As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Dillahunty.
Brad Dillahunty is Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer (CPO) at Chargebacks911 and sister brand Fi911. He drives the businesses’ global product development and strengthens operational structures, having been appointed at a time of unprecedented growth and opportunity for the businesses. Brad spent the last decade as the VP of Product Development and Innovation within the Cyber and Intelligence Division of Mastercard, directing the company’s chargeback and dispute strategy. In this role, he was responsible for driving product design and enhancement, as well as the strategic vision and implementation of its dispute processing platform. He also served for more than a decade in project management at IBM prior to joining Mastercard. He has been married to his wife Jennifer for 22 years and has two children, Michael and Lillian.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I had a pretty modest middle-American upbringing and for a long time you probably wouldn’t have thought that I’d amount to much. I joined the US Navy when I was eighteen and served in Operation Desert Storm, Desert Shield and Provide Comfort. I was lucky to find somebody who believed in me early on in my life, who pushed me to realize my potential. That led me into technology, and a degree in Information Technology from Maryland University of Saint Louis, and from there I started climbing the professional ladder. One of my earliest roles was at IBM, where over the course of fifteen years I went from tech support to development lead and then on to project management of the company’s mergers and acquisitions.
I had been in various senior roles at Mastercard for the past ten years, most recently the VP the Product Development and Innovation, and I was looking to make a move. It was an easy choice because there’s only one stand out company in this space — Chargebacks911. They’re literally unparalleled, completely unrivalled. In a part of the payments industry that is still behind the times on tech. It’s so rare to see a company driving change for the future with a scalable solution that goes further than managing disputes and can be applied to non-traditional payments.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Very early in my career, back in the days of dial-up internet, I was working on a telephone helpdesk at an agricultural tech company. An older customer was trying to send agricultural data and it was clear that they were not tech-savvy — we were working on the problem for at least 30 minutes when it became clear that there was a younger person in the background so I asked if he had a grandchild. When the customer put his grandson on the call, we were able to get the problem solved in two minutes.
What I learned from this was to know your audience, particularly in the tech and finance businesses that I’ve found myself in. Not everybody has the knowledge to understand the technical elements of payments and chargebacks, but someone will, and finding that person can be the difference between a successful project and a failure.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Make yourself relevant”. That means looking at trends, staying curious about what’s next and not putting yourself into a niche that could disappear tomorrow.
That last part can be difficult — it’s tempting to become an expert in a field instead of a jack of all trades, and we definitely need experts with an obsessive level of knowledge in single areas, but there are opportunities for everyone to see what’s coming on the horizon.
No huge changes in fintech happen overnight, so if you keep one eye on what’s happening next then you can stay up to date with this fast-moving industry.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I’ve buried my head in technical manuals my whole life, and my lessons in leadership have either been taught by a series of amazing mentors or won the hard way on the job. I’m afraid that my non-technical reading (and switch off guilty pleasures when I get the time) is limited to the big YA franchises like Harry Potter!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Chargebacks911 is really the only company moving the chargebacks industry forward, and the rest of the industry, including the major acquirers like Mastercard and Visa, know that.
While other companies are just coming to grips with the fact that chargebacks are a problem that merchants don’t just have to accept as a cost of doing business, that you can prevent chargebacks from happening and win the disputes from the chargebacks that do happen, Chargebacks911 have been creating new technology and solutions, like Fi911, that are taking the industry to the next place. That’s an exciting thing to be part of.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Understand that feedback is always good. Try not to take it personally even if it is personal, and always learn from it.
It’s rare that you’ll ever receive feedback, even a complete dressing-down from senior management, that you can’t extract some kind of learning from. Acknowledge your mistakes and own the fact that you don’t know everything, even when you reach the C-suite.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I’ve been in front of senior management since my early twenties, so I’ve seen them at their best and worst during times when business and social attitudes have changed dramatically. I can’t share specifics but there were times when I might have been told to keep my mouth shut when I should have been standing up for myself, and thankfully that’s something that I’ve learned is completely counter-productive and something which the new, thankfully more diverse batch of twenty-somethings starting out in the corporate world are encouraged to do.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Firstly, you are expected to be confident when you’re at a senior level, but that confidence can come off as arrogance if you don’t moderate it.
Secondly, returning to a previous point, you need to know your audience and remember that ‘audience’ isn’t just the people you speak to at a keynote address but anyone you communicate with in any way, whether that’s email, the technical documentation that comes with a product or your company logo.
Finally, if you don’t wake up in the morning with a smile on your face then you need to reevaluate what you are doing. I’ve loved every job I’ve had, but after a while doing anything that smile can start to fade, and when it does that’s a sign that you need to do something to stay relevant and find the next exciting thing happening in your industry.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Beyond the day to day, you are ‘visible’ to everyone across the company and to the wider industry — all eyes are on you all of the time. For this reason, you have to be a role model for everyone in the company and a paragon of your company’s values when you are representing them.
You also have to synthesize huge amounts of information very quickly and make decisions that could affect your entire company. One bad decision could put all of the people who look up to you out of a job, so you are under incredible pressure to make smart, thoughtful decisions and take ownership of the results.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth across all industries is that people at the C-suite level are doing meetings, playing golf with clients and rubber-stamping the real work that gets done by the people below them. While there is plenty of time spent in meetings, you are multitasking in many different areas, many of them highly technical. You genuinely need to understand enough to make informed decisions, and that means of a lot of studying and a lot of keeping up to date with the industry you are in.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
From my experience, some new entrants into the C-suite want to make major changes right away to make their mark and ‘shake things up’. You even see executives fire people when they’re promoted just to put the fear of God into other employees.
My approach is to listen, gather feedback and try to understand the new environment that you are working in. Even in a fast-moving industry, the big, institutional changes that will make an executive’s name do take time. You also need to understand the people around you, at all levels, which again returns to understanding your audience and how to communicate with them in a way that works.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
It’s also not a nine to five job. We have to be available 24/7 and our vacations are never really vacations — that’s a necessity when you’re building the kind of one-to-one relationships with clients and doing everything you can to retain them. If you’re the point of contact for a major company then they won’t accept an out-of-office email in reply to a request for help, especially in an industry as critical as chargebacks.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Early in my career somebody told me that I had the potential to be where I am now. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it could happen, but they were right. Not only did I have great mentors, I had a partner in my wife who encouraged me to push myself — like getting a college degree. So right there are two vital parts of the success I’ve had — having a mentor who truly believed in me and a personal support network that pushed me to succeed.
Thirdly, and following on from that, is finding mentors who are diverse in terms of background, knowledge and outlook. All of us internalize assumptions about the world, and while some of those assumptions may be helpful short-cuts many are just flat out not true and can damage a company when it’s trying to work in a complex world. Having people who can challenge your views is going to strengthen your thinking and decision-making skills.
From there, it is important to create diversity in your company — even ignoring the obvious moral arguments in favor of having a workforce based on merit instead of stereotypes, there is a proven business case for having a diverse workforce.
Lastly, be prepared for an incredible workload — as I’ve said above, it’s a 24/7 job that is much more intense than being in meetings all day. If you don’t love what you do and have difficulty balancing your work and private life then it isn’t for you.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
You need to listen, and the further up the ladder you get the more you need to listen and the more people you need to listen to. All the diversity and all of the technical skill in the world isn’t going to do much good if the C-suite is siloed off from the people on the ground. Anyone can have a good idea, so you need to have lines of communication open from anywhere in your company, because you never know when somebody in an entry-level role might spot a business opportunity that could redefine your entire organization.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m already a director at Santa’s Helpers in St Louis, even though I’m based in Florida now. It’s an organization that helps under-resourced and seriously ill children to have a great holiday season by simply giving them gifts. We currently help 3,500 children a year, and I’d like to expand that nation and maybe worldwide. You’d be surprised about how many problems could be solved by showing people that they’re cared about.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Social media isn’t for me — my brother is a famous influencer in his field, and he got the social media genes in the family. I have a LinkedIn page, but otherwise, if you want to follow what I’m doing then follow Chargebacks911 — we’ll be leading the conversation around chargebacks and creating some incredible new products, so watch this space.