next five to 10 years?

European banks are facing some headwinds: low interest rates, new entrants, high level of regulation, changing customer expectations towards digital.  But the banking world is at a turning point 10 years after the crisis of 2008. The biggest threat is our inability to see opportunities and project ourselves in the bank of the future and that’s why, at Société Générale, innovation is a strategic function reporting to the chief executive.

How will your innovation programme help you address that?

The "Transform To Grow" strategic plan is about strengthening our relationship with startups and big techs companies, supporting the business lines’ digital strategies and to building new businesses. For this we created Société Générale Ventures, our €150m fund. It supports startups we created like Moonshot and My SmartLiving, but also acquisitions or investment such as Reezocar or We.Match. We also launched our Open Innovation Platform.

One visible initiative is our internal start-up call: about 18 months ago we launched 60 startups with intrapreneurs from Société Générale coming from all horizons and all hierarchical levels, including executive committees of some business units. About 30 of them stopped, 14 were reintegrated into business units and seven are candidates for our venture fund to invest in. A couple may spin out.

We are learning a lot from the program. Each startup was sponsored by a member of the group management committee, which is key to have all businesses include new tech to their strategic plans. The unprecedented pace and scale of the program acted as a cultural shift for the group.

How do you challenge yourself and your company to ‘think outside the box’?

I believe the characteristic of leaders in today’s world is to embrace a growth mindset and ability to build towards a better world. People with a growth mindset have an underlying belief that their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. When you find leaders that have these traits in your organisation you must nurture them and help their ideas to grow and develop. It’s not a one shot: it’s everyday work!

Personally, I keep asking for feedback, listening to front-line staff or operations through 20 to 30 visits a year and keep some of my time for strategic thinking through videos, research, books or meeting other innovators. We are also present in 10 external events across the globe through our innovation network and have an annual TechWeek@Société Générale to showcase all the innovation built by our teams.

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?

Many things! It’s the very essence of a corporate innovation function to fail, to act as pathfinder and trailblazer of an organisation.

What advice would you give to a new head of innovation — what do they need to get right from day one?

Start with the WHY. Be bold, be audacious and break out of the corporate mould. But above all, make success the job of all, not just you and your team. Don’t forget to give back and earmark your time for start-ups, make it your personal goals to meet and know the successful disruptors and they will end up your partners. Cherish your team and build a strong collective at the service of the company’s vision. You will soon realise that diversity is the key ingredient at the heart of a good innovation engine.

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?

Several of them I would say: Radical Candor from Kim Scott, Leaders Eat Last from Simon Sinek and recently Trailblazer from Marc Benioff.