Getting Candid with Vrinda Menon
This week I had a wonderful opportunity to interview Vrinda Menon, CTO, Operations & Client Services JP Morgan Private Bank.
Vrinda’s focus on emphasizing learning as a tool to always grow and bring something new to the table is very inspiring, being a technologist herself, she focuses on gaining expertise on a subject and solving a real problem. Vrinda further is very dedicated to her team, the satisfaction of her team in both professional work and personal health.
In this interview, Vrinda talks about her ideal day as CTO, her motivations, journey and her ideas of the essential qualities in a leader. She also talks about her interests outside of work, continue to read more!
What does your day as a CTO look like?
Let me first give you a little bit of background on what I do, to paint the context — I manage a global team of 800 people across Asia, Europe and the Americas that own a large number of Platforms that operate 24/7, supporting the Private Banking business.
Naturally, the number one priority when I wake up is to make sure that my platforms across the globe are humming along and that nothing has happened at night that suddenly risks any part of our business. Most days are great. But some days, there will be things that just don’t feel right when I look at some of the emails, even if no one has yet actually escalated to me. Under those scenarios, I send a few messages out to my team to understand what is going on and ask if they need any help. Most of the time such issues get resolved very quickly. But if there are any complex ones, I quickly get deep into the trenches with my teams, working on them. My global teams are also responsible for hundreds of short, medium and long-range projects that I keep a general tab on to ensure that they are progressing well and involve myself if there is any need in my support or direction.
Then, there are specific experimental efforts that I’m deeply passionate about and at any point, I’ll have one or two of these passion projects that I need to spend my own time on, that I like learning, researching and actually implementing to get the satisfaction that I’ve added something to my personal toolkit — AI/ML is one of my passions, so I stay very close to advances in that space.
The other thing that I look out for is the overall health of my teams across the globe from a capability, skill level and quality of execution standpoint. Sometimes, there are issues to be resolved which I spend time on.
So while each day is slightly different, when I end my week on Friday before signing off, I am able to ask myself — On balance, have I moved all these things in the right direction? The outcome of that question creates energy and focus for the coming week. That’s how I operate. Sounds complicated but it helps me create sanity in an ecosystem that’s constantly changing. The markets are changing, the business is changing, our priorities are changing, but I need a stable fabric with which to operate.
What has been your guiding motivation throughout your professional journey?
The number one thing, and I think that’s true for any person in any kind of career, is passion. If you come in every morning and feel happy and excited, and you feel you’re doing something that is really making a positive difference, whatever that may be, then you feel enthusiastic and motivated. When you lead a team, your people need to feel energized and motivated and if the leader is not energized and motivated, it’s not going to be great for the team.
The second thing is my obsession with learning. I don’t look at myself as a technologist, I look at myself as somebody who’s solving a problem, and I work hard to learn not just the particular subject I am being asked to look at but everything around it to become enough of an expert. And then I’m able to apply a lens and say, How do I solve the real problem? Which could be very different from the problem that was defined to me at the outset. That is a part of me even outside of work — I’m curious about everything around me in my daily life that helps me connect dots that I would have never connected before!
What do you believe are the essential qualities in a leader to make a company grow and handle the unexpected circumstances that might come in the way?
The global pandemic is a perfect example of completely unexpected circumstances that companies and leaders around the world had to react to. When COVID struck, the whole world was in disarray. Sometime in March 2020, our firm decided overnight on a Sunday that from the following Monday, people were not going to go into the office. And here I was the leader of a large organization, trying to figure out what I would tell my people and how I would motivate them? How I would rally the organization, because there was work to be done and a business to continue while there was an overwhelming sense of personal fear and anxiety.
First and foremost, leaning back on the core values of the organization that we work for, is a good foundation for figuring out how you orient and direct the teams. Our firm believes deeply in being the most respected financial institution in the world — respected because we treat our clients really well, because we have integrity, and we care about our people. Leaning back on those core values made things very easy for me. My first challenge was to implement a piece of software that normally would have taken us multiple months in very short order, to make sure that when our Client Service Advisors started working from home, their desktops and their phone lines were working so they could serve our clients in the most effective way, exactly as they would do if they were in the office. My team worked to solve that night and day, but with energy and passion because they knew they had a mission to accomplish. Second, and even more important was the focus on our people. I needed to make sure that my teams were okay and my people were doing okay. So first, I held a town hall with all of them. And I said, ask me anything that you want and I’ll try and answer to the extent that I can, but we’re going to figure this out together. And they asked me a lot of questions, and while I could answer some of them, for the rest, I had to assure them that while I did not have the answers, I was with them on the journey to come out of the situation and be better for that experience.
And then over the next 30 weeks, I split my team into smaller groups. And I held meetings with them every single week in cohorts from different parts of the world. People would come together in this small group setting and would ask me a lot of questions. I could also watch the faces on the video calls and understand who seemed to be sad and who was not exactly there and I would call them later and find out if there was any way I could help them.
As the months progressed, I saw people getting more stressed and starting to have personal challenges, losing family members, in some cases, losing friends and feeling the exhaustion from not knowing when the pandemic was going to end. At that point, I set up a whole set of programs leaning into our wellness teams to focus on employee health and mental well-being.
I would say in principle, when people watched me calm and composed, not knowing the answers, but holding on and trying to figure out how to solve, I think they felt comforted, even if the uncertainty was palpable.
What would be your advice to those who are just starting with their careers and aspire to be influential leaders?
I would say number one, Learn. I strongly believe in that. Learn everything that you possibly can about the subject you are working on. If you’re a technologist and a programmer, don’t just think programming, think about the business problem, understand the business, understand more about why the business is doing certain things, because then the solutions that you will come up with are going to be far better than the solutions you would have implemented otherwise.
The other thing I would say is to make sure your voice is heard. Among many cultures, you’re told to work really hard in whatever you’re doing for people to recognize your value. That is true when you’re in school. That’s true when you’re in college also. But as you grow in your career, work is typically not done by one person, a team produces the work. And if you don’t say a word and your voice is not heard, you don’t exist. Luckily, I learnt this in my first job. I used to spend nearly 18 hours a day at a client site working on building a system for a client with a programmer supporting me who worked from nine to five. After he left for the day, I would work until midnight, testing and fixing bugs in his code. Meanwhile, he would occasionally stop by at our own firm’s office and he would post them on how our project was progressing. After a few months, we were giving a demo of the system to the client management, and guess who was asked to give the demo — he was! While I was sitting in the computer room in the corner, making sure that the system was running because nobody remembered that I actually existed or if they did, had no idea of my value.
Your work is not going to speak for itself, you have to be able to communicate that to others and make your voice heard, otherwise you don’t exist.
So those are the two big pieces of advice that I would give the people who are starting off in their career.
What is the one thing outside of work that you’re really that you really take interest in?
I love cooking. It’s not a regular meal that I am talking about. When I travel to a certain part of the world, I come back with memories of something that is unique and special that I really love. And I have to try cooking it until I become an expert — sometimes, it takes me over 30 tries to reach that goal. And then it gets a permanent place in my own recipe book. For example, we went to Dublin and strangely enough, we went to a Moroccan restaurant there and that’s when I first tasted Tagine and I was amazed by the flavors. And now I am an expert in Tagine — chicken, lamb, vegetable — you name it! When we were in Portugal, I tasted chocolate salami, which I had never heard of, and it blew my mind. I’ve tried making chocolate salami in all flavors with all types of alcohol. And now I’m an expert in chocolate salami!
What is the one memory you have, that always brings positivity to you?
When I was growing up, my dad was very particular about having his daughter get a good education and ensuring that I had everything I possibly could need to achieve my dreams. And knowing that I was passionate about mathematics and engineering, he worked very hard to support me in that. He was always there for me, at every step of my life and career, making sure that I was doing well. He is no longer in this world, but I know that he is proud of me. And that makes me feel very positive and happy.
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