“I have a pretty rigorous communication style,” shares Patty Watson, Senior EVP and Chief Information Officer of payments technology company TSYS. That includes external communication — she is teaching her team to actually go out and ask customers what they want before they build products — as well as internal communication with video conferencing, leadership roundtables, all-hands standups and more.
That strict adherence to internal communication is critical, says Watson, because of the size and scope of her team. The executive, formerly of The Brinks Company and Bank of America, was brought on three years ago to lead all of TSYS’s technology operations, including application development, software engineering, information structure and information security.
In an 12,000-person operation, she oversees more than a third of the company.
Most of the team is in Georgia, including company headquarters in Columbus, along with Alpharetta and Atlanta. However, TSYS has made several large acquisitions — prepaid card company NetSpend for $1.4 billion in 2013, merchant services firm TransFirst for $2.35 billion in 2016, and payment solutions provider Cayan for $1.05 billion in 2018. These acquisitions have added hundreds of employees around the world to Watson’s operation.
Her efforts to guide those team integrations have drawn on her prior experience, including BoA as well as a decade spent in the U.S Air Force as an executive officer and flight commander.
“I was at Bank of America when they did a string of acquisitions, eight in a row, and I learned a lot about how to do it successfully. To do it successfully you integrate the teams from day one,” she explains.
“You build those relationships with the new teams and your legacy teams and you value the new team as well as your old team. When you wait, there tends to be kind of an ‘us versus them’. But if you pull them together from the very beginning with the same goals and objectives… you get this great mix of experience.”
Breaking down silos, she says, makes the entire company work more in a more agile fashion.
“Before, when I got here, the teams were very independent of one another. Today I would say every day we’re getting closer and closer together. It’s pretty exciting for the company because it means we’re not reinventing the wheel 40 times.”
Now that she’s brought these teams together, she’s also kicked off an initiative to take them into the new age of technology — a faster development cycle, more agile teams and ultimately, better products.
“What was really interesting is that, just by listening to the customer and to the internal team, I knew that we needed to do things differently. We have been very successful doing things the way we have always done them, but we had these pockets of teams doing things in new and different ways, with much more current technology, and so we put together a transformation strategy,” explains Watson.
The transformation involves a number of components, including mainframe modernization, systems modernization, and cloud infrastructure — heavy-duty technical tools and processes that Watson claims will take the company to the next level.
But the last pillar in the transformation, shares Watson, is people. Named to the Forbes list of America’s Best Employers two years in a row, the company is committed to its employees.
And at first, the transformation got what she calls “a mixed review.”
“We want our people,” Watson says. “They are payments experts. They’ve been with the company a long time. It’s important to me that we keep them with us.”
That means guiding those employees that have been working with older technologies and processes, like mainframes, very gently through these changes.
“A big part of this transformation is around communication, making people feel like they are part of the change, not that it’s being forced on them, but getting them excited about why we’re changing and why it benefits the company,” Watson says.
TSYS does their teaching in-house, using a digital bootcamp model with both online and in-person learning. Learning from peers is another way to establish credibility and break down communication barriers, Watson says.
“Some of our teams are already working this way. So when there’s change happening, when [other employees] can see things that are operating in the model that we’re moving towards, and they can see the outcome that that brings, it really helps reinforce why we’re on this journey.”
Beyond the technology transformation, Watson is paying close attention to innovation in fraud protection and identity verification. Though she shares that it’s difficult for a behemoth like TSYS to integrate startups into the fold, the company did launch a product with UK-based fraud protection company Featurespace, which opened an Atlanta office for client proximity last year.
“We come with the history of how to operate in a world of working with all the banks, big banks, small banks, on the consumer side. We bring that experience, they [Featurespace] bring the ideas,” Watson says. “But it is still a challenge for big companies to figure out how to not crush small startups that have a great idea.” Another item on her to-do list is to nail down better processes for working with such innovative startups.
The last step in their moving target to be best-in-class, Watson says, is a commitment to finding and nurturing the very best talent. TSYS launched an education council in their hometown of Columbus to connect employees with high schools where they can share more about a career in technology and at TSYS.
They made a $5 million donation to Columbus State University, a local pipeline school, for a student Cybersecurity Center. They’re talking to other nearby schools like GSU and Kennesaw State, as well.
“One of my team members today said, our hot hiring bed right now is Columbus. We’re finding great talent because of the partnerships we’re building with colleges, and the re-skilling of our employees.”
Watson hopes that shaking things up, while maintaining constant, effective communication, is the key to employee retention and, ultimately, client happiness.
“I mean look at our stock over the last year, it’s almost doubled,” she says. “If you look at our customers, they’re loving this.”