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Conor Murray of OpenInvest: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

Be flexible. This feeds off of the previous point, but employees shouldn’t feel like they have to be chained to their desk from 9–5 to be seen as productive. And we aren’t designed to sit in ten hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings, so allow for flexible work schedules and approaches to getting things done.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Conor Murray.

Conor has spent nearly two decades in finance and financial technology. His experience ranges from investment banking at Morgan Stanley to leading engineering teams at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, as well as working with YCombinator and some of the top VCs in Silicon Valley after co-founding OpenInvest. Conor graduated from MIT with a degree in Mathematics & Computer Science, with minors in Economics and Philosophy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My path has been focused on trying to do the most good I can. Growing up in Ireland, I became disaffected with religion and interested in alternative frameworks to my Catholic upbringing. This led me to study moral philosophy in college in addition to my math and computer science coursework. I found some answers there, but not enough practical application. Upon graduating, I spent a decade on Wall Street learning how to be effective in that lane — what made highly productive teams function, what good cultures look like, and how capital can drive society. During my time in finance, we would often discuss how to maximize our impact across many aspects of our lives. That field is now known as effective altruism, which has led to many resources to help people use their career for the most good. For me, that has meant using my experience in finance to try and change how society functions. If we can make capital more attuned to all the effects it can have on society, then we can make better decisions, allocate capital in a healthier way, and hopefully drive large-scale change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When we applied to and were accepted by YCombinator, we were in an extremely early iteration of OpenInvest and had not yet incorporated. At the time, our rough idea was to create an open marketplace for people to discuss and implement investment strategies, backed by rules-based systems. One of the first things we had to commit to was the name. I liked “OpenInvest,” even though not many others did. Unfortunately, we were able to acquire OpenInvest.co but OpenInvest.com was already taken by a Russian site. I thought that was fine since .com felt like a bit of a relic to me (after all, how many times do you type “.com” in a day?). We sat down with Paul Graham, co-founder of YCombinator, and he felt strongly that having a dot com domain was crucial and we should change our name if we couldn’t get OpenInvest.com. In fact, he felt so strongly that he later wrote one of his famous essays about the topic. I’d been reading his writing for years — it’s a large part of what inspired me to move to the Bay Area — but here I was flying in the face of advice from the master himself.

We stuck with the name, even though one other incident made us second-guess our decision. We had just raised our seed round and were being introduced to celebrity investors, including a very famous pop artist. She was friendly, engaged, and asking great questions — we felt it was a good fit. We mentioned we had recently launched OpenInvest, so she took out her phone, entered OpenInvest.com, and landed on the Russian site. We could see the interest instantly disappear — I’m pretty sure that was the deciding factor for her. So we set out to get OpenInvest.com and we now own both domains.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Over the coming years, we’re working with J.P. Morgan to seamlessly connect people’s values to their money at a scale that can have an effect on the global financial landscape. Since the acquisition, our team has been developing this vision through a number of exciting projects, including bringing personalized and automated ESG research, diagnostics, proxy voting, and sustainability reporting to investors.

To expand on one of those projects, we’re working to push the industry away from abstract, impalpable metrics to easy-to-understand sustainability metrics. For example, saying that “investing in Fund A rather than Fund B is the equivalent of eliminating 1,000 cross-country flights” is easier to understand than a one-size-fits-all ESG score. We’ve found that doing so gives investors a better grasp of how their investment can help drive positive change in the world.

This is especially important because it’s one of many steps we’re taking towards system-level change. Once everyone can understand what they own, the full scope of what people care about — from climate change to ethical business practices — can be reflected in capital markets, lending, and consumer behavior. Our vision is to create more transparent, effective, and values-aligned “rails” that streamline capital with the goal of effecting positive change.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

The world is incredibly complex, much more so than it was even a generation ago. The old patterns for navigating the workforce and knowing how to be a productive, happy member of society no longer apply. Automation is changing the nature of work to be less monotonous and more creative, which is a good thing, but corporate expectations have largely not kept pace with these changes. We simply were not biologically wired to engage in deep, meaningful, creative work for eight hours a day, and I think people are feeling that disconnect.

Of course, we are also entering our third year operating in a global health crisis, and it is the job of managers and employers to help employees reach their potential, not punish them for falling short. Amid the Great Resignation, the war for talent has never been more competitive, and the value of a great employee surpasses a mere dollar amount. It’s time for employers to look inward, ask themselves what they can do to holistically support their employees, and make it their job to improve the well-being of their workforce. Employers that remain flexible and empathetic will come out stronger, and those who fail to show the same level of humanity will continue experiencing pain points like high turnover and burnout that have been magnified in the past few years.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Most people are familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s the idea that reaching self-actualization requires first fulfilling more basic needs: food, security, safety, friends. My leadership philosophy follows a similar concept called “employee actualization,” or the idea that companies should offer holistic support and remove stress to allow employees to reach their full productive and creative potential in the workplace.

At the foundation lie the basics: job security, sufficient pay, and room for growth. But as companies find themselves in a progressively competitive war for talent, they’ll need to build upon that foundation to create an environment where employees can show up to work as their best selves. That includes providing child care, enabling remote work, and offering mental health support — concepts I believe should be universally adopted. Moreover, it involves employees doing work that feels meaningful, energizing, and aligns with their values. When done correctly, it leads to greater productivity and longevity for the company.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Simplify. Employers need to set expectations around good working hygiene and create the systems that make it possible. Distractions are disastrous for productivity, so reducing visual and aural clutter and emphasizing monotasking is crucial.
  2. Give your employees space. It’s so easy to fill our workday with endless tasks. But the number one thing that makes people feel motivated to do meaningful work is feeling like they’ve made progress on their most impactful projects. From the top-down, this means giving people the space to work on the things that are important but not urgent. At OpenInvest, we encourage our employees to block off time for deep work, system improvement — if it will make them even 10% more effective and excited to show up to work, it’s worth doing.
  3. Create a common purpose. I think one of the most important roles a leader has is to determine and communicate the vision that the company is driving towards. It doesn’t have to be the exact same for everyone — there can be team-specific goals and values — but everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction.
  4. Optimize for the individual. Some people work better in the morning than the evening, some are bi-phasic. Some people like doing work in short sprints, others prefer having long, uninterrupted periods to concentrate. Focus on empowering employees to create the systems that allow them to perform at their best.
  5. Be flexible. This feeds off of the previous point, but employees shouldn’t feel like they have to be chained to their desk from 9–5 to be seen as productive. And we aren’t designed to sit in ten hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings, so allow for flexible work schedules and approaches to getting things done.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

America places an especially strong emphasis on work. We start the day early, we work late, breaks tend to be infrequent, and boundaries are loose. I’ve heard numerous friends say that the time they saved commuting while working from home has been replaced by additional work, or that last-minute meetings take priority over eating lunch. It’s no surprise that this behavior leads to burnout. It’s unsustainable, and many employers are just starting to realize the negative effects of pushing their employees to the limit.

I’d like to see us mirror the attitudes of other cultures — ones where family and well-being come before the bottom line. It won’t happen overnight, but we need to start by offering more flexibility around personal commitments, giving employees access to mental health treatment and time away, and embracing workdays that give employees enough time out of the office to feel refreshed.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I consider myself to have a very open leadership style. I’m transparent about my decisions and thought processes and encourage unstructured communication. For example, OpenInvest has a weekly company-wide standup meeting where department heads give project updates and share wins. After the meeting officially ends, I stay on the call for 15–30 minutes — anyone at the company can use that time to ask questions or discuss anything with me in a smaller format. In addition, I have weekly meetings with my direct reports, monthly skip level meetings, and quarterly meetings with the rest of our employees. As an executive, I think it’s important to not only manage my team, but to probe the level below and remain connected to what’s happening in all aspects of the business.

Generally, I find myself focusing on the meta level of problems rather than the object level. In other words, if someone comes to me with a problem, my instinct is not to solve it but to ask questions, point out patterns, and help them think through it. My background in behavioral economics makes me particularly interested in investigating my own cognitive biases, so I’m prone to pointing them out in others as well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been constantly supported by the people around me. My grandparents and parents instilled values that have shaped and guided me, such as prioritizing education, family, and having a sense of adventure. Over the years, I’ve been pushed hard by teammates and colleagues, and had my thinking challenged by authors I admire. I’ve known my wife Emily for 16 years now — she’s been a great source of feedback and support and has helped me grow in so many ways. I wouldn’t be close to where I am today without these people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There are so many problems in the world, it feels like more than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned from some of the top institutions in the world and I’m personally inspired by the power of people aligned around a mission and common goal.

One of the main ways that we as a society push things forward is deciding how to allocate capital. If we can make that entire system more intelligent, more aware of the effects, then we can allocate more efficiently and make healthier decisions. If I can have a larger impact on the world it’ll be helping to better align talent and passion to this problem.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s hard to distill so many influential ideas into a single quote, but I think the concept that has the broadest application is “know thyself” — but I would take it a step further to “edit thyself.”

The world is changing fast and becoming much more complex. It’s hard to know what advice or patterns will be useful for navigating it, especially if the goal is to do so in the most optimal and efficient way possible. But everything we do and experience is through the lens of our own minds. Therefore, knowing how our minds work opens up an array of tools for self-improvement: how to control attention and change our behavior, how to break bad habits and form good ones, what types of biases we may be susceptible to, and how we can learn to avoid them. Our patterns make up who we are — how we grow and evolve as people.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)

There are so many patterns to absorb from the world — healthy habits, diets, exercise, organization, productivity. In a way, each of these systems strives to make order of our increasingly complicated and distracted lives. But I think the most effective way to maximize impact would be to focus on the fundamentals. I use an effective mindfulness meditation app that has been a powerful tool for understanding mindfulness on a deeper level, which has led to positive changes in multiple areas of my life. I think if everyone had the education and tools to practice mindfulness we would live in a much more compassionate and thoughtful society.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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