interview by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Nelly Tomova

The Head of HR at Digital Technology Center Commerzbank on how to build a team that transforms banking experience

Iliyana Tarnina DTC Commerzbank Sofia

Increased digitalisation, customised approach, improved data security: banking, which has been a part of civilisation for centuries, is transforming before our own eyes. And a team in Bulgaria has a significant role to play in this change. This is the digital technology division of Commerzbank, the second largest bank in Germany that specialises in financial services to small, mid-size and corporate clients and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020.

In June 2020, a challenging year by all means, Commerzbank opened its Digital Technology Center in Sofia. Its teams' main focus is on digitalisation of internal business processes and the end goal is to combine the reliability of a traditional bank with new services that meet the expectations of clients in our digital age.

A woman was put in charge of one of the most important areas in the new centre – HR management. Iliyana Tarnina has been the Head of HR at Digital Technology Center Commerzbank Sofia since its opening and she did an astonishing job. In just a year, at the climax of the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the HR team, she gave a successful start of this new structure in Bulgaria by hiring 150 IT professionals and setting the grounds of an attractive working environment and culture.

This success is due to neither luck, nor coincidence. Iliyana Tarnina has over 20 years of experience in HR management and development in large international companies. She has specialised in helping international companies, like Paysafe Bulgaria and GVC Group/Partygaming Plc, to start a business in this country and realize their full potential here. Often, her role and the scope of her activity went beyond Bulgaria's borders and affected key functions in the companies where she worked. In Microsoft she was responsible for projects in over 20 countries, and in Paysafe, she was the Vice-President of Operations and managed a team of over 300 people in 3 countries. As a recognition to her achievements, in 2016 Business Lady magazine gave her its Human Capital Investor award. Iliyana Tarnina has a number of specialisations in HR management and development, including at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK.

What were the main factors that convinced Commerzbank to invest in Bulgaria?

The opening of Commerzbank's Bulgarian office was a part of its long-term strategy for digitalisation and transformation of its bank operations all over the world. When choosing a location for its technology centres, Commerzbank performs in-depth due diligence. Bulgaria is among Europe's leading technological locations and successfully combines highly qualified IT professionals, traditions in specialised education and favourable business environment. Bulgaria was the most logical choice for Commerzbank after it opened its digital technological centres in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Iliyana Tarnina

What is the task of the Bulgarian branch of Digital Technology Center Commerzbank Sofia?

The main task of our Bulgarian team is to develop and manage applications that will allow full digitalisation of business processes in the bank at a global level. Our team is focused on modern IT solutions, tools and flexible work methods that will improve the existing systems and will create new applications. This will help Commerzbank offer its clients faster and more personalised services while processing large masses of information more effectively and at optimised cost, and guaranteeing information security. Our team's job has a high degree of responsibility: the result of their work will improve the banking experience for millions of individual and corporate clients worldwide.

How did DTC Commerzbank Sofia develop in a year?

Digital Technology Centre Commerzbank Sofia opened in June 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This very fact was a challenge as people in such circumstances prefer to feel safe and changing your job always has its risks. Another challenge, that we still experience, was to give the right focus of our main purpose locally. Commerzbank does not operate as a bank in Bulgaria. We are a digital technology centre and we hire IT professionals.

Besides this, when we started, Commerzbank was completely unknown on the Bulgarian market, although it has 150 years of history and is the second largest bank in Germany. We started with a small office and a small team. I remember this moment very clearly, as I am Commerzbank's first local employee.

Despite the challenges, our team grew quickly. Our inner motivation, the professionalism of my colleagues engaged in the employee selection process, the support of our management in Germany and our Bulgarian teams' unity all helped us to achieve this. Today we can proudly say that in a year we hired 150 professionals. We have a modern office space of over 3,500 sq.m right by Business Park Sofia. I hope that soon we will see more people visiting it.

How do you manage to be a successful and employer of choice in a crisis year?

On the one hand, we are backed by an organisation with years of history, which gives us security. On the other hand, we have the advantage and freedom to create a new team from scratch in a way that fits best Bulgarian culture, values and market. Many of our current colleagues were looking exactly for this – how to contribute with their experience for building such an environment.

What makes DTC Commerzbank Sofia an attractive place for foreign professionals, too?

Indeed, we managed to attract talents from other countries such as Italy, Turkey, Moldova, North Macedonia, Cuba. Many factors helped for this. During talent selection, our leading motive is choosing professionals capable to fit in our teams and corporate environment. An important factor in our culture is being open to diverse talents and offering equal opportunities for personal and professional development. In the challenging times we all live in, workplace reliability is another attractive factor for prospective candidates. We are proud that besides international professionals we also attracted a significant number of Bulgarian expats who returned to Bulgaria to work with us.

How do you see DTC Commerzbank in the near future?

In the next couple of years we are going to focus on two directions. First, to retain the people who already work with us by establishing different practices on rewards and recognition, professional development, social benefits and overall by providing an environment where people feel supported, valued and able to explore their talent.

We will also establish a long-term focus on expanding our Bulgarian branch. Currently, we have over 190 open positions. This is an opportunity for professionals such as Software Engineers, Application Operation Engineers and Test Engineers, and also business oriented ones such as Business Analysts, Product Owners, Scrum Masters and others. We seek skills in both popular technologies such as Java and React, and rarer ones such as webMethods, ABAP and Murex. We are also building a large team for developing and maintaining technologies used at the workplace, such as application packaging, endpoint management and Microsoft products (Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Teams and others).

Which of your personal and professional qualities help you manage the HR department of Commerzbank Sofia? What should a manager be to be successful in such a position?

Building a united and successful team is a hard task, especially in these challenging times. The first step is selection. I have the honour to be surrounded by excellent professionals and "trust" is the keyword in our relationship. I have trust in their competencies, but at the same time I am always there, when they need a helping hand. This gives them the confidence and freedom needed to make decisions and to unleash their potential. I strongly encourage achieving a work-life balance. When it is missing, people are just unable to be effective in their work and happy in their personal life. To be a successful manager at a position like mine, you need to be simultaneously a good communicator, a mentor, a mediator, a solution-solver and a path-finder. Nowadays, another key competency has become the flexibility and ability to react to the changing environment in a way that fits best both – the organisation and the people who work in it.

How did you manage to build an effective team in distant work conditions? How in the current environment is it possible to build corporate culture and onboard new employees?

This was and remains one of the greatest challenges before us. We started creating the centre while the Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing and was still not clear how it would unfold. We realized that more than ever the changed environment put the employee as a person before his/her results. This is why our most important step was to attract key managers with the needed skills and qualities who would build their own teams. From then on, even while working from home, the discipline to have an individual approach to each employee, to have informal and regular conversations, clear expectations and both professional and personal support proved crucial for us as a team. We backed our professionals, because only when they feel supported, they are able to provide the results expected from them.


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