One Day's Work, One Year Of Holiday

INNOVATIVE THINKING

'One Day's Work, One Year Of Holiday'

Known to be one of the world’s most disruptive Chief Innovation Officer, Neal Cross tells AWANI Review that if a job can be done in one hour, then it would be okay to take the entire year off.

When the word innovation comes to mind, most people would imagine entrepreneurs with a life-changing invention such as Apple creator Steve Jobs or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. 

But the best kinds of innovation doesn’t necessarily involve technology, says Neal Cross, co-founder and chairman of fintech startup PictureWealth.

“Innovation is not about an application. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with technology.”

Innovation is not about an application. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with technology.

“The innovation that’s revolutionising our world comes from identifying the right problem - and ensuring that it is the right problem important to give you a proper solution,” says the former Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer of Technology & Operations at DBS Bank in Singapore.

“A lot of people think they have a problem but in fact they might just have the symptoms - they don’t drill into to find out what the core issue is.”

“Find the right problem and solve it in an elegant manner.”

The key aspect in innovation, Cross emphasises, is to never over-engineer, overspend or build something that doesn’t fit the problem. At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that innovation should increase your company’s value to the marketplace.

“When that’s successful, you’ll witness an increase in customer happiness, reduction cost, and increase in revenue.” 

Cross is known to be one of the world’s Most Disruptive Chief Innovation Officer. In 2016, he was recognised by a panel, comprising Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, for his exceptional leadership in fostering a culture of innovation at DBS.

Prior to DBS, Cross was Vice President at Mastercard Labs in Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa regions. He also served as financial services industry director for Microsoft Asia, providing banking and financial services.

Cross, who grew up on the west coast of England, has forged an unconventional path to success. At age 16, he dropped out of school to focus on software programming; he was already getting steady income by starting a gaming programme, ZX Spectrum.

The 47-year-old, known for his practical approach to innovation, traveled the world to learn martial arts. At one point, even considered to become a DJ, reveals Cross.

After ending his five-year tenure with DBS, Cross is a highly sought for his thought thinking in the innovation space; he was also known for evangelising fintech in Singapore before the industry took off.

But these days, Cross spends most of his time advocating Orang Utan conservation work in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, where he has built an eco-hotel overlooking the lush Sumatran rainforest. 

“In my career I want to achieve three things. One, to create the world’s most innovative bank - and I’ve done that.”

"Two, is to help out Southeast Asia’s land and sea animals. That's a work in progress,” says Cross.

“And third is bringing financial happiness to the world.”

Cross knows all about growing up with little money and limited access to financial help. His mother used to work three jobs to make ends meet.

“Growing up, my mother was always stressed about money. Thankfully now she doesn’t have to because I look after her. But that could have been alleviated if she had better of finances” he says.

“Growing up, my mother was always stressed about money. Thankfully now she doesn’t have to because I look after her. But that could have been alleviated if she had better of finances” he says.

Banks, he adds, must be responsible in educating their customers on financial literacy. The lack of financial literacy can lead to owing large amounts of debt.

“Generally, you must have a lot of money before you get an advisor to help you with that but what about all the standard people? That's why we started PictureWealth,” says Cross.

“It is a company that helps build everything you have in a single picture such as bank accounts, credit cards, insurance plans and investments - basically to help manage finances better,” says Cross.

When asked about what kind of innovation trends he’s seeing emerging from Southeast Asia, without hesitation, he responds with “everyone seems to be building an app these days,” while laughing.

“I think the startup graveyard is full of people who thought they needed an app. The truth is innovation should be happening in areas where the government aren’t providing service.”

“We’re seeing innovation in agriculture and healthcare innovation. I think we’re going to see a lot more in that space.”

“Again, the world’s most powerful innovations weren’t technology innovations. We think they are. For example, we think iTunes is a technology innovation - but it’s not.”

“iTunes is distribution model innovation which means I don’t need to go to a record shop to buy music. I can get it straight on my phone that’s distribution model.”

“The second thing is the pricing model innovation. I don’t need to buy a whole album; I can pay a monthly subscription and listen as much as I want.”

“Distribution model innovation, business model innovation or pricing model innovation – those are powerful ideas - and technology is the enabler,” he adds.

Great Leadership Begins with An Authentic Leader

For someone who has such an illustrious corporate resume, one would expect Cross in suit and tie.

But the down-to-earth Brit showed up at the MyFintech Week in Kuala Lumpur in casual clothes – plain shirt with long khaki pants, paired with his unshaven stubble; a representation of how he is as a person and leader - laid back and affable.

“I’m actually dressed up today. I usually just wear shorts, even when I was at the bank,” he says with a hearty laugh. “You need to be your authentic self as a leader.”

I’m actually dressed up today. I usually just wear shorts, even when I was at the bank. 

We asked Cross what it takes to be an impactful and respected leader in an organisation.

“Four things I do as a leader is to give protection to your staff so that they feel there’s a safety net. If anything happens in my group or company, I need to take that responsibility. It’s my fault because I am the leader.”

“Secondly is freedom. I’ve told my staff ‘If you can do a whole year’s work in an hour, take the rest of the year off - I’m serious.”

The third aspect to leadership is education, allowing the team to upskill which motivates them to perform better. “I’ve taught my team how to sell and pitch ideas.”

Last but not least, a leader must be able to inspire others. “By inspiring people, you can drive them to achieve their best work, making them ‘unstoppable’.”

“I always say to them - if you’re going to do something, why not be the best? I talk to corporations, countries, leaders, and I always say this – ‘Why don’t you do something which is world class?’

“We often limit ourselves our thinking that we can’t be the best in the world,” says Cross. 

“Well, why not? Take action, do it!”