From factories and football to Fortune 500 finance – a PayPal Director’s career and life lessons

PeopleCulturePerformance Corporate

Marco Steinhauer
Marco Steinhauer.

PayPal Australia’s Finance Director Marco Steinhauer on seizing challenging opportunities and giving back to keep growing  

From his working-class roots in regional Germany to the Finance Director of PayPal Australia, Marco Steinhauer has come a long way — quite literally — from his humble beginnings.

Having been a cornerstone in the brands ongoing transformation and growth over the last seven-and-a-half years, we sat down with the go-getting exec to discuss his journey, and the key lessons that he’s picked up along the way. From identifying and grasping opportunities, to overcoming unconscious bias and even mentoring others in business, heres how Marcos life has shaped his success today.

Mum knows best

Born into what he describes as a “quintessential” working-class family in the regional German town of Remscheid, young Marco was adept at maths and sciences, but suffered setbacks at school, namely struggling with languages, both his native German and English.

Despite these early challenges, he became the first of his family to complete high school, following two generations of factory workers, and attained the grades he needed to attend university in the process. But before that, Marco was presented with a unique opportunity that would change the course of his life.

Before starting university I applied for a scholarship to go to the US, which would include six months of study followed by six months of a business internship,” he recalls.

“Id spent most of my life within a 100-kilometre radius of my birthplace and moving to the US was a daunting prospect — luckily my mother was able to push me into applying and seizing the opportunity. If she hadnt pushed me, theres a chance Id still be living in Remscheid to this day.”

Cultural lessons

At the age of 20, and still working on his English, Marco set off on a 12-month scholarship to the States, where he soon found he had a lot to learn beyond the language itself.

Id travelled only a little within Europe before that trip, so moving to the US was, and still is, one of the most confronting things Ive ever done.”

Feeling like a fish out of water, Marco was thrown headfirst into all the angst and uncertainly of post 9-11 America, and there was a lot to take away from it.

I was placed with an African-American family in Mississippi and that really opened my eyes to racism and inequality,” he remembers.

Mississippi has long struggled with wealth inequality and currently has the highest poverty rate and lowest median household income in the US. 

Ever the pragmatist, Marco says he found the stark difference in opportunities and quality of life challenges, but they also taught him some valuable lessons that he carries with him today.

“That was the foundation of my strong belief in the importance of ethics and equality, both in the workplace and outside it.”

From the pitch to payments pioneer  

Returning from his stay in the States, Marco went on to secure a scholarship for a double degree that was sponsored by a German and British University. This gave him an opportunity to further explore a culture outside of his native Germany by studying for 12 months in the UK as part of the program.

I received a scholarship and I was able to cover day to day expenses by playing football semi-professionally, while also studying as a student.”

With six months to spare before commencing a Masters thesis, Marco jumped at an opportunity to visit Australia, taking a job with a small company to fund his travels Down Under. In the end, they were so impressed with his work they offered to sponsor him to return once his university career was complete.

After I finished my Masters I headed straight back to Australia,” says Marco. Seven years after that, I was hired as a Finance Manager for PayPal Australia and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Embracing growth and pursuing value

PayPal offered the ambitious Marco an opportunity to break new ground and to face ongoing challenges that would see him continue to grow and develop, which was the experience he was after.

In my tenure, weve seen significant growth in Australia,” he says, proudly. “And as a finance or business partner, the learning curve was exponential. You solve one challenge, then youre faced with the next one.

Climbing the ladder to his present position as PayPal Australia’s Finance Director, Marco says many things have changed during his time with the organisation, from its separation from eBay in 2015, to becoming Australia’s most trusted online payments brand.

We started out very focused on eBay and maximising reach within the eCommerce space in Australia. From there we pivoted into more challenging verticals with the likes of billing and groceries,” he explains. “Being in the front row to see this growth, and be able to support it over time has been very enjoyable and I love watching how the business evolves year on year. Even in a market like Australia, where we have very high PayPal eCommerce reach and consumer uptake, the future opportunities are massive. Recent launches like PayPal Pay in 4, the PayPal Credit Card and potential entry into the offline/in-store space in the future are super exciting”

The pandemic has also introduced new challenges and opportunities, which have helped Marco further refine his strategy in promoting PayPal as a market leader.

One of the things the pandemic has made increasingly clear is the power of the consumer,” he says. As a result, weve refocused our attention to understand that part of the equation even better. This should enable us to solve challenges and deliver better results across consumer segments, knowing this will have flow-on results for the business in the future. We can see a systemic change in consumer behavior which was created and accelerated by the pandemic. The task now is to fully grasp this opportunity.”

Lessons learned

Ever humble, Marco is a font of wisdom when prompted, and his life experiences, both within the workplace and outside it, have something for everyone. We asked him to summarise what he sees as some of his standout lessons learned.

Never let an opportunity pass you by

Like his mother before him, Marco believes its the opportunities you pass up that are the ones you'll remember for life.

Just recently I reminded myself of my mother when encouraging one of my kids to attend soccer tryouts.”

Im all about personal growth and taking that first step,” he enthuses. Yes, youll always need a little luck, but you also need to recognise and then grasp the opportunities as they arrive.”

Let your ethics lead you

From those early days in the US, Marco recognised the harm that bias and inequality bring, so he makes it a point to actively work against these things in his day-to-day life, and it's a mission he says PayPal is deeply committed to.

PayPal’s mission is to ensure everyone, regardless of background or economic standing, has access to affordable, convenient and secure products and services to take control of their financial lives. The company invests heavily in ambitious climate action, racial equality and social justice, and the wellbeing of employees, customers, and communities, while enabling philanthropic giving at an immense global scale.

As an ethical business, were constantly looking at what we do and thinking How can we improve? Thats a critical thing for every business and every individual to do. As an individual it is very important for me to live my values and impact others positively.”

If you dont ask, you cant expect to receive

Marco sees success and development in any given role as being 90 percent what the individual brings to the table and only 10 percent of what the business environment offers.

“You cant expect advancements to be offered up on a silver platter, you have to take risks and be clear in your aims. Feedback and utilising constructive feedback is critical to be successful and show others your growth and willingness to improve.”

Develop mentors and mentees

Mentorship is something the Finance Director highlights as even more important to his ongoing success today than it was earlier in his career.

"These relationships are best when fostered organically, and focused on providing specific, practicable feedback that offers a different perspective to what the mentee might come up with on their own,” he says. “Mentors should work to help their mentees map out a career plan, not just how they can get to their next promotion.”

He said the process of sharing insights and experiences through mentorship can help refine and reinforce one’s own business and career philosophy to the mutual benefit of mentee and mentor. 

Leadership means being a supporter

The last 18 months have highlighted the importance of mental health and its impact on performance to Marco, who has fundamentally shifted his management style as a result.

Putting aside the success hes achieved at PayPal, whats really important is ensuring that everyone feels safe, supported and empowered to work to the best of their abilities, which he considers to be the true essence of leadership.

Aside from the success weve realised, thats whats actually more important than anything: ensuring that everyones OK and ready to succeed and develop in their roles, and thats my primary objective as a leader.”

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