Rhonda Vetere, Santander's infrastructure CIO - it's how you tackle challenges that makes the difference

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett May 19, 2019
Rhonda Vetere, former CTO of Estee Lauder and now CIO at an international bank, shares her secrets to success in the competitive world of IT management.

Rhonda Vetere

Rhonda Vetere, former Chief Technology Officer of cosmetics multi-national Estee Lauder and currently Chief Information Officer of Infrastructure at Santander Bank, is a consummate high-performer. 

Earlier this year, she was recognised as one of the 50 most powerful women in technology by the US National Diversity Council. after working for more than 20 years in the sector. In March, on top of the day job, she also published her second book entitled ‘Grit and Grind: 10 Principles for Living an Extraordinary Life’.

The key message of the work was that it is not the challenges faced in life but rather how we tackle them that matters as it is the latter that makes a real difference in how quickly we achieve our goals. The book, unsurprisingly, is particularly aimed at helping other women in tech to succeed because, as Vetere points out:

There’s not many of us - and there should be more. But my belief is that in order to succeed, it’s all about performance and results. I grew up in a male-dominated domain, which is a fact of life, but I don’t think anything of it. I’m myself, I have my own identity and my results speak for themselves. Like everyone, I have to work hard, but I also work from facts rather than from perceptions or opinions.

While Vetere is also a “big proponent” of mentoring other women to help them follow in her footsteps, her rigorous work ethic shines through in this area too:

They have to be willing to perform and be prepared to work hard. It’s not enough just to say ‘I’m a woman and so I should get the job’. I’m not a lean-in but a lean-out kind of leader, that is, I believe that people need to move out of their comfort zone, be mobile and take the hard assignments that no one else wants because if you put yourself in uncomfortable positions, it’s how you learn and lead.

And learn and lead she has. On starting her career in the telecommunications space after graduating from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in Communications, Business and Spanish (despite being of Italian heritage, with her family originally coming from Calabria), Vetere was quickly guided into management positions by her own mentor at that stage. She explains:

My mentor said ‘you’re a people person and I’m going to move you every two years so you can gain experience’. So I went from telecoms into data centres and purposefully fell into managing tech people. True to his word, every couple of years, he moved me on, which was a bit frustrating as I’d just get my teams to where I wanted them to be, that is a high-performing culture, and I’d be moved on. But it was great experience and I purposefully and deliberately chose to lead global teams as one of my passions is working internationally.

Secrets to success

Vetere herself, while currently based in New York, has lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Mumbai, and worked for organisations ranging from financial services giant JP Morgan Chase as managing director of global infrastructure operations to senior vice president of global enterprise services, technology and operations at HP Enterprise Services. But she says her biggest achievement to date career-wise was helping to manage the $58 billion merger between Bank One and JP Morgan Chase in 2004:

It was one of the first big financial mergers, but it was early in my career and so I learned a lot about what is important when bringing two companies together – which is it’s all about identifying talent and ensuring you take people along with you.

Vetere also believes that this idea of taking people along with you is also one of the secrets to success in managing large multinational teams – something that is notoriously difficult to do effectively. But doing so is about understanding people and the culture they stem from. She explains:

You need to immerse yourself in the culture as it’s about treating other people with respect. I don’t like to just fly in and out of places as I don’t find it effective – I’m a full-contact, high-touch leader. So I respond to each email, get on the ‘phone and also do skip-level meetings. That involves picking people randomly throughout the organisation and talking to them without their manager being present in order to learn from them. I tell my assistant to make an appointment and they get the message that I want to see them before I arrive.

As terrifying as that may sound for the average employee, Vetere indicates that, as soon as she joins a new organisation, she holds a big online ‘town hall’ meeting, which subsequently take place every second week, to explain her management style. This means there are no surprises. As she points out:

I’m very transparent and, if anything, I over-communicate as a leader. You have to keep on communicating as you can’t assume that people have understood or the message has gone in…But there are also different layers of communication, so it’s about knowing your audience. At board level, I communicate about technology in a way that my parents could understand, but if I’m talking to my team, I can be very technical.

While she has never been a coder, Vetere says she “knows the jargon and can speak network and storage infrastructure”, which means that no one can pull the wool over her eyes. Moreover she “still runs cables” because she believes it is vital to “stay true to your roots”:

You can never lose sight of what’s happening in the organisation, so I’ll never give it up. When you extract yourself from the boots on the ground, you’re no longer a good leader. People are number one and so you always have to balance technology with the human touch.

The human touch

For example, when looking after Estee Lauder’s high-profile digital transformation project,  she says the key to getting it right was effective stakeholder and change management. She explains:

It meant being on the decision-making team along the entire journey and leading people through the transformation. I was there through all of the lawyer and contract discussions and the outsourcing versus insourcing talks. I interviewed all the stakeholders, vendors and partners and then the key talent we were bringing in-house because I was looking at what each of them could contribute and add to the discussion.

When implementing change in each of the 150 or more countries in which Estee Lauder operates, Vetere was also there on the ground, playing a hands-on role too:

I led people through change in each of the different countries, managing them through the technology choices when we were building innovation hubs. I was very present, working out of every country when we did the technology refresh and moved off one platform onto another. I received calls at midnight, two and four in the morning but, as a C-suite leader, I was also on each major product call as I know what good looks like. So I was in the trenches with everyone else and gave 200%.

But even how Vetere chooses to spend her downtime requires focus and discipline, demonstrating in the process - if further evidence were needed – just how driven she is. A veteran of more than 50 marathons and half marathons, she also takes part in Ironman Triathlons  and in October 2018 was involved in the first ever, 55-mile ‘Serengeti Girls Run’ in Tanzania as part of a fundraiser for female empowerment programmes in Africa, complete with armed guards to protect her from the local wildlife. As she says:

My outlet sounds insane, but it keeps me fit and healthy mentally, and one of my mottos is that if I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t lead a team. Ironmen races are 70.3 miles, so my work and personal life are very disciplined. They’re not easy, and anyone who says they are is lying. But I believe in making a difference in the world and I’m dedicated to what good looks like.

Indeed, Vetere started her on the fitness trail early on, becoming a competitive swimmer during her school days – something that helped to hone her competitive streak. She explains:

I grew up with nothing and I was an only child, so I had to make it on my own. But I’m not just competitive due to sports. I always knew that I wanted to make a difference, and the biggest impact I’ve had is in mentoring and teaching people and advising colleges on their curriculums. It can be hard to find leaders that care, but I’ve followed people’s careers for 20 years, kept in touch with them and watched them become great leaders. So it’s about helping other people to grow.