Asian leaders series: Interview with Ashok Vaswani, chief digital strategy officer, Barclays
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting

Asian leaders series: Interview with Ashok Vaswani, chief digital strategy officer, Barclays

Ashok Vaswani shares his thoughts on what it takes to be a good leader, the impact of his lived experience on his leadership style, and his leadership values.
Ashok Vaswani
Ashok Vaswani image

Ashok Vaswani is Barclays’ chief digital strategy officer. During his tenure at Barclays, Ashok led the drive to digitize the UK Retail Bank and transformed the consumer and payments businesses; having done both of these successfully, he now leads the digital efforts across the Group. He formerly held several leadership roles within Barclays, including CEO of consumer banking and payments, CEO of Barclays Bank UK, leading the credit card business in the UK, Europe and the Nordics, and CEO of Barclays’ African business. Ashok serves as a non-executive board member of the London Stock Exchange Group and Pratham UK, and as a member of the Trustee Board at Citizens Advice. He also sits on the advisory boards of several institutions including Rutberg & Co. and is founder-director of Lend-a-Hand, a non-profit organization focused on rural education in India.

As a part of Heidrick & Struggles' Asian Leaders series, Heidrick & Struggles’ partner Priya Dixit Vyas spoke to Ashok Vaswani, chief digital strategy officer, Barclays. Vaswani shared his thoughts on what it takes to be a good leader, the impact of his lived experience on his leadership style, and what truly matters to him—being humble, valuing and celebrating differences, putting people at the heart of everything he does.


Priya Dixit Vyas: If you had to pick four or five phrases that describe the attributes required for a successful Asian leader in a global environment, what would they be?

Ashok Vaswani: For the most part, I think that leadership capabilities and attributes are universal and that a good leader is a good leader in any context. I sincerely believe that leadership can be learned because, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately about being interested in people, whether that includes your leadership team, colleagues, or customers. But I also think that where you’re from has a specific imprint on your leadership style; I am from India, and have also seen similar mindsets from people coming from other emerging markets—there can be an enhanced sense of hunger and determination born out of a hypercompetitive environment with no safety net, where it is difficult to break out and differentiate yourself.

I am a huge believer that humility is a big deal, and that acknowledging when you don’t know something allows others to do the same and ask the right questions. Only when you remain humble will you keep learning and growing, particularly when that’s combined with a sense of curiosity.

Priya Dixit Vyas: You have lived and worked across many geographies and cultures in your career. Would you say that organizational cultures have been different as you moved from country to country?

Ashok Vaswani: Organizational cultures can be very different even within the same company--not only geographically but also depending on the part of the business. And there are often pretty strong subcultures that develop in specific units. That is partly because of the business model and partly because of leadership. For example, as a leader, you try to bring your team together, but you don’t have an absolutely fresh canvas to build on; it’s already prepopulated with company policies and culture, and every additional organizational layer further reduces your ability to create something unique. But you still have some latitude to infuse your leadership beliefs. That can vary from company to company: for instance, when I worked at Citibank Asia Pacific, the canvas was large because there was an implicit understanding that you can set a culture in Asia that is distinctly different from the United States, in order to match the way you do business in the region.

Priya Dixit Vyas: You talked about different cultures and subcultures. Were there any that stood out for you as the most challenging to deal with?

Ashok Vaswani: The first thing I learned from working in multiple countries is that at their core, people are broadly similar: they want to get ahead, they want their children to go to a better school than they went to, and they want a better life for their families. The difference is in mindsets and preferences, which, as a leader, boils down to a simple question: how do you win the hearts and minds of people from different cultures? In the United States, I have found it helps to be direct and upfront and have ambitious goals and a sense of humor. The same approach is unlikely to work in the same way in the United Kingdom, where there is a unique way of interacting that is underlined by a dry sense of humour—self-deprecating at times, almost understated. In Asian markets, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, people often look upon their leader more or less like a father figure; they are expected to play that role and people treat their leader with that kind of respect. So, it’s important to understand the nuances that are likely to appeal in different regions.

At the end of the day, you have to understand what stays with people in your organization—what they tell their families or friends when they go home about their jobs. Will they tell them how much revenue they made for the company on the day, or will they talk about their experiences and the people they met? If they have something positive to say about their work, we win as leaders and as an organization; the day they cannot do that, we are in trouble.

Priya Dixit Vyas: What would you say that you brought to the table as a leader in your various roles, particularly anything influenced by how you grew up in India?

Ashok Vaswani: I would love to tell you that I had a game plan, a master plan, and I’ve known exactly what to do country by country, but it’s absolutely not true. I rolled with the punches and I made a huge number of mistakes. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t learn more languages. I don't have a flair for languages, and it’s a useful way to relate to people. I think I compensated for that with a genuine interest in people, their behaviours and dynamics, and tried to really understand what makes them tick. There was no manual to start from, but plenty of opportunity to learn and experiment.

Priya Dixit Vyas: Is there anything you wish you knew before you joined any of the companies your worked for?

Ashok Vaswani: I was at a private equity firm in New York, and, before that, at a consulting firm. And I think that moving around helps to build confidence that whatever you do, it’s not significantly different and it builds on previous experiences. That confidence builds over the years but it’s not intentional and perhaps it should be. I was always focused on our agenda, the franchise, and perhaps I should have been doing more broad-basing. But I have no big regrets; I left India with $14 in my pocket and could have never dreamed of working in so many countries. I took my first flight when I was 21, and I didn’t think my career would permit me to travel and meet so many people. More than anything, I am deeply grateful.

Priya Dixit Vyas: Are there any stories about a difference that made you smile?

Ashok Vaswani: There are so many; watching people blossom and grow has been very, very rewarding. When I was at Citigroup, I remember the credit card business in Dubai got rejected a few times by our regional office, but in the end, we launched, and it was a success. When, after one year, our CEO came to Dubai and saw the numbers, he was impressed by the results. And on the other hand, there were enough mistakes—going to Turkey for example and not understanding the market properly and trying and failing to launch the credit card.

Priya Dixit Vyas: How is leading in an international role different than a country-specific role?

Ashok Vaswani: They are vastly different experiences. For instance, the United Kingdom is a very unique market. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that the United Kingdom and the United States are two countries that are separated by the same language, and that is really 100% true. Every time I take the flight from the United Kingdom and land in New York, I literally have to change the way I think. I’ll give you a very simple example: a couple of years ago, a company in the United States decided to pay bonuses earlier to take advantage of the change in the tax system, which was widely regarded as a smart thing to do in the country. The following year, in February, the same thing happened in the United Kingdom, and the same company did the same thing and paid bonuses early. This attracted a lot of criticism in the United Kingdom. So, it was the same business philosophy with two very different reactions that reflect deep differences in societal attitudes: in the United States, society tends to applaud the winner-takes-all mindset, in the United Kingdom, it’s more balanced.

Priya Dixit Vyas: Is there any advice you’d give to somebody who’s just taken on a really senior role on how can they be most impactful?

Ashok Vaswani: For me, the most important thing is to pay a lot of attention to people and understand their motivations; understand what they’re looking for and know what you’re looking for in your team. Getting the people equation right, I think, is more important than anything else, particularly at senior roles.

Priya Dixit Vyas: Diversity and inclusion is so important on today’s agenda. Do you have any specific advice for leaders who want to build diverse and inclusive teams?

Ashok Vaswani: Of course, diversity and inclusion are both very important, but the important thing is to what extent as a leader you really buy in to it. Because, to me, this is not a check-the-box exercise where you tick off the numbers or percentages of women or LGBTQ community members on your team. I think the most beautiful place where I understood this is the story of the giraffe and the elephant, which talks about how the giraffe and the elephant meet in park and they become friends. One day, the giraffe invites the elephant home for dinner, but you can imagine how the giraffe’s home is built and the elephant doesn’t fit in. The reason this is important is because if our teams don’t represent the diversity of our society, how will we get a better understanding of the customer? If we don't have a better understanding of the customer, we will never be able to deliver a superior service.

That makes D&I a fundamental business need. As well as being the right thing to do, it is an imperative. And once you start thinking about it that way, what you need to do becomes very clear as you look at your teams in various locations.


About the interviewer

Priya Dixit Vyas (pdixitvyas@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles' London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.

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