Engineer and C-suite professional Lavinia Morris is chief operations officer (COO) and a member of the executive committee at KBC Bank Ireland with day-to-day responsibility for technology, operations, strategic change and innovation.

Previously, she held the role of senior vice-president of information and technology at SMBC Aviation Capital.

Lavinia Morris, chief operations officer, KBC Bank Ireland

Driven by her background in engineering, Morris is focused on marrying the power of technology with innovative business strategies and customer-centred design. As a C-Suite leader, her goals include driving innovation, developing untapped talent and encouraging young people (especially young girls) into STEM careers.

In addition to her primary job, Lavinia is actively involved in advancing the technology industry in Ireland. She is a member of the Technology Ireland ICT SkillNet Innovation Forum Expert Group and former chair of the Cloud Computing Working Group of the Irish Internet Association.

When did you first become interested in engineering?

From a very young age, I always had a love of maths and science. This was all thanks to the encouragement of my dad, Michael. He was a lab scientist and regularly brought home Bunsen burners and pipettes for us to experiment with.

My brother, three sisters and me (all of whom went into STEM related careers, and two of us are engineers!) felt like anything was possible: and this was because our dad taught us to believe that you can be anything you want to be. I wanted to be an engineer, and so thanks to that strong encouragement from him, that was the path I took.

Who were the mentors who helped you on your way? 

From as long as I can remember, my father was always a mentor to me. He always encouraged me, and my brother and sisters, to be anything we wanted to be. He did this by dispelling any biases associated with careers in STEM and encouraged every opportunity to pursue studies we were interested in.

As I progressed through my career, I have worked for some amazing leaders who helped shape my career. They did this by believing in me, giving me opportunities to help me grow, and most importantly – encouraging me to believe in myself, something that is so important for everybodye. And, of course, through it all, I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of my husband, Gareth.

What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now? 

There is so much happening, it’s hard to land on one single trend. I spend much of my time these days on digital and technology, so I have a quick snapshot on these trends below:

  1. Artificial intelligence is where the money is – the power to automate and create new levels of insights in lightning time is surely top of the list as the most important thread.
  2. Lots of people ask me about blockchain because I’m in banking, but I’m much more interested in the underlying power of distributed ledgers and particularly smart contracts – automating contractual exchanges will be so important for both individuals and business in the future.
  3. As developments in IoT and 5G++ come on stream in a significant and exciting way, this will demand computing capacity that we don’t have just yet. As we make this leap forward, quantum and edge computing are themes that will become more and more critical
  4. And finally, one that’s gone quiet for a while is the area of virtual and augmented reality – I think the world got a little stuck on how to apply it commercially, but the application of this could be transformational for education, customer servicing and operations as well as medicine and entertainment.

Is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession? 

Ever since my very first days as an engineer, I feel so hugely passionate about improving gender balance in this profession.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an appreciation of the breadth of opportunity a career in engineering can offer. There is an onus on all of us to get the message out there, that this is a very interesting and rewarding path to take for everybody – not just those who are brain boxes at maths or coding!

As early as possible in a young girl’s education, there must be an understanding created of the positive and exciting world of engineering, and the wonderful opportunities that it can provide as a career path. I have a young daughter and I take every opportunity to make her aware of STEM even in everyday things, for example: building Lego is like engineering, making bubbles with washing-up liquid is a chemical experiment – basically making STEM activities fun and something anybody can do, just like my dad did for me.

We all have daughters, nieces, cousins, friends with children of school going age – and the one measure that we can introduce to improve gender balance within the profession is by sharing our engineering story with them, so they hopefully can feel encouraged and motivated to consider it as a career path. 

How important is communication to engineers?  

Communication is just so important in every profession – a complete non-negotiable.

Dispelling some of the myths, highlighting the many great engineering feats that have changed the shape of how we live our lives (let’s take the internet, for example!) is very important to encourage more young people into the profession.

What is so special about engineering is that we have the opportunity to shape and influence the future. From aviation to banking, sharing how engineers are core to shaping how we live our lives across the various sectors we work across is something that is so important to communicate more about to society.   

Who is your engineer hero?  

For me it has to be Wilbur and Orville Wright (I know that’s two!) for their perseverance and tenacity in the creation of the first aircraft, which has undoubtedly changed the world in which we live today.

I also greatly admire Amelia Earhart; although she’s not technically an engineer, I think her determination and contribution to the world of aviation is a true inspiration.

Is there any one engineer you wish was better known?

Leonardo da Vinci. While he is well known as an artist, he was also well ahead of his time when it came to engineering. Many of his concepts weren’t feasible to mobilise at the time due to the limits of engineering in that era – but he was a true visionary.

What are your favourite engineering feats? 

I would look to aviation as a first port of call: if you consider what has been achieved in the past 100 years and how this has changed how we live our lives, it’s just remarkable. From the initial efforts of the Wright brothers to Concorde to the new generation of aircraft coming on stream today.

Like all feats of engineering, it continues to evolve: embracing the world of digital to deliver some of the most sophisticated pieces of technology you can find with the new-generation aircraft.

And, of course, there’s the significant advances that have been made in telecommunications infrastructure. This has enabled a whole new digital economy and in effect reshaped how we communicate and, indeed, live our lives. This became centre stage when we were all staying at home during the pandemic.

In a nutshell, how can you not be impressed with what engineers have achieved and the impact engineering has on the world we live in?

What book is on your bedside table? 

Zero to One by Peter Thiel.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession? 

It is a very exciting time to be involved in engineering. Just look around you and you can see that engineering and technology is the future. As engineers, we have the opportunity to shape and influence the future. So be sure to recognise the breadth of this wonderful profession and don’t become too siloed too early. There is a huge world of opportunity out there for those looking to make a real difference to society.

If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become?  

I would have become a pharmacist, and in fact that’s what I had on my CAO form until my uncle encouraged me to opt for a broader career in engineering. While I think I would have enjoyed a career as a pharmacist, I am delighted with my choice as an engineer. From my first job at ESB to now being COO at KBC, it is that change of thinking that created the completely diverse and exciting range of opportunities that I have experienced through my career so far.

What is a typical day for you? 

I’m an early riser as I find the morning the best time for thinking, so I like to do my thought process work before the house wakes up! 

Most mornings I drop my daughter to school and then typically into the office where my day can comprise of a mix of meetings, workshops, huddles on a range of topics.

As the COO of a bank, no two days are the same. I work with everything from deciding the latest digital innovation to launch, to negotiating large transactions, to resolving an issue on a major programme. I try (not always possible everyday!) to fit in some gym work or yoga at the end of the day and make it home for a bedtime story or some Lego building with my daughter. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

Always be true to yourself and always believe in yourself. If you can do this, you’ll be happy in your career and life.

What do you do to relax? 

I enjoy exercising and I think that’s very important to help relax – so I would be a regular gym goer. My favourite exercise is spinning, because it helps me burn off any negative energy from the day.

I love music, and I’ve recently returned to the piano again after many years.

In order to perform to the best of your ability, it is so important to switch off when you get home, so I try to make building Lego with my daughter or kicking a football a way of keeping balance in my life – a balance scale isn’t just for the lab!