Patty Watson | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Transformative Leadership
By Robert Green


Some companies embrace change while others have a harder time adapting. This year, trailblazing TSYS, a fintech payments company based out of Columbus, Ga. is celebrating its 35th anniversary. As an initial player in the payments processing industry, TSYS has had to adapt and change over the years as the payments industry continues to evolve. They are constantly innovating and finding ways to become the leading global payments provider. Currently, TSYS and its CIO, Patty Watson, are spearheading a technology transformation across the company and helping to reskill their employees along the journey.

Watson launched this “technology transformation” at TSYS shortly after she arrived three years ago in September 2015. There was a strong team in place in the technology organization, but it was very siloed, embedded in the various business units and operating in a legacy manner. After spending time with TSYS’s business partners, team members and clients, Watson devised a plan to transform the team into an agile, software engineering organization. As a result, through Watson and her team’s leadership, the technology organization is now centralized, duplicate efforts have been minimized, and cost savings have been reinvested into new technologies and products.

“With greater collaboration and customer focus, we’re concentrating more on what our customers need to run their business,” says Watson, also noting that this is not a desperate change, but a necessary one. “Our stock has more than doubled over the past three years (recently hitting triple digits for the first time in company history) – so this transformation is very much about keeping up with the industry, but also staying ahead of the curve in order to meet the needs of our clients and to help them continue to grow their business.”

The technology transformation effort includes mainframe modernization, systems modernization and an investment in cloud infrastructure, with a heavy focus on communication and people--the company is reskilling thousands of employees so they have the skills and expertise better suited to open source environments. The company offers various forms of retraining, such as “digital bootcamps” or PluralSight training, an online education tool, and estimates that nearly 2,000 team members have taken advantage of these technical reskilling opportunities.

The words “leadership” and “change” have been part of Watson’s life from the beginning. Born in Yokohama, Japan to a career U.S. Army Colonel, she moved every two or three years and describes family life as “a leadership laboratory,” and her father as “her best mentor.”

“I learned leadership at home,” she says. “You take care of your people. That doesn’t mean that you’re a pushover – you help them grow. Do what you say you are going to do. And most important of all – don’t ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself.”

Growing up all over the country and the world, Watson learned to both embrace change and to appreciate diversity. She spent her 8th, 9th and 10th grade years in Heidelberg, Germany and had the opportunity to travel all over Europe. “It was a lot of fun, but you also learn a lot when you’re exposed to so many different countries and cultures,” she says.

Watson attended St. Mary’s College in Indiana, sister school to Notre Dame, on an ROTC scholarship where she majored in Math. “ROTC was at the center of my college experience,” says Watson, “socially and academically.” She remains in contact with many of her ROTC friends today.

Watson worked at the Pentagon while in college and after joining the U.S. Air Force, she returned to the Pentagon for seven months after graduation to await her first active duty assignment. Watson was sent to Los Angeles Air Force Base to work in a field called Acquisitions. The Air Force satellite control facility, then based in Sunnyvale, California, had to be moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Watson managed the vendors for the construction of the new facility, the move of the control facility, as well as the communications between the new facilities. “It’s not uncommon to be given a lot of responsibility quickly in the military,” says Watson. Five years out of college, Watson was serving in the Aeronautical Systems division and managing $110 million projects, something that would probably never happen in corporate America.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that my passion is about people,” says Watson. “Whatever job you do as a leader, it’s about empowering people and their direction.” She firmly believes in taking care of her people and says she’s boiled it down to two things over the years. “Taking care of people by giving them coaching and feedback so they know what their strengths are and what opportunities are available and removing roadblocks for them.” She adds, “Your focus always has to be on developing people and talent management. The fundamental lesson about leadership is always about people, no matter what job you have or company you’re with.”
As one of the top female leaders with some of the highest level of technical responsibility in the payments industry, Watson is sometimes asked if she feels a responsibility to ‘pass it on’ to her female colleagues. “I’m passionate about diversity and inclusion and absolutely committed to the development of female leaders,” she says. “Along the course of my career, I’ve worked with some amazing women role models that took me under their wing, as well as a lot of men. I’ve truly benefitted from the mentorship of both male and female leaders.”

Her greatest value to females may be as a role model for women in any organization. “I wanted to do it all. Today, I’m happily married with five children and a husband who supports me 110 percent, along with a successful and fulfilling career, so I do think having it all is possible,” she says.

The biggest challenge the payments industry is facing today, is also a big opportunity for TSYS, according to Watson. “It’s all about the customer experience,” she says. “This is what’s driving all the changes in payments. TSYS was built on the fundamental of trusted partnerships. It’s what we call the Customer Covenant--always putting the customer first. And because of our long-standing relationships with the largest financial institutions and retailers around the globe, this puts us in a unique position to continue to provide an exceptional customer experience by delivering the products and services they want.”

The company has also become more flexible in creating and delivering new products. Instead of always building a new product at TSYS, they are looking to establish more relationships with partners and possible joint ventures. “We are happy to have a build versus buy discussion,” Watson stated.

In addition to all of the work underway to modernize technology systems across TSYS, Watson is also continuously working to cultivate and groom others for leadership across her 4,500 person team. “In technology, I have found it best to identify individuals with technical expertise and competence who also have leadership potential,” she says. “I’m a big believer in developing leadership skills.” Over the past few years, Watson, along with the Learning & Development team at TSYS, have put together a curriculum for leadership development, which continues to produce a good pipeline of potential leaders.

Watson’s creative development of talent extends beyond the company. Seeing an opportunity to expose more high schoolers to TSYS and technology, Patty sponsors the TSYS Education Council to introduce high school students to information technology, computer science and software code. She established the program after reading studies that concluded children exposed to computer science at an early age have a higher likelihood of pursuing a career in that field. Since its inception in 2017, the TSYS Education Council has cultivated relationships with 13 local high schools and touched the lives of more than 2,000 students through computer programming instruction, facility tours and job shadowing. Teachers have also benefited from this initiative. Through TSYS’s partnership with PluralSight, local computer science teachers can complete free e-learning sessions to remain certified by the Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators (GACE). Because of the program’s overwhelming success, TSYS is planning to expand into the local communities’ middle schools for the 2018 - 2019 school year.  

As a parent of a 16-year-old son with Down Syndrome, Watson played an integral role in establishing and sponsoring Project SEARCH at TSYS. Now in its third year, Project SEARCH is a transitional, internship program that helps high school graduates with intellectual or developmental disabilities gain real-world work experience and training. The program prepares the graduates for competitive employment after the internship is completed. The objective is to help the interns develop skills that are relevant, diverse and marketable. So far, 13 high school graduates have secured jobs—five are currently employed by TSYS, three by an offsite TSYS vendor and the others at various businesses in and around Columbus. TSYS currently has eight interns enrolled in the program.  

Watson was named one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Payments in 2018 by Payments Source and was also named a finalist for the Georgia CIO of the Year awards in June. Additionally, she was named a 2018 honoree by the Atlanta Business Chronicle for their 5th annual Women Who Business awards.

“We have a unique, people centered culture at TSYS, which extends to our customer relationships,” Watson added, “and while we have a tremendous reskilling effort going on, we are confident we can help our team members make this transition and equip them with the skills needed to grow the company so we can provide innovative products and solutions to our customers now and in the future.”

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