How to be agile in your career decisions: Interview with James Sullivan, COO at Ziglu

James Sullivan is the COO and General Counsel at Ziglu, the crypto and payments app. He previously headed up the legal team at Challenger Bank, Monzo during a period of rapid growth and before that has held roles as managing director, the fund Administrator and COO at a real estate management firm.

James has an MBA from Cass Business School, and in addition to the day job, is on the Executive committee of the Disruptive GC Network and a speaker at Cass Business Schools Fintech course.

Read or listen to his fascinating story going from the legal sector to fintech, how to be an authentic leader and the importance of being forward-looking and the ways he keeps this front and centre.

Check out the full interview here or listen on Spotify and Apple:

How have you ended up where you are today? 

I would like to say it was by plans and design, but I think to some extent, it was opportunistic at each stage. In my network, someone was looking for someone to join their fund administration business as a director. I had been looking to go into financial services, so I took a leap of faith and took a role out of law. That was my opportunity not only to move into financial services but also a business role, which I did for four years.

I did an executive MBA as I learned the hard way doing a business role, particularly leading that business, that there were huge gaps in my knowledge base and experience that I wanted to fill. Having done the MBA and having done a pretty good job at the general counsel role, I was then offered the CEO role for Europe and I did that for a couple of years.

It was a natural progression for me to do something more commercial in a business role and just to see the world from a different lens.

I joined Ziglu in November 2020, so it was well into the pandemic. I joined originally as Chief Legal Officer, picked up risk and compliance quite soon after that and then took on the COO role in January 2021. This role has a wide remit; it is Legal, risk & compliance, financial crime, customer operations and corporate affairs.

What is it that you find most appealing about fintech? 

It is a completely different space, and it feels different to anything I have worked in before. People will think they are busy in their roles, but you go into an early-stage business that is scaling up and things move at a pace that you’ve never seen before. If you spot something, you’ve got to jump on it immediately because if you don’t, by next week it will be out the door and done.

Because of the nature of scaleups, they are constantly hiring people. When I was at Monzo in 2019 we were taking on nearly 50 people a week. Every time you put something in place, next week 50 people are completely unaware of that and are shaping the organisation in a completely different way.

The pace of change, the pace of growth and the pace of maturity is fast. Compared to working at an established bank like Barclays, where you are there to iterate upon their infrastructure, in an early-stage business, your role is putting the foundations in place for future success.

How important is self-reflection to you?

I’m someone that self-reflects a lot, and I also think about the future a lot. I think about where I’m heading and where the role I’m in is going to take me. Fintech forces you to be that way.

For someone thinking about future development, my advice is you’ve got to think about not just what job you want to do next, but where that is going to take you. It is very easy to go from step to step without really thinking about it.

For someone that isn’t naturally reflective, at the end of every calendar year, write down the things, personal or work-related, that you learned from that year. Then write down the things you want to achieve in the following year and do that year after year. You’ll then be able to look back and see what you’ve accomplished.

Another way of doing this is to have conversations with someone from outside your inner circle or ask someone that you respect and admire to be a mentor. Few people would say no as it’s not a huge commitment.

How did you deal with the events that happened in March 2019?

I remember that week in March where you could see where things were heading, and it was quite a scary time – no one knew what was ahead of us.

From a business perspective, the great thing about being in fintech is that they are usually set up well for remote working in terms of technology. What people underestimated was the impact it was going to have on people; people have had to work a lot harder and working longer hours with fewer breaks.

It’s easy as a leader and a manager to underappreciate when there are warning signs that some people are finding the situation challenging. At three to six months in, the burnout and stress started to show. As a leader, you must learn how to understand these issues by networking and looking at how others are doing so.

There’s been a more humanising approach to work. The difference between your home persona and your work persona has blended; whether it’s the things you’re wearing, or the fact that people know what your room looks like.

Leaders and managers have realised that people have worked much harder because of working from home. This has created more trust in organisations than there was before, and we need to ensure that we maintain that level of trust.

How do we make sure that business leaders are trained to be aware of the human being inside?

Some people can easily connect in an emotional way. Some are just naturally wired that way, and some people that just aren’t.

For me, authenticity is about how open I’m being about what I believe in, and what my values are, rather than connecting emotionally. Some people are naturally good at being open about who they are and what they stand for, and others find that more challenging.

The expectations now on leaders is much higher in this area. People expect more transparency. Years ago, you’d have internal communications and people would be given a well-crafted message written by the marketing team. People no longer want that, they want to be treated like grown-ups; they want the bad news, not just the good news. Authenticity is about presenting the facts and being transparent about your views on things. This is something I’ve learned, and it certainly didn’t come naturally to me.

How do we make sure we don’t stagnate? 

Try new things, move roles, work in a different sector, and shake it up a bit. Get different experiences, not just at work but in your personal life as well. Don’t get comfortable.

A lot of the roles I’ve done have been very different; I don’t want to walk out of one job and then just walk into the next and feel like I’m just doing the same thing but with a different brand.

When I’m hiring for people, I’m hiring for values and transferable skills. I don’t hire someone because they’ve done the same thing in their previous role. I also admire people that have a ‘side hustle’ and have done something completely different outside their main career that enables them to think differently. People have all different shapes and sizes of opinions and that is diversity.

Is there an area that requires regular attention to make sure it doesn’t hinder your progress? 

I’m a completer-finisher and I don’t like things to drift on. I’ve found it difficult when we’ve presented something, and someone goes “let’s change this” but it means veering in a completely different direction. This is not wrong because you’re testing for how people perceive what you’ve presented, and if one person thinks there’s a different approach, you can be certain that there are more people that think that way. When hiring now, I want to make sure that we’re hiring for the right culture.

What does great leadership look like to you? 

Good leadership is empowering people.

What book could you book that has had a lasting effect on you? 

What got you here won’t get you there by Marshall Goldsmith.

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