Banking Beyond Borders: Three Important Lessons Learnt From My Internship With Banco Santander

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

March 2020 will be forever blurred in my memory. In a mere matter of days, I went from working 10-hour shifts at the majestic headquarters of the largest bank in Spain, to unexplainably sitting lost for words on my bed at home. Until now, I haven't really allowed myself the time to reflect on my incredible experience at Banco Santander in Madrid, or the way in which it was brought to a halt so abruptly due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and a global lockdown. Therefore, in this article, I'd like to discuss some of the most important lessons that I learnt from the experience, and why I feel that it is vital for students to actively step outside of their comfort zone.

In truth, I could spend hour upon hour writing about each tiny detail of my wider experience abroad, right down from my first football match at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, to my first night at Madrid's iconic seven-storey nightclub, Kapital. However, without intending to bore you or detract from the supposed focus of this article, I will stick as close as possible to talking about my internship. So, let's set the scene...

I arrived in Madrid in September last year, looking forward to experiencing life in the Spanish capital, but not knowing what to expect. As part of my university degree (History and Spanish), I was offered the opportunity to spend a year in a Spanish-speaking country, and knew that, with my heart set on working in a bank, as opposed to studying (the alternative option), Madrid offered the best prospects. I was extremely fortunate in my internship hunt, and, after getting in touch with the Global Head of Client Due Diligence at Banco Santander, Conny Ploth, via LinkedIn, managed to secure an interview with her. Conny was fantastic with me throughout the whole process and I can't adequately express how grateful I am for her help along the way! There were a couple of complications in the process, as Banco Santander's policy does not normally permit interns from outside of Spain. However, Conny could see how driven and determined I was to work with her team, and managed to find a solution. The ordeal of attempting to find an internship, as well as my time in Spain itself, taught me a very important lesson - the power of networking.

#1 Network, Network, Network

I'm not a schmoozer. I'm not the kind of person who can stroll into a networking event and find themselves chatting to the CEO after five minutes. However, from the moment I reached out to Conny, I knew how important it would be to create connections with people on my journey. I was lucky to work in a young, dynamic team, but, at every opportunity, I would try my best to engage in conversation with employees in other teams and divisions. It's extremely challenging moving to a new country and working in an office where you're not a native speaker of the local language. Nevertheless, networking proved to be a great way of support. On days where work was tough, having a familiar face come to my desk to ask how I was adapting to life in Spain, or if they could be of any help, turned out to be a great comfort.

Likewise, and arguably, more importantly, it allowed me to learn more about other lines of work - about the functions of other teams at Santander, and how my work was intertwined with theirs. They gave me their top insider tips on how to navigate working life at Santander and how to enjoy culturally-rich life in the city of Madrid. And finally, building connections at Banco Santander will surely help me in the future, if I ever decide to return to work in Spain, or at another branch of the bank elsewhere. These people mentored me, wrote references for me, helped me with my Spanish, and made my adjustment period to Spanish working life much easier. For all of these reasons, I am completely indebted to them.

#2 Work-Life Balance

Forget the siesta! 10-hour working days are commonplace in Spain. Funnily enough, before I arrived in the capital, I hadn't clarified my working hours, and the culture shock was, well, shocking! From my city-centre apartment, it took approximately one hour to get to Santander's vast campus (so vast in fact that it's called La Ciudad Financiera del Santander - Santander Financial City), and so I would leave my apartment before 8am and wouldn't return home until after 8pm.

Rather quickly, I began to notice the effects it was having on me - on my mood, my energy, and my outlook. I was sharing a flat with eleven other students (yes, you read that correctly), and while they were getting ready most evenings to go to a bar or to a club, I'd be making dinner then getting ready for bed. It was extremely difficult. Don't get me wrong, I was still having fun and enjoying life, but I was in a position where I had no time for socialising with people my age, no time to relax and debrief after a busy day at work, and certainly no time to be doing the things I wanted to be doing - going to bars, doing an evening workout at the local gym with flatmates, or going to watch Real Madrid with the locals. I found myself going to bed each evening in the early stages of my internship with my mind racing, full of pent-up energy that I was unable to release.

So, I made a change. After previously being told that the fitness centre at work was only accessible to full-time employees, I managed to get a membership. I sacrificed two-hour lunch-times to go to the gym and have a great workout. An equally big change that I made was to my diet. Instead of making a meal fresh each evening after work, I dedicated a large portion of my Sundays to meal prepping, which allowed me vital relaxation and social time on weeknights. No longer did I find that I was burning out at work at 5pm, that I was unable to sleep due to my mind whirring with work-related thoughts, or that I was missing out on fun evenings with friends or foregoing my regular workout schedule.

The change in lifestyle that I made was so important in allowing me to enjoy my time in Madrid, and consequently, I truly believe that the importance of a healthy work-life balance cannot and must not be understated or downplayed. For any young professionals and students entering the job world, make sure that you make time to do the things you love, because work should always be balanced by a healthy wider lifestyle.

#3 Crush Your Comfort Zone

Don't just step outside of your comfort zone - crush it! I'm not the loudest person in the room, but I know the importance of networking. I'm not a daredevil risk-taker or thrill-seeker, but I understand the benefits of constantly challenging myself. The point that I'm trying to make is, even in the face of resistance, adversity, or other obstacles, it is so important to do things that can widen your senses, challenge you to improve, and encourage you to adapt to new circumstances.

Before I arrived in Spain, my Spanish was decent, but by no means to a professional working standard. Similarly, I knew very, very little about Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing - the work that I'd be doing at Santander. I'd never lived outside of the UK for more than two months before, and certainly had not shared an apartment for a prolonged period of time with eleven other students from around the world.

But, all of these things were undoubtedly a positive contribution to my overall experience in Madrid. Being thrust into an office as the only English-speaker was a challenge, but my initial sentences of broken Spanish eventually developed into flowing opinions on the financial world, fluent translations of restaurant menus (much to my parents' gratitude), and hotly-contested debates in my apartment over who had the best Spanish accent. Similarly, while a novice in October, I left Santander's offices in March knowing more than I could have ever imagined about the intricacies of Anti-Money Laundering and every last detail involved in conducting due diligence on clients.

The argument that I'm trying to make is as follows: your potential is limited by your mindset. If you change your mindset, you can unlock that potential (a bit cliché, I know). Working abroad was definitely one of the best decisions I've made so far in my short career. Learning a new language is a difficult skill to develop, but once mastered, it serves as a highly employable trait. Adapting to a new country, climate, and culture is also challenging, but adaptability is another trait that employers and recruiters are increasingly looking for in potential candidates. My only previous financial work experience had come in the wealth and investment management industry, and so Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing were foreign to me. However, it gave me a much wider understanding of banking operations and significantly heightened my analytical skills. Therefore, even if it's not necessarily the exact division that you're planning to spend your career working in, give different things a try, because only through experience are you able to discern what you enjoy/don't enjoy doing. Furthermore, if you're presented with the opportunity to work abroad in your career, consider it, because it could turn out to be one of the best experiences of your life.

In conclusion, I hope that this reflective piece will be as useful to many of you as it has been for me. It has allowed me to reflect on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as share some of the most important lessons that I learnt from my time with Banco Santander in Madrid. Working abroad has made me more mature, more open to new experiences, and more of an independent and adaptable worker, and I hope that this will help me in my future career.

If you have any tips or lessons from work experiences that you want to share, either get in contact with me via LinkedIn here about writing a blog for The Student Investor, or share them in the comments below.