CEO insights: How leadership characteristics learned from previous roles and experiences help you succeed as CEO
Crypto & Digital Assets

CEO insights: How leadership characteristics learned from previous roles and experiences help you succeed as CEO

Anton Katz, cofounder and CEO of Talos, a leading institutional technology provider, discusses the leadership characteristics that have helped him as CEO and the importance of diverse talent and inclusive teams.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ David Richardson speaks with Anton Katz, CEO and cofounder of Talos, a leading institutional technology provider, about the leadership characteristics he has gained throughout his career that have helped him succeed as a CEO, as well as the similarities and differences in the leadership skills needed in small versus large organizations. Katz also shares how he built his team at Talos, how he thinks about diversity in terms of both identity and experience, and the important ways his organization is building on the lessons of 2020.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (2:20) What are the characteristics that you learned through your career that you bring to bear as CEO and that help you succeed?
  • (6:25) Are there similarities and differences in the leadership skills that you deploy in a smaller versus a large organization?
  • (8:43) How have you gone about building the team at Talos, and what are the skill sets and leadership capabilities that you’re looking for when you hire?
  • (10:59) How do you think about diversity in terms of gender and race and ethnicity, but also in terms of diversity of experience and approaches to leadership?
  • (16:00) What are the important ways that your organization is building on the lessons of the past year?

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.

David Richardson: Hi, I’m David Richardson, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles and a member of the Financial Services Practice, where I work with clients at the intersection of technology and financial services. In today’s podcast, I’m talking with Anton Katz, cofounder and CEO of Talos, a leading institutional technology provider. Anton, how are you doing?

Anton Katz: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

David Richardson: It’s a pleasure. I’ll start by saying congratulations. You just closed a series A funding round, led by Andreessen A16z. Congratulations to you and the team.

Anton Katz: Thank you very much. We’re naturally very excited about the round, excited about the new partnerships that we’ve added, such as Andreessen Horowitz, Fidelity, PayPal, Galaxy, and a few others—really top-notch institutions. They’re doing quite a lot of exciting work in our sector, so we’re very excited about it.

David Richardson: Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about the ecosystem that Talos operates in. Could you give us an overview and some background on the business itself?

Anton Katz: Talos is a bilateral trading platform. What that means is we provide institutions such as banks, hedge funds, broker-dealers, prime brokers, and the like the ability to interact with the underlying asset class, which is crypto digital assets. So we provide the technology that allows these large institutions to trade digital assets, whether on their behalf or on behalf of their customers. We power quite a lot of that execution at this point in the market. And one way to think about it is that Talos is effectively providing an umbrella of services that supports the end-to-end trade life cycle for institutions, to make it almost familiar for them to interact with digital assets.

David Richardson: So this is really an interesting culmination of many of the things that you have done in your earlier career. And for those who are not familiar, prior to cofounding Talos and operating as the CEO, Anton served as the head of trading technology at a major hedge fund, AQR Capital Management. Prior to that, he worked at a well-known fintech in New York, Broadway Technology. So he has a varied background. I’m interested, Anton, in your career, starting out in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), coming to the United States to study computer science, and then serving in a variety of fintech and hedge fund roles. What are the characteristics that you learned through your career that you bring to bear as CEO and that help you succeed?

Anton Katz: It’s a good question, and I’d like to think that I picked up quite a few things along the way. There are a couple common themes throughout the different experiences. I’m very fortunate to have a very strong network of support around me, from my family that’s been very supportive every time I picked a direction that they didn’t necessarily understand fully, to people like my coaches when I was a professional athlete, to mentors, and, of course, the team that Ethan [cofounder of Talos] and I put together at Talos around us is phenomenal. So I think one of the key things is really that creation of that strong network of support.

Then I would say maybe persistence and some degree of confidence. And it’s a weird thing to say because I know I’m not saying that with confidence, but trust me, it’s there. I think that over time I learned to trust that I and those around me can deal with the unknown pretty well—from an equipment malfunction when you’re in the middle of a competition or even a pandemic that requires you to adapt and change but continue to move forward. So I think the thing that helped quite a lot is being able to trust myself and others that, no matter what, we can deal with it, we can make it happen, and we will keep working toward our goal. So I think those are some of the properties that helped me along my path.

David Richardson: What have you learned from these various roles that has helped you be a CEO?

Anton Katz: Honestly, I think I’ve learned quite a lot. I think that every professional athlete will tell you that, ultimately, when you’re in competition, 90% of it is mental. My sport was sports shooting, and it was definitely no different. It’s not like a John Wick movie; it’s a sport that’s very calculated and very precise and somewhat slow and maybe even meditative to an extent. So things like positive thinking, controlling your emotions and your reaction, and maintaining focus are really important. And in a leadership position, you usually tend to deal with quite a lot of different topics that arise; you tend to put out quite a lot of fires. So taking a balanced approach, being able to step back and get yourself into the right mindset to resolve an issue, those kind of abilities are crucial.

And then in my military career or my professional career in technology, you tend to learn quite a lot about people. Your teammates, your employees, your clients—everybody has different motivations, different goals, different circumstances. So you always need to be mindful and understand when you should act as a bridge or when you should provide feedback—and provide it in a way that is tailored to that particular individual in order to be effective. So there are quite a lot of things that you pick up along the way.

David Richardson: And as you’ve worked in both large and small organizations throughout your career, are there similarities and differences in the leadership skills that you deploy in a smaller versus a large organization? And I’m also interested in learning if there’s something different about the world of digital assets that requires a different type of leadership.

Anton Katz: It’s a great question. I think, in terms of the team, no matter how big the team is or whether it’s part of a larger organization or a small company, there are some things that are very similar. And, generally speaking, people still remain people, and your team remains your priority. So whether you’re in a small company or a large company, you still need to think about things like the career growth of the individuals, the individuals’ circumstances. And the way we approach recruiting is also not very different. We think about recruiting as the most important thing that we do as leaders of organizations, so putting together that team is very important.

But at the same time, at small organizations, as a CEO or in any other leadership position, you’ve got to be very comfortable taking on any role. So today you could be negotiating a major deal, tomorrow you could be playing the role of head of HR, and maybe the next day you’re literally assembling furniture. You basically do whatever it takes to make the team successful, so the breadth of your skill set and your influence is much wider in a small organization.

And, talking about recruiting specifically, in a small team, you basically have zero room for error in terms of your early hires. You have to be hyper-focused on hiring the best players, the A-players to bring onto your core team, because doing that later is nearly impossible. In a large organization, you have a little bit more leeway, but in the core team that you’re establishing for small company, it’s an absolute necessity.

David Richardson: How have you gone about building the team at Talos, and what are the skill sets and leadership capabilities that you’re looking for when you hire?

Anton Katz: It really depends. We have quite a few roles, as the company has been growing pretty substantially over the past year and a half. And so given our position in the market and the kind of clients that we’re working with, we have quite a few different verticals that we’re hiring into. But I would say that the common thread is that we’re looking for a specific set of skills and a specific culture, a culture of ownership. We care that an individual who’s joining Talos is able to deliver things end to end. And that doesn’t have to be just engineering; it’s literally everything that we do. So can you design or research something? Can you deliver something to production or launch a vertical? Can you support it? Can you continue iterating on that, deliver the feedback, change the organization as a result of that feedback? Those kinds of individuals do best at Talos.

Take engineering. In a big organization, you have 10 to 15 large engineering teams, but if you ask some of the individuals, some of the managers, everybody will point to an employee or two on those teams who actually do the majority of the work. And people are afraid that, if that engineer leaves, it’s really going to be troublesome for the organization. Those are the kind of people who we try to look for the most, and I truly believe that Talos is built out of those kind of people. We try to target the people who are the multiplier—those delivering three to five times the work. And so we have a pretty systematic process in terms of finding individuals, interviewing individuals, and assessing their fit for the organization, because that’s the most important thing when you bring somebody on board. So we’re quite deliberate about the entire process.

David Richardson: How do you think about diversity in terms of gender and race and ethnicity, but also in terms of diversity of experience and approaches to leadership?

Anton Katz: I think that’s a very important topic, and personally for me especially. I was born in the Ukraine, I grew up in Israel, and my education and my career have been in the United States, so I think that has helped me. And I think that kind of diversity of thought and seeing a couple of different things are very important for the health of the organization to be able to move fast, especially if you’re a global organization.

But the one thing that I think is the most important is that diversity can’t be an afterthought in an organization. You have to think methodically about it, you have to put some resources toward it, and you have to make it a priority. It’s not something that will just happen on its own. It’s actually, especially in technical organizations, super hard to achieve. And I’ll be the first to admit that, while we’re doing a much better job now, initially we weren’t. Things are improving tremendously for us in terms of diversity across, gender, race, and ethnicity, but it’s a big priority for us, and we plan to do much better over the coming quarters. I think it’s tremendously important.

David Richardson: And so your own range of experiences sort of feeds into your building out of the inclusive team dynamic. I’m also interested in the unique aspects of the environment in which you operate in today. How different is the digital-asset ecosystem that you’re in from the broader, more mature asset classes that you’ve served previously?

Anton Katz: That’s a great question. I think it is different, to an extent. The kind of people that the digital-asset community has attracted over the years has changed pretty dramatically. Institutions are participating much more in the asset class at this point. So while three or four years ago we were primarily seeing individuals who were true believers in crypto, who really wanted to experiment a lot and had this mentality of fail fast, right now we’re seeing quite a few individuals who are coming over from capital markets and taking a harder look at crypto and a harder look at digital assets, and they really want to be involved. So that in itself has changed dramatically.

But for us personally, we’re constantly thinking about this in terms of what is an inclusive team, and how do you build a culture that allows you to do that? And I don’t think that there is just one answer to that. For us, we’re trying to make sure that we provide a safe space for individuals to be able to voice their opinion, to be able to deliver feedback, to be able to really deliver new ideas. And as leadership, I think we always try to figure out how to listen to that half of the organization that is not the loudest, how to create an environment that people can actually speak out. So we foster quite a lot of those things, but it’s a very interesting topic.

David Richardson: Do the institutions that are coming into this space and your clients change the types of talent that you need to grow down the road?

Anton Katz: I don’t think it changes for us, because our thesis from the very beginning was that intuitional involvement with digital assets is imminent. We said it when we started the company two and a half, almost three, years ago, and I can tell you that this past year has proven that that sentiment has changed dramatically. We can’t say anymore that the institutions are coming; the institutions are here. We are seeing an enormous involvement with institutions. So for us, not a lot has changed. We were always building toward that.

Our perfect candidate has always been somebody who potentially grew up in capital markets, maybe somebody who carries some of the scars of traditional asset classes. But we also prefer people who have done at least some work in crypto, so that they understand both of these. And the reason is that, and I think it’s very important for all the different organizations that are participating right now and providing services and additional answers, we spend a lot of time on education. We are constantly talking to institutions about what are the similarities and what are the differences between the different asset classes, and how do they need to think about their organizations when they approach digital assets? So having a team that speaks that language, that understands the requirements of traditional players in capital markets, is very important. So I wouldn’t say that our hiring has changed or that our talent needs have changed. I think it’s always been thinking about people who can speak the language but are also flexible enough to travel in digital assets.

David Richardson: And given that the firm has been around two and a half, three, years, it’s an interesting time that you chose to start a business in this space. As you think back across the past year in particular, there’s been just incredible change, and I would imagine that there have been some big impacts on the business, positive and negative. What are the important ways that your organization is building on the lessons of the past year?

Anton Katz: I think that there are a lot of lessons. Just talking about the remote aspect of the work, Talos has effectively always been a remote-first company. A huge portion of our firm has been remote because we truly believe that we hire the best people wherever we find them, so whatever geography they might be in. And so we follow that philosophy, but we also have a large center in New York, a large center in Sweden, and now we’re about to launch a center in Singapore.

I think through the pandemic there have been a couple of lessons we have learned. One is that you still have to be constantly conscious, and even more important than ever, in thinking about how you keep your team close. What kind of engagement do you have? How do you schedule your calendar so it’s inclusive and it’s supportive of all the different geographies? How do you do all-hands [meetings]? How do you deliver the information and transparency so everybody feels that they are a part of the team? That became even more important. And then going forward, we’re now thinking about how we are going to come back to the offices to some extent, because it’s helpful in forming interpersonal relationships to actually see the other person in front of you. So we are planning a hybrid approach where it’s like two or three days in the office and then the rest of the days completely remote. But we’re also keeping it pretty flexible, and we’re trying to figure out what this means.

But I would say the most important thing is that we’re now, more than ever, very methodically thinking about what we need to do to get the team closer to one another, to build that network of support, because people are dealing with quite a lot of really serious personal circumstances with COVID, and building that network is important. And we don’t plan for this to just work for the pandemic and nothing else. I think what we’ve done here is generally a good thing, so we’ll continue to do quite a lot of the same. We have social events; we have professional events; we meet on a daily basis, the entire team. Like right now I’m missing the game that we have on every Friday, which is OK, but yes, it’s important. I think those [team-building activities] are the things that we will take away [from the past year].

David Richardson: Before I let you go, let me ask what are the games of choice at the Friday game nights?

Anton Katz: It’s an engineering company, so pretty much everybody has played some sort of games and been in a lot of competitions. We have one person on the team who is basically responsible for the game, and it’s his job on Friday morning to say what we are playing that day. So we have played a bunch of board games online across multiple regions, and it’s really cool. I think that this [Friday game] is the game that has been the most popular. And it was such a random suggestion originally, but we just embraced it, and now it’s every Friday and it’s engrained in the company culture. It’s a really nice by-product of having a remote workforce.

David Richardson: And then you were a professional athlete, but one thing that really intrigued me is that you were a judge on the Lego robotics competition.

Anton Katz: Yes.

David Richardson: Is that a real thing? That’s amazing.

Anton Katz: Oh, it’s totally a real thing. I am, first of all, an engineer. So while I was a software engineer for my entire career, what I really enjoy is building with my hands, working with robots, working with autonomous tools. I’ve built drones; I still build drones, and I race drones now, though I didn’t have any time to do that over the past year and a half. And then I got involved with Lego robotics, which is primarily for middle school and high school kids. And it’s really remarkable to see. So this map is sent to the schools, and then they build robots that have both the physical components but also software embedded in them; it’s Lego maelstroms. And the idea is that they put the robot on the map, and they click the go button and say, “Program one, program two, program three,” and the idea is that the robot is autonomously completing all the different tasks. And we’re talking about 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds doing this thing, and then they later show you this graph and say, “This is what I implemented in each statement, and now this is a loop.” It’s the best thing in the world. When you see this kind of thing, you get inspired. The kids are building something from scratch; they are building purposeful programs. It’s awesome. I really love it. It’s a great thing to do as a volunteer.

David Richardson: That sounds like a lot of fun. Anton, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. We wish you all the best and all the best to you and the team. And we wish you luck at the game nights.

Anton Katz: David, thank you so much. Thank you very much for having me, and I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

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