INSEAD Participant Interview

Strategy is fundamentally about fit, adapt or die

Kelvin Cheema

Kelvin Cheema attended INSEAD’s online Business Strategy and Financial Performance programme and would highly recommend the INSEAD experience to anyone who wants to take ownership of their career, to see immediate impact, and to make a real difference to their own organisational, personal and client goals.

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Kelvin Cheema has enjoyed a prestigious career at the forefront of technological transformation. He has held C-Suite positions across a breadth of sectors including financial services, healthcare and education. As strategic advisor to some of the world’s foremost organisations, he has also built an internationally consolidated reputation in helping to drive growth in disrupted times. Kelvin completed the Business Strategy and Financial Performance programme at INSEAD in 2020.

Kelvin, what is happening in the digital transformation space at the moment?

As we emerge into the post-pandemic landscape, things are very fluid and are unlikely to solidify any time soon. So there are a number of challenges for Chief Technology Officers. To cope with constraints on physical proximity, sharp surges in demand, and other sudden shifts required by navigating through a global pandemic – the role of CTO has diversified and expanded its boundaries. Tech savviness, business acumen and commercial awareness – all these are a “given” for any transformational CTO. But CTOs are limited if they fail to understand the levers to improve return on invested capital by linking strategic and tactical actions to financial outcomes. A CTO needs to develop financial literacy, assessing the impacts on market size, competitive pressures, and industry value chain dynamics. And he or she needs to be competent enough to integrate execution into strategy with great agility and innovation, underpinned by better decision-making to succeed in today’s more challenging markets.

My current role is focused on prioritising customer-centricity; putting the customer at the heart of the organisation and reinventing the customer experience, leveraging journey maps, deep customer empathy, and data to create transformative digital interfaces, marketing strategies, and process innovations

Technology is versatile and constantly reimagining the possibilities to accommodate new experiences. The roles that oversee technology’s place within an organisation need to integrate the same level of versatility.

So what brought you to INSEAD and to the Business Strategy and Financial Performance programme this year?

I was looking for a programme that would help me better inform my own organisation, Talent, and our clients as we start reshaping the future of work post-pandemic. I wanted exposure to a diversity of thinking around connecting consumer behaviour, digitisation and productivity by bringing together industry domain strategic operating models to financial performance. Operating within the C-suite, several seasoned CEOs and CFOs recommended this programme to me, to further develop my strategic agility in the face of disruption – to get to faster and smarter decision-making, through understanding the drivers behind an organisation’s financial performance.

You took the programme in the online delivery format. Why was this?

Unfortunately work commitments limited any capacity I had to attend a programme on campus, so I opted for an online learning experience. I knew that INSEAD was a leader in creating an enriched, dynamic learning pathway that mirrors the on-campus experience, so I was confident that the learning would be just as dynamic and the context just as diverse. In general, I believe that there is an imperative for academic institutions to continuously innovate in this year, building blended learning courses that integrate online with on-campus experience. I think this is really important as we enter the new normal, post-Covid.

INSEAD is a very international school, in the true sense of the word – founded on values such as diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. It was clear from the outset, INSEAD brings together people, cultures, and ideas from around the world – developing the capabilities of organisations by developing the capabilities of individuals.

So the diversity and dynamism of the experience were highlights for you?

Yes. The global diversity of participants was well orchestrated into effective learning groups, encouraging peer-to-peer collaboration as a means to share insights and experience in a manageable way.

The faculty were also world-class. Professor Peter Zemsky’s articulation of value creation and sustained value capture through analyses of threats and environments, coupled with Professor Daniel Bens’ financial modelling were key highlights. The learning was really well supported by real-world case studies, interactive videos, and tailored subject-matter collateral.

One of the core elements of INSEAD online programmes is the Action Learning Project (ALP). Can you tell us about your ALP?

The Action Learning Project gave me the opportunity to translate and validate my learnings – new frameworks, approaches, and industry best practices – with my own real-life organisational and client challenges. I focused on areas that are really important to my work – from the use of industrial robots to pick, sort and track merchandise in warehouses to managing surging e-commerce demand; from virtual healthcare to remote education and AI-powered chatbots to reduce customer contact.

The ALP is a well-orchestrated, mastery-driven, structured learning pathway. It provides a cohesive approach in terms of formulating a strategy, implementation roadmap, governance, risk analysis and financial robustness. I was able to implement elements of my ALP both at my own organisation and with my C-level portfolio of clients.

Another element of the programme that I really appreciated was having a learning coach who was always on hand to push me and to help me broaden my thinking throughout the learning experience.

Did you have any “aha” moments during the programme that have stayed with you?

On reflection, I learnt that cultural transformation must start before digital transformation can begin in a meaningful way. Sometimes cultural and digital must co-exist simultaneously and even in real-time and that can be a major change for many organisations of all sizes and geographies.

We are surrounded by technology, so much so, technology is driving more and more business. So, getting business people to understand what they can do with technology, what the opportunities are and so on, this is pivotal for sustainable and profitable growth.

Then I think the programme really helped me gain clarity on what leadership means. Something that the programme affirmed for me is that authenticity really is the gold standard for leadership, because ultimately a leader’s role is to create space for others to excel. As an individual, you cannot make it alone, so there’s a critical need to bring people together through collaboration – to bring in diversity and experiences together to drive innovation.

Coming away from the programme, how would you characterise the experience?

It was quite simply a world-class learning experience, facilitated by a world-class institution. I was humbled and grateful to be awarded distinction, more so, because of the anonymous peer-to-peer assessment process.

I would highly recommend the INSEAD experience to anyone who wants to take ownership of their career, to see immediate impact, and to make a real difference to their own organisational, personal and client goals.

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