Crypto leadership & talent: Evolution of the control functions – An interview with Circle’s Dante Disparte
Crypto & Digital Assets

Crypto leadership & talent: Evolution of the control functions – An interview with Circle’s Dante Disparte

Dante Disparte, the chief strategy officer and head of global policy for Circle, discusses finding the right balance between financial and regulatory stability and innovation.
Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Google Play

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. In this new series of podcasts, “Crypto leadership & talent: Evolution of the control functions,” Heidrick & Struggles will be sitting down with leaders in crypto and digital assets to explore the current environment, the evolution of control and governance functions in these areas, expectations for the future, and what they have learned from their work in these areas.

In this episode, Heidrick & Struggles’ Julian Ha and David Richardson interview Dante Disparte, chief strategy officer and head of global policy for Circle, a global fintech firm. Disparte shares his insights on the evolution of leaders and control functions in the crypto environment and how organizations and leaders are helping to onboard talents from outside the industry. They also talk about finding the right balance between financial and regulatory stability while allowing innovation in the crypto and digital assets industry, its future, and more.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Julian Ha: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I’m Julian Ha, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office and leader and founder of the Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice and Associations Sector. In a series of podcasts with leaders in crypto and digital assets, we will be exploring the current environment, the evolution of control and governance functions in this industry, expectations for the future, and what leaders in this space have learned from their work in this innovative and disruptive sector.

In today’s podcast, I’m excited to speak with Dante Disparte and my colleague David Richardson. Dante is the chief strategy officer and head of global public policy for Circle, a digital financial services firm building a trusted treasury and payments infrastructure for the internet, including the fast-growing dollar digital currency USDC. Prior to joining Circle, Dante served as a founding executive of the Diem Association, where he led public policy, communications, membership, and social impact. Dante comes to Circle with two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, business leader, and global risk expert.

David is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Financial Services Practice. David works with clients at the intersection of technology and financial markets. He co-leads the global Payments & Lending and Market Infrastructure & Data Services sectors, as well as the Crypto & Digital Assets Sector in the Americas. Thank you very much for joining us. 

Dante Disparte: Thank you, Julian. It’s great to be on with you. 

Julian Ha: Dante, to kick off this conversation, could you walk us through your first exposure to the world of crypto and what drew you to the space?

Dante Disparte: That’s a great question, Julian. As you know, for many people, you do not find digital assets or crypto; crypto finds you. The sector found me in part because it was looking for insurance and risk management help. A lot of the early companies in the space were coming to my firm Risk Cooperative for advice on how to address novel risks, cyber insurance, fiduciary insurance, management liability, and so on. And so that was my first foray into looking at digital assets. 

Julian Ha: David, is this consistent with what you hear when speaking with candidates about roles in crypto? 

David Richardson: Absolutely. I think people come from a whole variety of different spaces and sectors, and for most people, it finds them versus them finding it. Right now, what you’ll find is that for those who are outside the industry today, it resonates most with people who have an engineering, economics, or mathematics background. They typically have the highest level of personal interest. 

Julian Ha: Very interesting. Following up on your comments, can you both discuss some of the dynamics with those coming from outside the industry? For example, Dante, when you hire people from other industries, what advice or development goals do you give them to ensure their adjustment?

Dante Disparte: One thing I would say is, like any novel technology, if you time how long it takes for a novel technology to reach a hundred million people as end users, then the truth with digital assets and crypto broadly is that it’s following that same paradigm of other breakthrough or exponential technologies before it. And today, I think the newer colleagues coming into Circle who have pattern recognition of not only how to explain things to the uninitiated but also how to ensure that despite the novelty of the technology the operations remain within the boundaries of the rules-based financial system is really critical.

In many ways, crypto is a very heavily jargon-ridden industry, but the companies, the people, and therefore the leaders who have done really well understand that kind of relationship map between a payment activity, irrespective of how it is powered and what technology powers it, and the expectations that people have, markets have, and regulators have around good conduct.

That’s been a big advantage for us, and the newer colleagues who come to Circle who have that pattern recognition have been really terrific assets for the business. 

Julian Ha: That’s great. David, same question. Maybe you can touch on what you see organizations and leaders doing to help onboard talent from outside the industry.

David Richardson: I have to echo that, as Dante said, communication skills for our clients are really critical to being successful. I do think it starts with the assessment piece. So before someone is onboarded, making sure you are hiring and appointing the right executives internally. Communication is a massive part of that, of course.

And then also the mission and cultural alignment of a firm, making sure that’s aligned across executives. That becomes increasingly more complicated and nuanced as you start to broaden and move away as the industry unbundles. Dante was talking about executives who have pattern recognition in disassociating a payments activity from the underlying activities, which is a really good point. I think as the industry has begun to unbundle, you have a lot of complexity. Previously, clients were just sort of lumping themselves into this kind of crypto industry, and now what you have is differentiation between payments, custodians, exchanges, and a whole variety of other participants. Each of them has their own culture, and finding executives who understand the nuance and fit the cultural alignment is really important.

It’s easier, as I mentioned earlier, for those who have an engineering or mathematics background to understand and be interested in the underlying technology. As clients look to appoint people with a broader swath of backgrounds in regulation, legal, compliance, and finance, what we’ve found is that often executives who’ve lived or been raised outside of the United States or Europe have a resonance with the mission of crypto broadly. And quite quickly you find people who are philosophically aligned with privacy or economic freedom and open financial systems. That’s actually very important to their success.

And post-onboarding education is absolutely the most critical factor. This is a pretty open-source industry, and so people do need to take it upon themselves to be proactive. The best people are lifelong learners, and they really spend a lot of time after joining an organization in getting up to speed.

And then the final thing that I think has become critical for all industries post-pandemic, but none more so than crypto, is helping employees at all levels understand how to be successful in what is usually a remote-first environment.

Dante Disparte: David brought up a number of points, and I want to give you the lens from a practicing leader in a company. Circle has had exactly this experience, and as a result, we haven’t taken it for granted that lifelong learning is going to be a critical feature for successful colleagues here. And so we have an entire curriculum known as Circle University that takes you through a 101-level to PhD-level body of knowledge on digital assets, financial crime compliance—the whole host of issues that matter. We’ve ensured that everybody who works at the company has this content at their fingertips. And then increasingly, we’ve also taken that curriculum in partnership with a number of universities and started making it available to external parties as well. So if the expression “knowledge is power” really means anything, then we want to ensure that everybody at our firm benefits from the same knowledge base.

Julian Ha: That’s a great idea. Dante, I assume you’re a tenured professor on that faculty. 

Dante Disparte: Not only in the internal one, but I think in the external world as well, as I do quite a lot of lecturing and speaking on these topics. 

Julian Ha: Indeed you do. 

David Richardson: Dante, I love that. And I’m interested in drilling down a little bit into a couple of your comments. You talked a lot about the maturity of the industry, the operational leadership, the formal parts—Circle University and things. How do you go about finding the right balance between financial and regulatory stability but also allowing innovation to thrive? And how do you get that culture correct in the organization?

Dante Disparte: On the one hand, if you think of the sector, crypto broadly is a 15-year-old sector, if the initiation is the Satoshi Nakamoto whitepaper. But in reality, the maturation cycle, I would argue, began in earnest in 2017 and 2018, where you started to see broad institutional adoption. And today, I think a technology changes the world when the technology is no longer a protagonist.

And whenever we’re using crypto short form, we’re really describing cryptography, a pretty old and essential technology stack. When was the last time, for example, you went to an internet conference and discussed hardware and software and routers? The internet is a transformational technology because it has faded to the background.

And companies like Circle have been very well served by focusing on outcomes and the real-world utility value that these technologies are supposed to support, as opposed to glamorizing the technology for technology’s sake. And unfortunately, we’ve learned the hard way. And 2022 was a teachable lesson. I call it crypto’s Dodd-Frank and dot-com moment. It was a teachable lesson in that if the technology is a protagonist, and so much of what companies were making promises to the markets about were sort of false statements on Twitter, then it begs serious questions about operational readiness, about the ability to recruit and attract and retain world-class talent.

And then the last word I would say is that there are no shortcuts. Circle is a 10-year-old firm; USDC, the world’s most trusted digital dollar, is a 5-year-old innovation; and throughout that course, we have not taken shortcuts as a company. And I think that is what people really care about and what the people who underwrite us and do due diligence on us really care about most.

Julian Ha: Let’s turn now to the roles of strategy and policy. Dante, this sector is famously fast moving. How is your leadership role in the function of strategic policy evolved during your time in it? 

Dante Disparte: One, it’s been a fascinating front-row seat. I don’t think of this being a different job for me, coming to Circle from the erstwhile Libra project later rebranded as Diem. In fact, in many ways, it’s the continuation of that global public policy conversation around regulatory harmonization with digital assets, the likely trade-offs between risks and rewards.

And so one advantage that I think is really critical for Circle and for me personally is to continue to maintain personhood. Many of the so-called peer companies and peer institutions in this market are literally hiding behind the internet or hiding behind anonymous accounts on Twitter, and our CEO Jeremy Allaire, myself, and many, many other leaders here at Circle have always tried to establish personhood, in no small measure because, one, it’s the best way to build actual trust. It’s also the best way to educate and advocate.

And so that is an on-demand job at the moment, as we now enter, since 2019, the fifth full year of global conversations, consultations, and hearings about what to do with these innovations as they continue to encroach on traditional rules-based financial services.

And so what the world wants to know is can open financial systems support innovation, inclusion, and protect the integrity of the financial system all at once? And our answer is unequivocally yes. And our company has demonstrated that we can prove that. 

Julian Ha: I’d like to dive deeper into your extensive experience in not only strategy but also governance and risk. Do you think that the governance and management of this space differs from other industries? And how would you say governance and management need to evolve to stabilize the sector? 

Dante Disparte: For one, complex systems fail in complex ways. And in many ways, if you look back at 2022, a year with nearly $2 trillion of economic loss across the crypto sector, much of the failures were not born from the technologies. Quite to the contrary, the technologies made the likelihood of risks much more discoverable. But where the failures emerged, it was in the blend of either poor management, lack of governance at the human level, lack of internal controls, half-hearted commitments to risk management and compliance, and, ultimately, in some instances, outright fraud or ethical lapses and breaches.

Now, any one of those on their own is sufficient enough to harm either the reputation of an industry or the likelihood that that industry would enjoy a more favorable market environment. But it also vindicates companies that have been well run, that respected the existing set of rules, and that were well governed throughout.

And so in Circle’s case—and we don’t take this lightly; we take it with the humility it deserves—ever since the collapse of the stable in name only coin Terra LUNA early last year, USDC as an innovation has been the flight-to-safety asset. And so as a company, even today, with a lot more uncertainty in the digital assets market and in the banking sector, we have seen a resumption of growth of USDC, in part because you can’t buy insurance when your house is on fire. And I think broadly speaking, the markets and the regulators and many others understand Circle to be a very well-run company with strong governance and with a high threshold of leadership and personhood. So that when all else fails, the business and the market know they can rely on us as kind of an anchor of stability in this market segment.

Julian Ha: Picking up on that, David, you meet regularly with CEOs and board members currently in the industry looking to hire talent into their organizations. From what you’re hearing and seeing, are there specific skill sets and capabilities that keep coming up in the search process that reflect the function’s evolution?

David Richardson: Absolutely. And I just want to quickly touch on Dante’s comment around the companies that have been building these control functions for a number of years. I think that was perceived in some parts of the market as a cost or perhaps even a tax on business that people chose to pay, when in some instances they did not need to. It is now really fundamental and critical to the operations of the business.

So the way that has translated into our work is, prior to 2022, a lot of the executive appointments that we made were growth initiatives, such as vice president of engineering, chief technology officer, and general managers to open new markets. And that was pretty consistent across the sector globally.

And what we’ve seen post-2022 is that CEOs, board members, and control functions are at the forefront of their needs. That could be legal, government affairs, risk, compliance, and finance. We’ve also seen a lot of focus on board appointments and founder succession.

And I think it’s also important to point out that these phenomena are true in crypto, but they’re not only true in crypto. This is something that is true across much of the growth markets industries that we’ve seen post-2022. 

Julian Ha: Let’s pivot to stakeholder management. Dante, a few questions for you regarding stakeholders. First, to level set for everyone listening to the podcast, who would you say are your main stakeholders?

Dante Disparte: I think stakeholder mapping and really having a deep understanding of stakeholders is a lost art in some respects. So at Circle, one of our corporate values is to be a multistakeholder company, and we practice it at every level of all the decisions we make. But as a regulated financial services firm, you have to extrapolate that our core product is money and the movement of money onto the internet. And, therefore, that stakeholder map is the end user of USDC, wherever in the world they may be, our direct customers and corporate counterparties, the regulators that establish the third rails in the modern economy and the global financial system, and, obviously, our investors, our staff, and so on.

And so as a company, we really believe in this multistakeholder world. It’s one of the value systems we drive as a company, and it even shows up in our performance appraisal process. We don’t just care about what you do; we care very deeply about how you do it and that you bring people along for the journey.

So then how do you remain a good citizen in such a complex environment? Today, the word crypto, unfortunately, is a bad word. It’s like using asbestos or big tobacco at the peak of their brand problems. But part of that stakeholder mapping is to have sufficient trust across all of those stakeholders to, one, be a trusted resource.

And in many cases, especially with regulators and policymakers, they really do not like surprises. I learned that the hard way with the Libra project, that if you put out a whitepaper and anybody anywhere construed it as a surprise, then you’re going to get summoned everywhere all at once. And so today at Circle, we’ve really operated on the basis of no surprises across the board, and that has been a really powerful asset for us, especially throughout this past year, as there have been so many developments in the market and the industry. The ability to continue operating on that no-surprises basis is a big deal for us.

Julian Ha: I think that’s a great rule, Dante, the no-surprises rule. David, I’m going to continue on this theme. From your perspective, how have these conversations changed and evolved in terms of what you’re seeing organizations looking for in their leaders? 

David Richardson: What’s changed in terms of what our clients are looking for in leaders is about the time horizon, the focus on control functions, and perhaps the focus on integrity, communication skills, and standards.

So on the time horizon piece, in a high-growth market, people are very focused on the here and now. And in a market right now, with regulatory clarity coming down the pipe pretty thick and fast, the focus is on the mid and the long-term. So I think hiring for what you need for 2024 and on is more of a focus than what you need to solve growth opportunities for the next quarter. 

The second point, on the focus on control functions, that is different. I think as organizations have started to elevate the roles of compliance and risk and regulatory and legal in the organization, how they assess that talent, where it reports in the organization, and who gets involved and at what point does differ when we’re running those processes.

And then given everything that’s happened in the past six months to a year, the focus on standards, communication style, integrity, and ethics was always part of our clients’ process, but it’s now a critical focus.

So those are the things that have changed. I mean, what’s stayed the same? What’s consistent is needing executives who have passion and mission alignment within the industry and people who are comfortable with a level of ambiguity, because of the pace of change. And also given that pace of change, people who have intellectual dexterity and curiosity, which goes back to Dante’s point around lifelong learning. 

Dante Disparte: Building on that, I think you really underscored a couple of things. Again, from an operational vantage point, Circle is a fast-growth company, and when I joined the company in April 2021, we had around 200 people, and today we’re closer to 1,000 in 35 states and 12 countries, and we’re growing quite rapidly.

And I do think this often either ignored or overlooked part of corporate governance is corporate value systems, and, in my view and in Circle’s view operationally, a company’s value systems matter most during periods of duress or stress or when it’s inconvenient. And I think we were able to demonstrate last year, and as a general matter throughout the course of this year, and in our operations, a degree of the very successful performers that our business have self-selected. It’s a mission-driven company, but to put those value systems into play when you’re a remote-first firm and also to put them into play when you’re a regulated company, in many cases is not just about the types of internal controls; it’s about the broad skin in the game that everybody in our business has.

And that’s just been a very powerful difference maker through a lot of turbulence and complexity in the industry, with many of our competitors failing for having taken shortcuts on all those issues. That has really produced, I think, a pretty distinct competitive advantage for the company.

I would also underscore that we care very deeply about diversity in all ranks across the business, and that too has been a powerful difference maker for us navigating a lot of the turbulence in the market.

David Richardson: Dante, given the role that Circle plays in the ecosystem, could you speak to how the dialogue has changed with regulators in the past few years and perhaps even past few months? Are there newer questions that the company is facing around governance? 

Dante Disparte: One, I do think the dialogue has evolved. If you think of the advent of cryptocurrencies and digital assets, all too often the dialogue with regulators treated the innovation as if this were fringe finance. And I think what has transpired over the course of the past several years is the likelihood that these innovations are integrated into the core of finance. And then who is permissioned in has been a pretty material shift that crypto has been taken more seriously, and as a result, the companies that could demonstrate corporate structure, what I like to call personhood, have had a seat at the table in helping shape a policy environment that does not shut down this emergence of an internet of value but that sees it ultimately as an extension of the banking system that, if it remains in brick and mortar, has clearly hit a point of diminishing returns.

And so I think that policy conversation is really happening in earnest. What you’re seeing coming, for example, out of the White House with the Biden Administration’s Executive Order on digital assets leadership and promoting responsible innovation in the United States, is a by-product of companies like ours having stayed the course and having shown the art of the possible for what the technologies can do in the real world, while at the same time demonstrating like-for-like levels of responsibility and accountability to peer institutions.

And that’s the crux of all of it. If you’re playing a long-range strategic vision, then there can be no shortcuts in how people trust what you do, and there can be no shortcuts in that you do what you say, and that has really proven to be a powerful advantage. 

Julian Ha: Let’s take a peek into the future and gaze into our crystal balls for a minute. Dante, how do you think this industry and these critical control functions we’ve been discussing will develop? 

Dante Disparte: I think, for one, we will develop, at least from a policy and regulatory vantage point, a set of national rules and standards, which ironically have less to do with crypto and digital assets in the United States and more to do with the fact that the United States, among the advanced economies in the world, is alone in not having a nonbank federal payments systems charter or license regime.

And so from 2019 and the era of the Libra project, fast-forward to today. That up-leveling of national regulatory frameworks is a critical piece of the puzzle, but it has less to do with digital assets and crypto and more to do with how the United States competes globally. So that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The other thing I think is critical is that the technologies start to fade to the background. In the same way that when you send an email to someone, you’re not glamorizing the protocol of the email standard itself, but what you’re really celebrating is fast, trusted communications with directed counterparties, I think the same trend line is holding true in payments today. That is an outcome that is not only a financial necessity for people; it is a progression—more of an evolution than a revolution—in financial services. That isn’t going away. And so I think in the next three to five years, the integration of digital currency–based payments in traditional household-name financial services is absolutely here to stay.

We think Circle, courtesy of all the things we’ve discussed so far, has a critical role to play in that evolution and that it will start to become very normal for you to transact with counterparties, with the simplicity, the trust, and the user direction that you enjoy with your email. I think that metaphor is starting to become true.

Julian Ha: That’s great. Now a little bit of advice time, and we’ll step back into our time machine. Looking back on how much change has taken place, Dante, even in the past year or few months, what advice would you give your younger self or others thinking about entering this space and function? 

Dante Disparte: It’s a good question. My younger self came at this space with a healthy degree of skepticism, in part because I was asked to ensure the industry at that time, and this was in the early part of 2017, at the peak of the initial coin offerings bubble. And I think healthy skepticism is an asset, not a liability. That doesn’t mean you have to doubt what the technology can do, but you have to doubt what the technology can do if you think the technology is going to completely replace, for example, the banking system, or if the technology is going to get a shortcut on critical issues like financial crime compliance.

And so that healthy skepticism that my younger self had, in hindsight, proved to be a really powerful asset throughout the course of my career in this industry, because the companies that have been the most durable and the investments that have had the most staying power and the best returns have been the ones in which crypto assets are presented as evolutionary and not revolutionary, and that the anti-establishment streak might have been a maximizer strategy as opposed to an optimizer strategy.

My view of the world is these things are only meaningful to the extent they’re usable by billions of people, and billions of people should not have a science experiment run with their money or their trust, and I think that’s why you can’t take shortcuts, as we’ve discussed in today’s conversation. 

Julian Ha: As we bring this conversation to a close, I wanted to ask one final question. Looking ahead, what specific leadership skill sets and capabilities do you both think will be most important for leaders in this space to help their organizations meet their strategic goals? David, I’m going start with you on that one. 

David Richardson: We’ve talked for a long time in the industry about how there would be more regulatory clarity in the future, and it looks like, and people have been predicting this for a while, that 2023 and 2024 are going to be, here in the US and across the world, the moment that happens and there’s regulatory clarity, at least in some instances. And I think then, as Dante was talking about, that’s going to create defensive positions. For some industries, it’s going to be a barrier to entry. For other companies, it’s going to mean they’re going to have to shift business models. And for some companies or sectors, it may kill their business altogether. So there’s going to be a lot of change.

I think executives with experience scaling businesses in regulated environments are going to be absolutely critical. In addition to that, executives with legal and operational discipline, cost efficiency, and integrity are absolutely critical to help these organizations navigate through what is inevitably going to be a challenging couple of years. And then, of course, organizations who have people who can align with the culture and move the culture forward as the organization changes. 

Julian Ha: Dante, you have the final word. Take us home with your thoughts. 

Dante Disparte: The final word, especially when David’s were so wise, is going to be a hard place to be. But I think the crux here is that leaders, who at this point are a little bit scarce but nonetheless are out there, who bring to the equation a vision of what a more open system can represent—to the extent the more open system was built on strong foundations, strong first principles, and regulations—are the leaders who will shape what the broad digital assets economy looks like in the future. And that appreciation of no shortcuts and personhood will be enormous difference-makers. I think that’s the crux.

I often say, “Watch what the bankers do, not what they say,” when criticisms are levied against digital assets and cryptocurrencies. In most cases, the loudest critics are also the very best developers and investors in this market segment. And I think therein is an enormous untapped talent pool that very much wants to see an evolution of traditional brick-and-mortar banking and financial services.

The last point I would make is that the public policy leaders themselves often suffer the very dearth of talent that the private sector faces. And where there is a void of rules, people are policy. And so we need more people in more places in the halls of public power as much as we need them in the private sector.

Julian Ha: That’s some great advice to end on. Thank you both for making the time to speak with us today. It’s been a truly fascinating discussion.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewers

Julian Ha ( is a partner in the Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, D.C., office and the global managing partner of the Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice and head of the Association Sector.

David Richardson ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Financial Services Practice. He leads the global Market Infrastructure & Data Services sector and co-leads the Crypto & Data Assets sector in the Americas.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast