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Peter Gumulia on Success as Chief of Staff, Gojek & Indonesia Tech Talent and Restoring The Joy of Learning

· Podcast Transcripts

In a lot of ways, chief of staff role is a service role. You are always someone in the shadow … Often you are required to do things that are beyond your own level of leadership and maturity. You're going to make a lot of mistakes and it's better for you to be the one making the mistakes than the CEO making the mistakes in many ways, and that's why you're being put in that position in the first place. - Peter Gumulia

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

 Pooja Sinha: [00:00:30] Peter Gumulia is currently an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. Previously, he was Chief of Staff and VP of Strategy and Growth at GoPay, one of the largest fintech companies in South East Asia.

Growing up in Indonesia, Peter experienced life as a cycle of “school, athletics, homework, and repeat." In his own words, "Discipline played an important role early on in [his] life.” This pushed Peter onto the national golf team when he was only sixteen years old. He then went on to pursue his undergraduate degree at Georgia Institute of Technology, and after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering with the highest honors, Peter joined Bain & Co as a management consultant for two years in the US, soon after which he joined GoPay.

In the future, Peter aspires to build an online English learning platform in his home country. He hopes that this platform can unleash access to high-quality, after school programs for young Indonesians, enabling and empowering them to effectively contribute to the increasingly global economy. He says "My hope is that, in my own tiny way, I can help leapfrog Indonesia to an internationally competitive talent

Jeremy Au: [00:01:43] Hey, Peter. Good to see another Bain-ee and Harvard MBA on this podcast.

Peter Gumulia: [00:01:49] Yeah, Jeremy. Happy to be here. so much for having me here.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:52] Yeah. It has been interesting to see your progress, not just from management consulting to technology, to the Harvard MBA, and now as a founder in Southeast Asia, it's really enjoyable to see that progress and trajectory.

Peter Gumulia: [00:02:07] Yeah, it's been an exhilarating journey I would say. Pretty common path now. It's becoming very common, when you're here at HBS. Everyone's following that two plus two plus two, right? Like, we always make fun of that; most people have done consulting for two years, or investment banking, or doing some kind of professional services for about two years. Two or three years. And then they do either technology, private equity, whatever that is, for another two year, and then they come to the business school for two years, and then they end up doing something completely different usually after business school.

  Jeremy Au: [00:02:40] Yeah. That's so true. You know, for those who haven't had a opportunity to know who you are, could you share with everyone about your leadership journey so far?

  Peter Gumulia: [00:02:50] Yeah, absolutely. I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, and I pretty much spent all of my childhood going to school in Indonesia. Went to a local school, nothing special, but had the opportunity to go to school abroad in the US, in particular because I was an athlete growing up. I was a national golfer and had the opportunity to play college golf or college athletics in the US.

Went to school in the US, and then after that I, like everyone else who's confused with what they want to do with their lives, I decided to join consulting.

So I did management consulting in the US. I was at Bain for about two years in the US, mostly, before I decided to come back home and join Gojek, and then I was at Gojek, in particular GoPay, for about a little over two years, and now I'm at Harvard Business School.

 Jeremy Au: [00:03:43] Amazing. Could you share us a little bit more about how you got started as a chief of staff? It's a increasingly common role in the west, and a relatively rare but starting to grow role in Southeast Asia technology firms, so I'm sure many people would love to know how you got started as a chief of staff.

 Peter Gumulia: [00:04:03] Yeah, so my story of how I got into the technology space, in particular the chief of staff role, is perhaps a little bit unique and different than most people's. At the time,I was still in management consulting. I was in the US, but I had a lot of visa issues in the US, so actually I got kicked out of the country. I received a letter from the USCIS, or the immigration office, one day, and say that, "Peter, you have to leave the country in two weeks." Not to get into too much detail about it, but I ended up doing a lot of projects in the Middle East, a little bit in Southeast Asia as well, until they could sort out my visa in the US.

By the time they were ready to ship me back to the US, I knew that I would not have had a lot of opportunities to do anything else outside of consulting, because my work visa is tied to Bain, basically, in the US. What I ended up doing was that Bain has a program that's basically an industry leave that you can take for six months. They call it an externship, so I decided to take on that opportunity because I knew again by the time I come back to the US I would not have the opportunity to do that.

I decided that I wanted to do something in Indonesia. I wanted to do something very grassroots, something that is very different than consulting, which focuses a lot on strategy, right, on high level things. I wanted to do something that is the exact opposite of that, so I joined Aldi's organization, Mapan.

Mapan was a grassroots organizations that helps a lot of underprivileged communities in Indonesia. I did that for about six months, really enjoyed the experience, but decided that my time in consulting was not done, so I came back again to the US to finish my standard consulting. But what happened was that Aldi's company was being acquired by Gojek along with two other companies, and Aldi was being appointed as the CEO of the payments and financial services business of Gojek.

And you know, at the time, the company was making a transition to not only become a ride hailing company or food delivery company, but more of as a full platform and a big part of that is payments and financial services. You know, you think about what Atwood, what Ant Financial was, or Alibaba, right? And then Aldi called me and asked me whether I wanted to become his chief of staff, and the rest is history, I guess.

You know, one, I think the push factor was not actually that obvious, right? Because I was enjoying consulting, I was back in the US, I had all my friends there, but I knew that in the long run when I think about where I could be most helpful, I knew that it was Indonesia, right? The place that I grew up in is where I knew the consumer behavior very well, and being offered a chief of staff role at a company that was experiencing tremendous growth, a newly built division within the company is definitely something that I could not pass up on.

In addition, I had really enjoyed working with Aldi, had a really good relationship with him, and he was a fantastic mentor to me, so yeah, long story short, packed my bags and decided to move back to Indonesia.

 Jeremy Au: [00:07:03] What was your first day like, moving back to Indonesia and starting your job as the chief of staff? Can you paint the room when they announced who you were and got yourself set up?

  Peter Gumulia: [00:07:13] Yeah, it was a little bit crazy, actually, because remember I flew back in on a Friday or a Saturday, and I wanted to take a week or two week's break to get over the jet lag, get all my stuff in, but Aldi was like, "No, you're starting on Monday." So I started immediately, didn't have a lot of a break, and at the time, the deal was not announced yet, so we were still operating on stealth mode. And In many ways I was starting to do a lot of the groundwork necessary, right to make sure that Aldi is successful, to make sure that we have the right set of foundations that would allow us to be successful in this new role, in this new environment.

Upfront, it's all about figuring things out. There are so many question marks, so many uncertainties that we have to navigate through, and it was literally just me, and a handful of other people coming from Mapan, the company that Aldi was leading previously, who were moving to go there, so it was really like us trying to things out, basically.

 Jeremy Au: [00:08:06] That must not have been easy at all. I mean, that must have been quite an interesting and challenging time to figure things out. What were some challenges and obstacles that you faced and hopefully overcame?

   Peter Gumulia: [00:08:19] That's a great question and I can think of a million things that we had to overcome. Perhaps one thing that comes to mind immediately when you ask that question, Jeremy, is I think when I asked Aldi this question, I'm still really, really, really close with Aldi, and you know, "Hey, Aldi, why did you hire me?" I was young, right, I was perhaps a little bit naïve, but I think he knew that I could get things done very quickly. I was not afraid to get my hands dirty, right? And he needed someone who had that fire power to be able to figure things out for him on the ground.

I think for me the biggest challenge that I experienced early on was that I came in as a consultant, and admittedly I didn't have a lot of leadership skill. Yes, I had a lot of leadership opportunities and roles that I pursued in college. Yes, in consulting, we thought that we knew what leadership was all about, but you know, to be quite honest we really don't because in consulting you are working with relatively homogenous set of people who are extremely motivated all the time, and it's not really hard to lead them right, when you have extremely talented and motivated people who have similar interests to you, or similar skill sets to you.

I wish early on I came in, and I was like a problem fixer. I was ready to get my hands dirty and figure things out, and been outside of the company now for a little over a year, I wish I had taken the time earlier on to just empathize with the people are experiencing these problems.

Yes, the problem is there. Yes, my tendency is that I'm very impatient, I feel very itchy to get things going, but it's almost like I had to learn to slow down to speed up. a lot of ways, trying to really understand, and ask dumb questions, right? Hey, like, you know, "Why does this problem exist? How are you solving it today? Why does that sound very similar to the problem that the other person is experiencing?"

Just being extra patient. Be observant, but what I mean by observant is be really, really observant with what's going on, and I think if there's one thing that I could've done then differently, I would've taken at least a few months upfront to just get that groundwork and understanding done upfront.

 Jeremy Au: [00:10:28] So on one hand, obviously, there were the challenges of coming in as management consulting, coming in as the chief of staff, and these obstacles that you overcame, it sounds like you were really building yourself up to do some really important things for the company. For those who aren't in the know, how would you say is the importance of the chief of staff role for any technology company, and how would you say that you saw that example in action at Gojek?

 Peter Gumulia: [00:10:56] I would like to point out first that chief of staff role means very, very differently in different companies. It really depends on the DNA of their organization, the size of their organization, and the CEO to envision the role for you. But the way I see it, at the time, was that I was the Robin to the Batman, right? When you think about the things that Aldi had to go through, right? He had a company who he was founder and he was leading behind, so there was a lot of legwork that needs to be done on that front.

And then he's moving into this massive role, and he didn't have anyone who he's had prior work experience with, like moving into this completely new organization that is super high growth, completely different culture. On top of that, arguably, it's a completely new industry for him, too. Highly regulated industry, pretty complex, massive pressure from shareholders, from everyone involved. In a lot of ways, when you put it that way, he was going through a lot.

There was just a lot of things that he had to figure out, and he just doesn't have the time to be able to figure everything out himself, so in a lot of ways the things that I do, the way I think of my role as the chief of staff is that. How do I provide the most time leverage to Aldi? How do I make sure that he is as successful as he possibly could be? And in a lot of ways, chief of staff role is a service role. You are always someone in the shadow, many times. You are trying to figure out things for the person you were chief of staffing for. I don't know if that's even a word, by the way, but you also want to make sure that whatever it is that you do, in a lot of ways, it's not like a traditional role. When you do something, you get credit for. In this role, again, it's a service role; I want to make sure that I'm empowering my boss and make sure that I try as much as possible to paint him in a good picture, right, in front of a new organization, and have him take the credit as much as possible.

It's a very challenging role because it's a catch-all role that requires a generalist skillset. Often you are required to do things that are beyond your own level of leadership and maturity. You're going to make a lot of mistakes and it's better for you to be the one making the mistakes than the CEO making the mistakes in many ways, and that's why you're being put in that position in the first place.

But yeah, it's a fantastic learning opportunity. I think for anyone who are interested in a chief of staff-like role, I think it doesn't come very often for someone. I think you mentioned that there are more companies in Southeast Asia who are thinking about hiring chief of staff, but at least at the time it was very opportunistic. I probably only knew a handful of companies in Indonesia who had a chief of staff.

It's a very opportunistic role. When you have the opportunity to do it, consider it, because I don't want to say that you have to jump into it directly right, because it could go either really well, and you can do amazing things, learn so much in a short period of time, or it could go disastrous as well, for you. If you do not know the person you are working for or you're chief of staffing for, for example, that's a major red flag to me.

Ideally, you want to work with someone who you already have a prior work relationship with. It's not a hard and set rule, but you are going to be on the grind with this person. Day in and day out. I see Aldi and speak to him more often than I spoke to my parents at that time, admittedly, so yeah, I think make sure that you do the proper due diligence. Make sure that you trust and believe in the person that you're going to be working for. Make sure that you have the confidence that he or she will take you under his or her wing.

But if you feel like that opportunity exists, and the setup is correct, and you know the person really well, you trust that person, you've worked with him or her ideally before, it is such a tremendous learning opportunity for someone transitioning into the technology space because you will be exposed to so many different things in a very compressed amount of time.

 Jeremy Au: [00:14:45] It sounds like you're definitely giving out some advice to people about what they should do when considering a chief of staff role. I'm curious. What are some common misconceptions that people have about the chief of staff role?

 Peter Gumulia: [00:14:57] that's a great question because people think because you have the title chief, that you will have authority over a lot of people. That is not true at all. It's not the glorified role that would think of. Yes, I think in many ways it is a very cool opportunity, but when it comes down to actually getting things done, nothing is given to you, so you have to earn that respect. You have to earn that trust for every single person in the organization.

And I think for me right, if I were to one day run a company and have a chief of staff, I think I would set it up more so like an internal rotational program, so I don't think it is healthy for anyone to stay in a chief of staff role for longer than two years, for example. In fact, do a little bit of research on the role, most people recommend 18 months rotation. For people, perhaps who are functional leaders trying to get exposed to different parts of the business, or for someone like me, right, at the time, young, hungry, ready to get my hands dirty, and just figuring things out. That could be a great opportunity as well, because it is going to take a lot out of you. You know, I'm not going to lie, it took a lot out of me. I learned a great deal. I learned a lot about leadership, learned a lot about how to bring people together, we talk a lot about collaboration, but I did not really quite understand what that means until I experience the chief of staff role.

Those are probably the things that are top of mind for me when it comes to some of the things that most people misunderstood about the chief of staff role.

 Jeremy Au: [00:16:23] One interesting part has been your choice to focus on Indonesia's growth story from a technology perspective, not just as an executive, as a chief of staff in technology, but also from education as well. I'm kind of curious before we dive into the industry verticals, why Indonesia?

 Peter Gumulia: [00:16:44] That's a great question, Jeremy, and I've had the time at business school to really think through what it is that I want to do. What type of impact do I want to make through the work that I do? And it really comes down to where can I be most helpful? I think prior to business school I always thought about my career as one stepping stone after the other, and I think that's a pretty common path that most young people pursue right out of college. " I did X so that I can move onto Y, I did Y so that I can move onto Z."

But now I think about things very, very differently. Now I think about it more as, one, where can I be most helpful? Two, what are the problems that I feel like I can contribute to solving for the next at least 10 years of my life? Because it takes that much time to be able to solve a meaningful problem. And then three is where would I be happy? You know, in many, many ways, if I feel like I'm not the right person to be solving the problem, I knew that I would just not make it because the journey is actually very difficult, and very tough, and you've got to care about the problem that you're solving.

If you don't care about it, you're not going to be happy. If you're not happy, you're not going to be able to be a good leader, and you're not going to be able to do a good job, right? To me, that's how I think about my career now, and to answer your question of why Indonesia, Indonesia is at a very interesting point, right? Because it really is transitioning from a country that has historically been reliant on natural resources and commodities to an information economy whereby we are in desperate need of a large volume of high skilled labor.

There's absolutely zero reason why Indonesia could not be at the same level as India, or perhaps China a decade ago. I think one thing that Indonesia has is the sheer volume of people. Not a whole lot of people know that we are almost the size of the US when it comes to the total number of people that live in the country, and so going forward I've always been fascinating by the topic around socioeconomic mobility, so that's why I joined GoPay, because I truly, fundamentally believe that it is providing a bridge for a lot of people who perhaps never had access to financials or services in the past, but now they do because of technology companies that have just existed in the market.

Second is education. I would argue that education is the single greatest tool for socioeconomic mobility in any country. I would argue that education is perhaps the core integral part of Indonesian families when it comes to self-dignity, and I would also argue that education is a very complex industry where the problems are very obvious to most people but the solution is never clear. It requires public-private partnership, it requires innovation, it requires major reforms, and it requires people who are willing to think of things outside of the box and be willing to shake things up.

That's why I guess I'm passionate about going back to Indonesia after business school and being able to, in my own tiny ways, contribute to solving this problem.

 Jeremy Au: [00:19:47] What's the opportunity that you see in education that you just mentioned?

 Peter Gumulia: [00:19:51] There's so many opportunities in education. I think you can probably see in Indonesia that, now, there's a proliferation of other companies popping right and left. When I think about opportunities, I think about what is the problem to be solved in the market. What are the pain points that we can help alleviate many of the important stakeholders in the market? One immediate thing that comes to mind is teachers, for example.

Teachers in Indonesia are so underpaid, and I guess this is true for most countries, as well. Arguably one of the most important professions in the country, but so underpaid. No one wants to become a teacher as a result, and we are leaving the most important roles when it comes to building the next set of generation of Indonesians, and not incentivizing our correct training, the right incentive structure for that, There are so many pain points to be alleviated on teachers, right? How do we leverage technology so that we can create a more scalable solution when it comes to teaching and learning, so that we can compensate teachers better? If teachers are compensate better, then we can attract better talent in the teaching space, and then if teaching is better, we can have more students, and the cycle continues.

Yeah, I think when it comes to opportunities, there's definitely a lot of opportunities that exist there. Another thing as well that has really fascinated me is when I think about my own journey, and I consider myself as a very lucky person, Jeremy. I am very, very lucky. I'm happy to talk a little bit more about my own story of how I grew up and about my family as well, but when I think about my own learning, a lot of it happened inside of school, but a majority of it I would say also happened outside of school. So how do we really empower parents, for example, to help their children or continue to develop the joy of learning?

When you talk to a lot of Indonesian students now, it's quite uninspiring in a sense that they're all so stressed out with school they all complain about school they all are overwhelmed by the exams, by the homeworks, especially during COVID. One of the things that I'm always fascinated with is that how do we make it easier for the parents. The analogy that I like to use is that we don't have to force their kids to eat veggies and complain about it. How do we instill the joy of learning back to children? And I think that is so important, such an important component to become a lifelong learner.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:14] I think it's great that you see such an opportunity in the industry for education in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and myself having experience in ed tech also agree and concur with that trend. Yet, it always starts with a personal story, right? What is your personal story for why you care so much about education technology back home?

Peter Gumulia: [00:22:36] That is a great question Jeremy, and I think the answer to that question is I consider myself as a very, very lucky person. I'm just extremely lucky and fortunate to have had the opportunities that I've had and be able to be where I am today. When I think back about my own personal journey and my family's journey, I often marvel at how remarkably lucky we are.

To give you a little bit of context, my grandparents immigrated to Indonesia, and my parents grew up with not much. My dad, he used to tell me stories about how he grew up selling ice blocks. Literally, ice blocks on the street of Jakarta, so that he could afford tuition for his education as well as his siblings' education. My dad comes from a family of seven.

Although my reality admittedly is far removed from that, so my dad even though he didn't graduate out of college, he ended up doing very well, was able to afford college education for both me and my sister abroad, and it has always fascinated me how remarkable their story is. And even though my reality is far removed from that, I always wonder, the story of people coming into Indonesia in the early 19th century, to be able to move up the socioeconomic ladder. We always only hear about the success stories, such as my dad's for example. But we never really hear stories about people who did not make it.

In fact, you know when I talked to my dad and asked him about, "Hey, all of the people that you grew up with, where are they today?" A lot of them didn't make it, Jeremy, and I could be one of them very, very easily. It's not that because we are special. It's just that perhaps we are at the right place at the right time, landed on the right opportunity, all because of luck. And same thing with me. We never had problems putting food on the table but I would say that we grew up relatively modestly and we lived in a small house in a neighborhood, for example, that had a great English center, so there was this mom and pop shop taught by a Singaporean teacher, actually, who was very, very strict. I hated that teacher back then. I always dragged my feet going into classes.

But my parents always, a combination of them like, "Hey, when I grew up, I never had this opportunity, so you go." You had no option, So maybe I always had this emphasis of, " Hey, if you don't take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you, then what the hell are you doing?" It really is a combination of us living in the right place, my parents being strict, and there's this Singaporean teacher who just happened to live in our neighborhood and open an English center, for example.

And that foundation that I developed when I was very young really turned out to play an instrumental role and one of the reasons why I am fascinated about sort of the afterschool space is right now, Jeremy, when you think about Indonesia, most Indonesian parents seek supplementary education on top of school, to complement whatever it is that is being taught in school. But the best of the best supplementary education right now is reserved for people who are at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, and there's a very direct correlation between the quality of the program and the affordability and accessibility of these services.

And for me the problem that I wanted to solve is that how do we make it accessible to more people so the life outcome of an individual in Indonesia is not so much determined by where they are born or what they are born or what is their socioeconomic status, but more as the merit. Right? The effort that they put in. Their grit and perseverance, and their willingness to put in the work necessary to get things done.

I'm fascinated about empowering people in the afterschool program space, and right now I'm building an online English learning platform for K-12 in Indonesia, really with the goal of making Indonesia more of a bilingual country, because we all pretty much agree here that in order for Indonesia to really strive to become the next big thing or the next information economy, the need for the Indonesian workforce to interact with the global economy is increasing.

In fact, even when I was at GoPay leading a pretty sizable team, I noticed a direct correlation of people who made it to the top with their ability to speak English, for example, because it is such a stamp of confidence for a lot of people. So, how do we make it more accessible to all instead of only reserved to the people who are at the top of the socioeconomic ladder?

Jeremy Au: [00:26:51] You know, wrapping up, in the future and you were to go forward 20 years, what would your hope for Indonesia be?

Peter Gumulia: [00:33:39] Wow, that is a big question. I think several things come to mind. One, I hope that Indonesia will be an internationally competitive talent hub whereby companies worldwide would look into Indonesia as a source of high quality talent. Second, I hope that Indonesia will be more of an equitable society whereby everyone has equal access to high quality education, everyone has the dignity of getting good healthcare, that healthcare and education are no longer a privilege but is a fundamental human right for every single Indonesian. And then I think, third, I hope that Indonesia will be more of a tolerant place. Plurality in Indonesia is one of the main values that was taught by our founding fathers. I think we have made significant strides since our independence, but, hopefully in the next 20 years we can move more towards a direction where our country is more tolerant, where everyone has equal access to high quality education and healthcare, and opportunity for socioeconomic mobility, as well as I hope Indonesia will be a place that is known as the quality of the people and the kindness of the people for socioeconomic mobility, as well as I hope Indonesia will be a place that is known as the quality of the people and the kindness of the people, and is no longer seen as a third world country that doesn't have much, but I think there's a lot to be done to be able to showcase who we are as a country going forward.

Jeremy Au: [00:35:18] Awesome. Thank you so much, Peter.

Peter Gumulia: [00:35:21] Yeah, you're welcome. This has been a lot of fun.

Jeremy Au: [00:35:24] Thanks, Peter.

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