Do payments companies demand a different kind of leader?

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As payments industry companies increasingly are characterized by strategic and often brash moves in a fast-changing ecosystem, the stakes have risen for selecting their leaders.

We don't always get reasons for high-visibility departures, and sometimes even their retirements are temporary. But we know that among technology companies, at least, high turnover and burnout also are well-known risks, and leadership can quickly make or break a company.

As in any other industry, basic keys to success for a payments company leader include an ability to orchestrate the right moves and get support from the organization, though deep knowledge of payments many not be necessary, given the increasingly entrepreneurial edge to leading companies, said Philip Andreae, an Atlanta-based independent payments industry consultant who previously was a vice president at Oberthur Technologies and served on the FIDO Alliance board of directors.

“A top leader in this industry doesn’t necessarily need payments experience, but he or she has to be a lot of things—a quick study who knows how to assemble and motivate teams, work easily between banking and startup cultures, spot opportunities and do deals,” he said.

Leaders with experience running payments and financial services companies acknowledge that the pressure on those at the top is intensifying.

"What is new is the speed at which leaders must help their organizations innovate," said Annette Zimmerman, president and CEO at Primeway Federal Credit Union, which operates six branches in Houston.

The challenges for leaders navigating through an explosion of new technology, the consistent demand from retailers for low-cost solutions and the need to deliver seamless services to customers while keeping up with ever-increasing security requirements to prevent hacking and fraud have never been greater, according to Zimmerman.

"While the payments industry may be a daunting environment at times, it can also serve as a catalyst for innovation. We're currently seeing the precursors to (further) disruption in the industry," she said.

Are leadership qualities needed to run a payments company different than requirements for a CEO at a traditional bank operating at a more staid pace? Some experts say no.

“I would argue that the attributes needed for a payments executive—appetite for risk, comfort with the speed of change and ability to negotiate partnerships—are just as important for modern banking as they are for those in the payments industry,” said Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst with Celent.

Other experts point out that payments companies currently are closer to the theater of action, where startups like Square and Stripe have rapidly disrupted legacy providers, and infrastructure gatekeepers—like the card networks and processors—have the power to transform the industry overnight through alliances, mergers and acquisitions.

Indeed, the definition of a modern payments company can be so broad that leadership can come from any number of industries. Some of the biggest success stories today are from coffee companies, theme parks or the head of Twitter, rather than the inner workings of legacy financial institutions.

“Running a payments business is much different than managing a bank,” said Richard Crone, partner with Crone Consulting LLC, who said the payments industry currently is sparking at a rate that could easily burn out many top financial services performers.

A new breed of leaders that has entered the payments industry suggests banking isn’t the preferred training ground for companies challenging established operators. “The new role models for leadership in payments are Dan Schulman, Bill Ready and Kevin Laracey of PayPal,” Crone said.

Schulman rose to prominence after success in the mobile phone industry at Virgin Mobile and Sprint, before moving to American Express and PayPal; Bill Ready and Kevin Laracey founded Braintree and Paydiant, respectively, each of which PayPal acquired.

“Banking experience isn’t necessarily going to help you get to the top, but developing the skill of thinking outside the box might best come from more unstructured, innovative and less regulated experiences,” Crone suggests.

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