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'The best talent requires you to be flexible' - Akhil Anumolu on digital transformation

KFC’s VP of Global Digital Product Management and Engineering appeared on the Venari Podcast

‘Number one, at the end of the day, is understanding who our end consumer is,’ says Akhil Anumolu. His career has taken in digital product management, engineering, commercial strategy and digital marketing stints at Symantec and Delta Air Lines – and now, as Vice President of Global Digital Product Management and Engineering at KFC, he has a direct hand in shaping the company’s digital transformation and innovation across the globe. Tom Woods, Senior Consultant for our Digital & Technology team, caught up with Akhil on the Venari Podcast, where they discussed team building, implementing best practices for digital transformation, and overcoming challenges in the space.

 


 

Internal stakeholders are key

Akhil believes that platform building should centre on internal colleagues – indeed, that they should be thought of as customers. ‘I don’t build platforms and capabilities to make my external customers happy,’ he notes. ‘I have to build platforms and capabilities to make my internal customers happy.’ Developing, for instance, an e-commerce site means giving the retailing or marketing teams room to work and understand their own end goals and KPIs. As such, Akhil’s colleagues are frequently his biggest stakeholders – ‘because if they can’t do their job, realistically we’re not going to hit our goals as a company.’


He also stresses the need to evaluate product features against cost and opportunity, preferring a longer-term approach to having everything ready in the first iteration. ‘A lot of times, I see companies build any and everything into their platform and then, when they launch, they find out that their end users either are not using it, they’re using it much differently, or it’s not providing the value that they thought,’ Akhil explains. He compares it to moving into an unfurnished house – what you add to it as time goes on, rather than how it looks at the beginning, is ultimately what matters.


Meeting customers’ needs

There’s a fine balance to strike between not doing too much to set up foundational pieces while still giving internal customers what they need. For Akhil, it comes down to thinking about what the core platform is trying to achieve. Understanding how to bring in customers through digital marketing – and removing any friction along the ‘happy path’ leading to purchase – is essential. He cites even simple examples, like third-party payment gateways rather than integrated systems of basic details that many businesses don’t get right – though of course you can always expand further; using dynamic content, demographics, and user feedback can yield stronger results.


Building teams for the global stage

Over three years on from the start of the pandemic, it can feel like as if the home working vs. office debate will never end – but Akhil dismisses such concerns out of hand. ‘We’re definitely in an age where finding the best talent requires you to be flexible,’ he notes. ‘I’ve always been a proponent of just hiring the best talent you can find. Who cares where they sit? They could be sitting on a beach.’ As long as they’re delivering, he is happy to let talent determine their own schedules and locations.


Results, not education or even experience, will always come first; when it comes to hiring, who will be the best fit is foremost on Akhil’s mind. ‘I always make a comment to my teams: I spend eight to 10 hours a day potentially with you, right? Sometimes that’s more than I even spend with my family,’ he says. I want to make sure you’re great to hang out with, because that’s how we’re going to foster collaboration.’ Akhil adds that he prefers to look for candidates with lots of potential he can help to nurture, rather than people who are already established in their field. ‘I’ve hired someone who is now in a leadership role at Delta Air Lines who started as a baggage handler,’ he explains. ‘It’s [about] finding that hidden talent and gems’, as often ‘those people tend to be the most incorporated and excited’.


Structure is key for leadership

‘I’ve always been of the mindset that my leadership style is going to be [that] I provide guardrails and I provide a goal,’ Akhil says. ‘How you want to drive the car to get to the endpoint is up to you.’ He trusts his talent to lead and develop in their own way. Regional subdivisions allow local leaders to hire, select and manage people backed by ‘knowing that they’re within roughly the same time zones and same work time so they can work collaboratively’ with nearby teams. Working across larger time differences can be challenging, but Akhil manages this by choosing designated days to check in on operations in wider areas – e.g., Europe, Asia – ‘so I can make sure that they’re getting enough one-on-one and face time with me and the rest of the team. And of course, when I do that I make sure we offset the schedules so that someone who’s working an Asia Day, maybe based out of the U.S. or even Europe, is not taking away from their personal life by having to work extended hours.’


Staying ahead of the curve

Akhil acknowledges that facing – and, where possible, pre-empting – challenges is essential in digital transformation, though he believes that buzzwords frequently take over conversations about how to stay ahead of the curve. The most successful retailers will always focus on doing the basics well – ‘being able to transact for a purchase, being able to provide contextually relevant information and products’ – rather than getting too distracted with transient details. Solid delivery and structure for the simple things will allow businesses to add extra features later; ‘it doesn’t matter if we go and add all these bells and whistles if we can’t deliver our core product.’


Elsewhere, Akhil is concerned by state-level regulation of the digital sphere – particularly for what concerns privacy laws. ‘They all have the best intent which is for the end consumer to be able to control their data [...] Unfortunately, a lot of these laws are being written not by experts, but by policy makers and career politicians where they don’t understand the technology and usage behind it.’ He believes it’s incumbent on digital leaders to use their influence carefully, and to help lawmakers come up with legislation that works for end users and digital business alike.


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