Who are blockchain’s primary users?
There’s plenty of debate around this question. In developing nations, it may be about banking the unbanked via cryptocurrency. Or the target market may be multinational diamond operations, striving to prove the provenance of the precious stones they mine.
Around the globe, however, before many more use of the cases waiting in the wings can unfold, they must be sold to a very specific demographic: the corporate CEO. These top decisionmakers, along with their select inner circle, must understand blockchain before distributed ledger applications can be set free by their companies to provoke positive change.
Obreahny O’Brien, a highly experienced management consultant, knows what it takes to convince these often dubious decision-makers to place their bets on new technology. She started her career at KPMG, then moved to another advisory powerhouse in Ernst & Young, where she was an Executive Consultant in their Strategic Insights and FinTech Strategy practice, and their Business Solution Leader for Blockchain and Distributed Infrastructure Strategy.
It was this deep background, along with a drive to clear her own path, which led O’Brien to found Lenox Group in 2018. A New York City-based firm, The Lenox Group, has been her vehicle to bring rapid change to tech-based businesses, with an especial emphasis on the power of blockchain.
As her experiences in pitching blockchain-based initiatives to company leaders piled up, O’Brien realized she was accumulating powerful information that must be shared outside of the executive suite. The result is an essential new book, Blockchain for CEO’s: Three Presentations to America’s Top Boardrooms. In it, she combines three smartly designed presentations made up of easily digestible talking points and infographics, converging to provide sharp clarity to anyone intrigued in the intersection of blockchain and business.
In this interview with BlockSocial, O’Brien breaks down how she developed her unique perspective on blockchain, its possibilities, and why you don’t need to be a high-ranking corporate officer to benefit from her new book.
Obreahny, you’ve written a book called Blockchain for CEOs: Three Presentations to America’s Top Boardrooms. What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
My career was birthed out of two big global consultancy firms. As I developed my own creative pursuits on the side, I realized I was living in a cocoon where I thought that everybody had access to management consultants — trusted business advisors who could take all these complicated concepts around business, technology, regulations, and put it in a package that could be more simply understood.
When I left big consulting and started Lenox Group, I saw that the conferences that I was getting asked to speak at were more focused toward regional clients — coming from big consultancy firms, you’re used to servicing the bigger Fortune 100 companies. In speaking to a lot of these regional mid-sized firms, I realized that these companies don’t have an excess budget to have management consultants create points of view so that their executives can understand what’s going on.
That’s how I first realized that there was a need for this book. I’m also really inspired by the democratization of access to knowledge and learning, so I wanted to do my best to democratize that access.
That sounds like a natural outgrowth of The Lenox Group.
That’s a lot of what our ethos has been. Our team is built in a very lean way, because after a decade of working in professional services, I know what it takes for a client to get the products that they need, in a way that manages their risk. We try to do things in a way where it keeps things lean so that that value can be passed on to the clients.
This book comes from that same ethos: We’re trying to share our learnings with other executives so that they can start to better comprehend this technology. I think that, ironically, a lot of the smaller, more regional companies that exist out there across the various industries are probably in a better position to effect disruption. I like that because I think that that disruption will tie into services that benefit a lot of the underserved people in our society. Smaller regional companies don’t have a lot of the same complicated processes and procedures, and they don’t have a lot of the same legacy technologies that the bigger firms have.
When you’re talking about technology like blockchain, you’re talking about very pervasive technology. It’s not a widget that you can insert and realize cost savings, which defines a lot of the robot process automation that executives are used to buying. It’s something that requires you to change your processes and procedures, which means changing how people are interacting with their technology systems, in addition to changing the underlying technology systems.
For a large organization, it’s a bigger ask to get them to implement a blockchain-like technology, or even an AI solution because they’re also taking into account all the risk. That risk can take on various forms such as: “Is this thing going to function? Are we going to have an execution problem? Are we creating systemic risk because this new product is going to shift the markets overall?”
These bigger companies are having to deal with these issues, whereas a smaller more regional company is not having to deal with them in the same way — they’re able to take on more risk and get a technology closer to implementation. This book is intended to help with that, pushing the needle forward in a more practical way in the innovation dialogue.
Three Ways of Looking at Blockchain
Blockchain for CEO’s has three presentations: “Blockchain Briefing for a Public Trading Retail Company,” “Proof of Concept Strategy for a Large Financial Services Company,” and “Briefing on Digital Assets for a Large Wealth and Asset Manager.” Why were these the three that you decided to include?
Because the flipside of this book is that, in addition to helping executives gain access to a perspective that they may otherwise not have access to, I was also looking to help entrepreneurs like myself who have been trying to sell into organizations. Along those lines, I picked these three because each one of them signals where in the buying life cycle, these stakeholders were. You’ll notice on the upper right-hand corner in the “Debrief” section I have a blockchain implementation level. Each one goes through low, medium, and high.
What I’m basically doing is helping entrepreneurs understand where they are in the life cycle, and that’s going to be really important, particularly around managing their expectations and budgeting resources. I want entrepreneurs not to feel defeated if they’re getting asked to give a Blockchain 101 and they’re anticipating that this 101 is going to lead into a sale – it’s just not going to, and that’s okay.
It then falls on the entrepreneur to decide whether or not it’s worth your people’s time to go and have that meeting. If you’re having this 101, you’re not likely going to sell: You’re probably at the beginning of potentially building a relationship, which is also valuable.
Why is it helpful for a blockchain entrepreneur to understand that going in?
It allows you to keep an air of lightness where you’re not trying to push for a sale at the end of the meeting because you realize it’s more of an introductory meeting. It also allows you to better position your next move, which should be a follow up white boarding session. The whiteboarding is hinted in the second presentation when a company is coming to you and saying, “Alright, we’ve heard about what blockchain is, but we don’t know where to begin.”
Where do they start in this? What would a proof-of-concept look like? Then you’re at the medium stage. That’s a great place to be because, at the end of a whiteboarding session, you’ve made it hard for prospective clients not to want to move on to the next phase of allowing you to build some kind of a proof-of-concept with them.
What comes next in the CEO education cycle?
The third section of the book addresses digital assets. What pushes organizations over their hurdles, whether it’s around risk or costs that they have to incur to implement these systems, is if there is an immediate ask by their client. When the price of these cryptocurrencies started to go up, as you can imagine, a lot of financial institutions and other types of wealth managers started getting pressures from their clients to be able to service cryptocurrencies since their clients wanted to take positions in these assets.
We saw there was a quick mobilization around trying to understand what servicing cryptocurrencies would look like. These conversations typically took on two angles: i) a technology perspective of being able to hold these assets, and ii) a risk perspective of making sure that they’re getting the right processes and procedures in place so that they are minimizing any risk associated with holding these assets.
At that point, we realized that if a company is having a conversation with you about digital assets, they’re likely to buy something from you. And what that something is going to look like in this case could be anything from helping them set up a wallet service to, even just from a business perspective, helping them project what the market size of digital assets could look like for their targeted client needs.
Those are two examples which Lenox has already helped on: We have built out custodial wallet services for a financial institution, and we’ve also helped them understand market sizing around this.
Obreahny, what are the most common sources of confusion or misperception that you’ve seen regarding blockchain in the boardroom?
The boardroom is interesting. On the management side of things, there tends to be more of a misperception because they are in an execution phase, whereas the board of directors tends to be very big-picture-oriented. A lot of these people are former big consulting themselves, whether it’s big law firms, accounting firms — they’re business executives that have lived through other cycles, so they’re definitely a lot easier to talk to.
What’s really awesome about the board of directors is that it’s multidisciplinary. The whole approach to this technology needs to be multidisciplinary: You have to have tech, business, legal, and regulatory in the room. It creates a challenge for the presenter because you have to be able to speak to all of that.
Of course, after you clear the boardroom, blockchain entrepreneurs have to get through the gatekeepers, which are the service lines. Because those people are in an execution role, they tend to be more tactile — I’ve literally had a technology director at a big company say, “I just need to see it, feel it, touch it.”
That’s a huge challenge because this tech is not attractive; it’s not an application where we can create this really fun graphical interface to broadly demonstrate its disruptive capabilities. The core of blockchain’s value is conceptually and operationally what it can do. It’s not something where you’re getting to feel or touch anything. You’re running code.
How do you approach demonstrating blockchain applications, then?
We’re constantly challenging ourselves in our demos because if we put something up on the screen that looks engaging, it largely is just a frontend interface. We’ve incorporated having a split screen with the code running so that you can see what’s happening, but who knows what the code is saying versus any other code?
So that’s been part of the problem is that you’re kind of dealing with this amorphous tech, and it’s actually the same problem that we had around selling cloud solutions: There really is no attractive graphical interface unless you’re going out of your way to make a graphical interface, which is actually just a glorified data visualization at that point. It’s not the technology itself. So that’s been a bit of a challenge, trying to marry the fact of what the tech can do with making it look real and engaging for the service lines.
Thank you Obreahny, this has been extremely enlightening. Here’s my last question: Do you need to be a CEO to benefit from the book Blockchain for CEO’s?
No. Whether you are a CEO or not, there is a part in all of us — particularly anyone who’s going to be interested in this innovation dialogue — who sees themselves as a CEO at some point. The book speaks to anyone with the CEO mindset, which I think is a mindset of anyone interested in blockchain.