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Faces of Modern Leadership - Abha Kumar

Kira Ciccarelli

 The Faces of Modern Leadership series spotlights rising directors who are part of Diligent’s Modern Leadership initiative, a network of nearly 700,000 CEOs, board directors and executives. Modern Leadership aims to impact diversity, equity and inclusion at more than 25,000 organizations worldwide, dedicated to building the largest, most diverse pool of highly qualified directors and executives in the world. 

Abha Kumar is a board member, an experienced business strategist and digital transformation expert. With over three decades’ experience, she has led breakthrough digital transformation campaigns at heavy-hitting companies like Vanguard, where she served as Principal and Head of Shared Services and CIO of Corporate and International Systems, Dow Jones & Co (The Wall Street Journal), where she served as a Divisional CIO, responsible for market data, corporate and e-commerce systems and The New York Times, where she served as Technology Group Director. Currently, Abha sits on the board of Vahanna Tech Edge Acquisition I Corp, a SPAC focused on bringing global grow capital to India’s technology sector, Notify.io, an enterprise SaaS company, the advisory boards of Shopelier, an eCommerce startup, and Shanti Bhavan, a nonprofit education program for disadvantaged children.

Backstory: A Global and Technology-Driven Perspective

Before she began her professional career, Abha studied at nine different educational institutions across two continents, giving her a global perspective, deep understanding of cultural nuances, and as a result, invaluable insights into different business approaches to problem-solving and operations: “I had this wonderful progression where I was able to constantly learn and make my next experience more meaningful.”

Abha began her professional career in the United States, where she worked for the New York Times, helping them to set up a shared services center consolidating all of the applications for human resources and finance: “I was proud to be a part of that team when the media industry was experiencing extreme disruption” she says. This allowed her to think about how technology can disrupt the status quo, which came in handy at the Wall Street Journal, where they were facing similar disruptions: “At the WSJ, we were able to completely transform the marketing data processing through digitization and consolidation and set up the first technology and business processing outsourcing operations.”

At Vanguard, the second largest asset manager in the world, Abha had several accomplishments; “I established and led the digital transformation for the organization referred to as the E2.0 Agenda, transforming communications, collaboration and mobility for employees and clients across the enterprise and around the globe. My second accomplishment was fueling Vanguard’s growth strategy with global talent and innovation, providing technology solutions across all business lines through pioneering outsourcing and creating a shared services center with eight centers in Europe and Asia. This was a complete business transformation from a global talent and innovation perspective. The third major accomplishment was around inclusion: I help found the Leadership and Engagement Group for Asian Professionals (LEAP) an employee resource group, which has 2000+ members now.” 

The Secret Sauce for Success

For Abha, it is her resilience, technical acumen, and relationship building skills, along with the support of those that have believed in her. Her global and international background complements her technology expertise: “This allows me to envision the future of an organization and make the case for change. I can think globally, operate locally, and understand different perspectives.”

Being able to envision the future is vital in a world changing so rapidly. As Abha puts it: “Change itself is changing. Think about the pandemic and how quickly organizations had to change to survive. It is not just technology innovation, it is the accelerating pace of change and competition. Companies can’t afford to have pilots and slow rollouts.”

Abha’s wealth of experience learning and living in different parts of the world and working for many different companies sets her up for success: “I understand different cultural norms. Sometimes the biggest challenges come from cultural norms and not the technology or other disruption itself. How do you get people comfortable with understanding how the new world will look like? We all talk about change, but the hardest thing for organizations and individuals is change itself. One must understand the cultural norms of the organization, get diverse ideas on the table, and have an open debate.

Her solution: “If you can paint a picture of what the future will look like, people are less scared. You need to explain how, when, what, and why the change is happening. The real difficulty is, how do you communicate the message, and how do you get people comfortable? Those who are the most resistant can sometimes end up being your biggest supporters if you’re patient and can win them over.”

Thoughts on The War for Global Talent

Abha believes that the global context we are living in now will drive major trends in the business world moving forward: “We are so interconnected now, and that sets the stage for how we need to think about global talent.” She predicts that the future is about getting talent wherever it exists: “HR leaders will have to get comfortable with the idea of integrating a hybrid, distributed and flexible workforce. The pace of change is accelerating and the war for talent will continue to wage. Constant technology innovation will lead to new virtual norms and new ways of working and thinking about talent. Employers will need to hire for soft skills like resilience, fast learners who are adaptable with the ability to thrive in environments of experimentation and continuous change. I envision a future of constant learning and continuous change.”

A Passion for Equal Access to Opportunity 

Abha is passionate about paving the way for everyone to have equal access to education and opportunities. At Vanguard, she founded LEAP to increase leadership awareness and engagement of Asians. The program has grown from five members to over 2000 and has made a difference in Asian engagement and representation at the management level of the company.

She also sits on the board of Shanti Bhavan, a nonprofit residential education program for disadvantaged children in India. Shanti Bhavan is unique in its holistic approach to education: they work to not only promote academic achievement, but to instill leadership qualities and values of global citizenship as well.

For Abha, the importance of equal access to education is deeply personal: “I was educated because my great grandmother lost everything including all her wealth when her husband died because she was not educated. So, she swore to educate all of her children, including her girls.”

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