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Lessons on Life & Business

Interview with Marc O' Brien, Crypterium CEO and Former CEO of Visa UK

What is the most valuable career advice you can give to people who are just starting out?

Well, I think now it is different from the time when I started work 30 years ago, the world is very much in the global marketplace. Thus, one of the most useful things people can do to develop their careers in an international business is to gain some language skills. Even when we think about starting a business like Crypterium: we have a team in the UK and a team in Moscow. And just like most IT businesses, we are looking to servicing a global customer audience and need to be present in every country in the world. People should start a career with that in mind and to have a global mindset is probably the best thing they can have when entering the workforce.

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

One of the things that are different from several years ago is the transparency of customers and companies that are communicating very directly and honestly in a very public environment. So one of the challenges facing leaders is to always recognize that everything they do can be seen quickly by other customers and other stakeholders. If you launch a product and it’s not good, you get very direct feedback right away from customers that are able to replicate and amplify that feedback in a whole range of different channels like video channels, customer chat channels and etc. And it can kill your business really fast! We at Crypterium recognize the challenge and we take on board customer feedback about how easy it is to use and try to implement better services very quickly. We are very conscious that our product is very much in a public eye and we need to do a great job.

How do you ensure your organization and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?

Those values are partly determined by our mission to build a customer-centric experience so people could spend their crypto with the same ease they spend cash today. We aim to have a global outlook, and we need to have a focus on all of the use cases around the world so this would be an easy to use and convenient service whether you’re based in South Korea, Singapore, San-Francisco or anywhere else. The values that we have to deliver also come from the culture of the people that are centrally involved in the company and I can already detect that our ambition to have a global outlook is fulfilled by everyone in the team.

Where do the great ideas come from in your organization? Do you encourage junior members to be creative and share business ideas with senior management?

My view is that great ideas can come from anywhere. And they can be big ideas about new products, they can be great ideas about how to service a particular country, they might be ideas about the user experience or efficiency of the processes. We at Crypterium have a very flat organization so there are no layers of management that you have to raise ideas up through. People that we have on the team are very vocal about their initiatives and we actually look for that kind of aptitude and we look for people that will give forward their ideas. At the same time, we do recognize that some people may be less confident when giving their ideas so what we do, we organize the team to have scrum sessions every day and we have regular weekly calls with the whole team and we make sure that there is an environment that lets everyone contributes their ideas.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

There’ve been different people, that have given me different impact at different times in my career. One particular manager I had in the past was a guy called Collin Granel and he had been through a lot of personal challenges with two very sick children who unfortunately passed away before they were 24 years old, they suffered from cystic fibrosis. And I was a consultant before and worked for 16 hours a day, travelled to different clients, the culture was really intense. But moving together with a team of people who are very committed but also have other things in their life, challenges in their life made me realize something. The idea that somebody with disabled children would need to sake a day out, take them to the hospital for treatment but then be back online at night – it taught me that there are so many benefits to helping everyone on the team, live with a work-life balance to actually provide better performance for everyone.

Tell me about a time you struggled with work-life balance. How did you solve the problem?

I remember when the work-life balance was the most out of balance: that was when I was working for a global management consulting firm and the expectations of a junior consultant were very high, it was expected that you would travel to a client at anytime the company asks you to, that you would stay away from home, potentially over weekends… It may be ok when you are young and single, but when you have a family it’s really impossible to have some control over your own work-life balance and being in a culture that is all about work and not about life is challenging. I couldn’t see a way of solving the problem while staying in that company, so I moved to another PNL business and the conditions there seemed almost a revelation.

Have you made unpopular decisions like firing employees and reducing compensation levels? What do you do to keep employee motivation enact after such actions?

As a leader, your job is to deliver the best performance for the company and yet achieve the right kind of work-life balance as we just discussed. Inevitably, you can coach employees but sometimes there is a problem with the skills and experience that the person said they had when they were interviewed but when they are on the job it proves they don’t have those skills. Occasionally, you also have colleges that have gross misconduct – stealing, abuse of company materials, so sometimes there are different reasons that eventually get to the point where some employees have to be terminated in their contract and I think when those terminations happen for concrete reasons most of the team already know what those reasons are, they see colleges that don’t invest the right time and energy in delivering their work assignments, they see people who perhaps are not on time or leave early every day… When you actually terminate people that fully deserve to leave the organization, it can actually have a positive impact on a wider team because they can be frustrated that they work so hard and they do their job and a college who sits next to them does not. As to reducing compensation levels, I think there are important considerations if you reduce people in their celery – they may not be able to pay their bills and it can create really stressful situations so typically I try to do it in a way that doesn’t affect people’s monthly income, it’s never a good message.

As leaders do you create work environments that are more competitive or collaborative in nature?

As a leader, my preference is to create collaborative teams rather than competitive teams and, particularly, when we have multiple company offices in different locations I think it could be counterproductive if one office is competitive with another office. We at Crypterium want to build a global service for our customers and I think in order to do that well we need to collaborate across all departments.

How do you get buy in from senior management and board on your business ideas?

I think having a very clear way of lifting ideas through different levels is something that keeps our company moving forward. At a certain level we can implement ideas pretty quickly, I always like to ask for every idea like what’s the wider impact of it, who else needs to be aware, who else needs to be involved. Simple ideas can be done just through a phone call or a video conference or a meeting, while bigger ideas needs to have all the stakeholders involved so that everyone can contribute their position on it.

How to increase employee productivity? Do you invest in their wellbeing?

I think at Crypterium we’ve got some really good ways to keep everyone focused together on delivering all aspects of our service. One of the things that I really recognize as important is the creation of the agile methodology so everybody can feel that they contribute towards delivering a new feature or functionality and it keeps everything moving. 

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