Bala Kumar leads product vision and strategy at mobile payments and identity verification provider Jumio as its CPO, and is overseeing the execution of the organisation’s digital identity platform. With over two decades of product innovation and leadership experience under his belt, Kumar previously held executive roles at consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion, as well as serving as CPO at TransUnion acquisition iovation.
In this Q&A, Kumar reveals how he goes about communicating his vision to the workforce and stakeholders, the most important skills for the CPO to have, and the biggest tests he’s had to overcome in his position.
What is the role of the CPO?
How do you go about communicating your vision to the organisation, and ensure that the whole workforce is on board?
The most important step a leader must take is to clearly articulate a sense of purpose and mission for the organisation. We must lead with ‘why’. We must establish the organisation’s mission which is both motivational and aspirational. Articulating the vision is not sufficient in itself. We must also reiterate it at every possible opportunity until it becomes front and centre for every individual. Only then will every initiative, every decision, be driven by the shared vision and the organisation will start executing in harmony.
For example, at Jumio, our mission is to eradicate identity theft. To that end, we have laid out a clear vision to build out a solution that is privacy-first and the source of truth for all things identity. What’s amazing about this is that the entire organisation rallied around this vision as soon as we articulated the “why.” We rolled out a no-code orchestration platform in record time. We acquired 4Stop to further extend the platform. And we are now off to the next base camp to eventually get to the summit. The feedback from the teams is they are more energised than ever, collaboration has increased and it feels less like work. That is the power of having a clear vision and purpose.
What are the most important skills that are needed to carry out your role effectively?
It starts with empathy. If we learn to walk in others’ shoes, even for a bit, we will all be able to cover further distances together. Leadership skills are critical as well. As leaders, we owe it to the teams to be decisive and make quick, rational decisions. We should also avoid falling into the trap of edge cases. It is good to be aware of edges, but it is also important to bring critical thinking to problem solving. Leaders must be open-minded and look more holistically at the big picture. Think differently and apply innovation to solutions.
Another important set of skills is adaptability and agility. Adapt to circumstances and be nimble in responses. A critical skill is the ability to build relationships across the organisation at every level. Conflict management skills are absolutely required to lead, manage and support cross-functional teams. Strong negotiation skills are essential for decision-making both internally and externally.
Be strategic. Bring ultra focus for the organisation so teams can move nimbly on the big bets. Don’t let short-term wins get in the way of the long game. Delegate often — it’s the best way to build bench strength in the organisation while freeing up your time to focus on strategic initiatives. A vastly underestimated skill is communication. Every leader must effectively and regularly reach out across the organisation to ensure there is good visibility to the progress toward the North Star. But also, be honest with everyone on how the journey is progressing.
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What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your role?
I like to think of every challenge as an opportunity in the making. Some of the biggest challenges that are also great opportunities to build an amazing organisation are getting organisational alignment, building a strong culture, breaking silos, managing acquisitions, building a framework for transparent and honest collaboration and establishing a growth mindset. These are solvable challenges but they will take time, patience and empathy. As mentioned earlier, establishing an organisational vision is the first step to help address some of these challenges.
Silos occur when there are localised incentives, and they typically cause teams to focus on their own gains instead of the customer. By establishing an organisational vision, we are providing teams with the reference framework to build out their respective objectives and measurable key results (OKRs) to align with the vision. The OKRs may be localised, but it is toward a common global vision. The teams will also have a sense of ownership since they crafted their OKRs. This will naturally foster an environment of collaboration, teams will nudge each other into a growth mindset and lead to the building of a strong culture. Where there is a challenge, there is an opportunity.
What advice would you give to other tech leaders in your position, in terms of achieving success?
Take risks. Make decisions and make them fast. Be a servant leader. Invest in your people. Roll up your sleeves. It is critical to be open to multiple perspectives and objectively pick the best ideas from across these perspectives to arrive at the final solution. At the same time, it is important to not end up with analysis paralysis. I have seen many ideas die a sad death because of the needless exploration of fringe criteria.
Always strive to keep it simple. A product lead’s primary approach should be to make a molehill out of a mountain. Try to make progress over perfection. Learn to filter out the noise. Keep an eye on — but don’t obsess over — competitor strategies. There is room for everyone. And for all you know, the competitor strategy may be flawed. Listen to understand, not to respond. Be open-minded to how you approach problem solving. Innovate. Think outside the box. Hire right. Trust your teams. If you hire right, you will have incredibly talented teams. Give them the freedom to spread their wings. Lead with empathy. Support a growth mindset. Encourage failure. Take risks. Pivot quickly. Ignore loud voices; instead follow the data. If you establish the right culture, all else will follow. As a leader, your top priority is your people followed by a clear articulation of your North Star. Then get out of the way so your teams can execute.