Vimal Kumar, Absa Group: Leadership and innovation

Vimal Kumar CEO, Retail and Digital Banking and CDO, Absa Group, on leadership and industry evolution and innovation.

Vimal Kumar
Absa Group Limited

CEO, Retail and Digital Banking and CDO, Absa Group

Vimal Kumar didn't plan on becoming a banker. It was, rather, by default than by design. His attention was caught by a newspaper advertisement posted by global banking giant Standard Chartered, which was looking for a post-graduate to work in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley and one of the subcontinent’s biggest metropolises. The ad featured Standard Chartered alumnus John Major and asked – Where do Prime Ministers come from? “The rest is history. I have enjoyed every moment of my 25-year banking journey!” says Kumar.

Africa had called him since, as a young student in India in the 1980s, he became aware of Nelson Mandela and his leadership of the liberation struggle in South Africa. “I related to it and in spirit joined the struggle happening in a part of the world that I would one day call home. Once resident in ‘Rainbow Nation’, I was introduced to diversity and inclusivity the way Madiba espoused it and these principles have infused my thinking.” Another leader to shape Vimal's leadership is Sir Richard Branson, who fought dyslexia, was a school drop-out, and yet made it as a business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist besides, founding the global Virgin brand. “He also has his share of failures but holds an unusually optimistic view of failure. He has written: 'I suppose the secret to bouncing back is not only to be unafraid of failures but to use them as motivational and learning tools.... There's nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you don't make the same ones over and over again.'”

As Chief Digital Officer at Absa, Vimal Kumar has seen technology sweep away banking's fusty image. “The financial services industry has been witnessing significant digital transformation. Various fintech and non-traditional players are entering the banking space, with customer-friendly solutions developed from the ground up and unencumbered by legacy systems. Even the tech giants are using their technology prowess, large user base, and big data analytics to offer superior financial services experiences. The new age disruptors are attacking some of the most profitable elements of the financial services value chain. Regulatory authorities are trying to put in place frameworks to balance the need to encourage innovation while at the same time provide meaningful oversight of these disruptors.

“PwC’s 19th Annual Global CEO Survey found that 70% of leaders in financial services said the speed of change in technology was a concern. One of the key pillars of Absa's growth strategy is to build a scalable digital-led business,” says Kumar. He identifies digital wallets, AI, ML and IoT; big data and block chain as central to his vision for Absa. He adds that the new reality unleashed by the COVID-19 crisis will force the industry to disrupt the status quo and accelerate transformation in a manner that insulates the financial ecosystem from the consequences of global meltdown in the future.

Kumar has an open approach to leadership. “I don’t believe in micromanaging my team. I am always available should they have any challenges or need some quick advice though I do encourage them to solve challenges on their own. I think that giving my team autonomy has contributed to our many successes.” Conflicts do arise, he admits, and he likes to deal with them promptly. “Communication is key. For my leadership style, I often espouse some of the principles on marketing warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout, who say ‘a defender (leader) must keep alert to serious challengers and respond quickly’, and that ‘you can't defend everywhere; sometimes you have to cut your losses and move on’. Another founder who left an indelible mark on my mind is Ray Kroc who dove in at the deep end at the age of 52, eventually transforming the fast food business to what it is today and brought McDonald’s to literally every corner of the planet.”

When not at work or travelling on business, the CEO is mostly home-bound, with his wife and their two dogs, watching Netflix or reading a book, with a glass of wine always on hand. He has “an incredible passion” for cooking which he finds a great stress-reliever after work hours, much to “the happiness of my wife”. 

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“The financial services industry has been witnessing significant digital transformation"

Vimal Kumar | Absa Group Limited

He admits to consistently looking for the positives in every scenario: “The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the urgent need to build future-proof societies and businesses that are able to sustain themselves through digital adoption and business empathy. Firms should think about survival: if this means focusing on the ‘triple bottom line’ (profit, people, planet), then that should be the reimagined reality for everyone in the COVID-19 era. This pandemic teaches us interconnectedness and the reality of a work-from-home, low-contact economy. Power lies in governments and business working together in unlocking Africa’s communities to ensure that nobody is left behind in the new digital reality. Now is the time for entrepreneurial energy and new innovation and opportunity. The informal economy and SMEs comprise a sizeable chunk of Africa’s workforce and they need to be protected, nurtured and re-skilled to thrive in the new normal,” says the banker with a perennial eye on the future

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