Bala Kumar, Chief Product Officer at Jumio, spoke to Information Age about what it takes to successfully see through product strategy in the identity space.
Jumio CPO Kumar believes in leading with empathy and seeing every challenge as an opportunity for growth.
Bala Kumar leads product vision and strategy at mobile payments and identity verification provider Jumio, as CPO, and oversees the execution of the organization’s digital identity platform. With more than two decades of product innovation and leadership experience under his belt, Kumar previously held executive positions at consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion, as well as serving as CPO at the acquisition of TransUnion iovation.
In this Q&A, Kumar reveals how he goes about communicating his vision to the workforce and stakeholders, the most important skills the CPO must have, and the biggest tests he had to overcome in his position.
1. How do you communicate your vision to the organization and ensure that all staff are on board?
The most important step a leader must take is to clearly articulate a sense of purpose and mission for the organization. We must lead with ‘why’. We must establish the mission of the organization which is both motivating and ambitious. Articulating the vision is not enough in itself. We must also reiterate it at every possible opportunity until it becomes the focus of every individual’s concern. Only then will every initiative, every decision be guided by the shared vision and the organization will begin to execute in harmony.
For example, at Jumio, our mission is to eradicate identity theft. To that end, we’ve set out a clear vision to build a solution that prioritizes privacy and the source of truth for all things identity. What is amazing is that the whole organization rallied around this vision as soon as we formulated the “why”. We deployed a no-code orchestration platform in record time. We acquired 4Stop to further expand the platform. And we now go to the next base camp to finally reach the top. The feedback from the teams is that they are more energized than ever, collaboration has increased and it feels less like work. It is the power of having a clear vision and purpose.
2. What are the most important skills needed to perform your role effectively?
It starts with empathy. If we learn to walk in other people’s shoes, even for a moment, we can all walk greater distances together. Leadership skills are also essential. As leaders, we owe it to the teams to be decisive and to make quick and rational decisions. We must also avoid falling into the trap of extreme cases. It’s good to be aware of limitations, but it’s also important to bring critical thinking to problem solving. Leaders need to be open-minded and have a more holistic view of the big picture. Thinking differently and applying innovation to solutions.
Another important skill set is adaptability and agility. Adapt to circumstances and be agile in your responses. A core competency is the ability to build relationships within the organization at all levels. Conflict management skills are absolutely necessary to lead, manage and support cross-functional teams. Strong negotiation skills are essential for both internal and external decision-making.
Be strategic. Bring extreme focus to the organization so teams can act with agility on big bets. Don’t let short-term wins get in the way of long-term play. Delegate often — it’s the best way to strengthen the organization’s workforce while freeing up time to focus on strategic initiatives. A vastly underrated skill is communication. Each leader must communicate effectively and regularly with the whole organization to ensure that there is good visibility on the progress towards the North Star. But also, be honest with everyone about the progress of the trip.
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3. What are the biggest challenges you have had to face in your role?
I like to consider each challenge as an opportunity in the making. Some of the biggest challenges that are also great opportunities to build an amazing organization are organizational alignment, building a strong culture, breaking down silos, managing acquisitions, building a seamless collaboration framework and honest and establishing a growth mindset. These are solvable challenges but they will take time, patience and empathy. As mentioned earlier, establishing an organizational vision is the first step to help address some of these challenges.
Silos occur when there are localized incentives, and they typically cause teams to focus on their own wins rather than the customer. By establishing an organizational vision, we provide teams with the frame of reference to build their respective goals and Measurable Key Results (OKRs) to align with the vision. OKRs can be localized, but it is towards a common global vision. The teams will also have a sense of belonging since they have developed their OKRs. This will naturally foster a collaborative environment, teams will push each other into a growth mindset and lead to building a strong culture. Where there is a challenge, there is an opportunity.
4. What advice would you give to other technology leaders in your position, in terms of success?
Take risks. Make decisions and make them quickly. Be a servant leader. Invest in your staff. Roll up your sleeves. Being open to multiple perspectives and objectively choosing the best ideas from those perspectives is key to arriving at the final solution. At the same time, it is important not to end up with analysis paralysis. I have seen many ideas die sadly because of unnecessary exploration of marginal criteria.
Always try to keep it simple. A product manager‘s primary approach should be to make a molehill out of a mountain. Try to progress on perfection. Learn how to filter noise. Keep an eye on competitors’ strategies, but don’t focus on them. There is room for everyone. And as far as you know, competitors’ strategy may be flawed. Listen to understand, not to respond. Be open-minded about how you approach problem solving. Innovate. Get off the beaten track. Right to hire. Trust your teams. If you hire properly, you’ll have incredibly talented teams. Give them the freedom to spread their wings. Lead with empathy. Support a growth mindset. Encourage failure. Take risks. Rotate quickly. Ignore loud voices; follow the data instead. If you establish the right culture, everything else will follow. As a leader, your top priority is your people, followed by a clear articulation of your North Star. Then, step aside so your teams can execute.