Last week, I had the honour of being invited by the Jadavpur University Alumni Association Singapore to a Fireside Chat in NTU One North campus with Arundhati Bhattacharya, the Former Chairman of the State Bank of India. The session was anchored by Prof Nilanjan Sen of NTU with whom I have had numerous interactions but I did not know that he was also the President of Jadavpur University Alumni Association Singapore. This was my first ever close interaction with the any of the top three female names in Indian Banking – Chanda Kochhar (ICICI), Shikha Sharma (Axis) or Arundhati Bhattacharya. Ironically, starting at the age of 21 Arundhati literally fire fought her way through 40 odd years onto the top of the largest Bank in India only to be its ChairMAN rather than the ChairPERSON!
During the Q&A session, answering the query of Ayan Chaudhuri, Arundhati pondered over her time in Kharagpur branch where a fire broke out. To her surprise, everyone left the building in haste leaving herself and another person (who was a former Army man) to deal with the fire in one of the electric wires. The daughter of an engineer in SAIL Bokaro Steel Factory, who probably saw blast furnace as a child, was not chided by the fire and kept her calm. Together with the former army trained colleague of hers, she managed to put off the fire in the branch using a fire extinguisher. And for sure this is not the only firefighting she did in her life. In her own words, she was baptised by fire when on her very first day at work in SBI Hyderabad she was writing checks endlessly to hundreds of customers shoving their way into the bank to collect money before the bank closed for Durga Pooja. From that first day to recalling the SBI Securities issue in October 2013 in response to the final question posed by me, Arundhati has been firefighting. She vividly remembers how ill-timed the SBI issue of October 2013 was with Argentina having devalued the Peso, RBI having raised up the interest rate and Turkey having lowered the Interest Rate. She recalls how she was busy firefighting at an airport with her phone hooked to the wall making calls to all the key investors to ensure the success of the issue. Thankfully it all went well and in six months the issue proved to be a good investment for the investors.
As with most good things in life, Arundhati’s journey into banking was serendipitous – An English graduate from Jadavpur University, she was oblivious to the fact that Indian bureaucratic services IAS exam did not have a paper in English. Determined to be in an All India Services job, she defaulted to the only other All India job that had a paper in English viz Banking. Her Banking exam involved papers in English, General Knowledge and Logical Reasoning. She mentioned that by sheer luck she had been teaching math tuition to a girl prior to her Banking exams and had become quite good at mental calculations in the process. Arundhati attributes her success to the Banking exam to these tuition classes, of course, hard work notwithstanding. Subsequently, Arundhati found herself in a profession of which she knew nothing. Fortunately for her, the bank sent her for training and exams at the Institute of Banking & Finance which provided her with the necessary grounding in the basics of Banking.
With regards to her management style, Arundhati’s talisman is “Make your presence felt but make your absence not noticed” – It took me a while to grasp that. Arundhati further explained by saying that one should not perform one’s duties such that when one is away, the bank comes to a standstill. She recalled a lady programmer who was brilliant but inherently insecure. Whenever the lady used to be away on extended vacation the bank used to be in a pandemonium. Arundhati mentioned that “If you do good work, people will notice”. Arundhati mentored the lady programmer her bank to empower and enable others to pick up skills such that the bank could run smoothly even in her absence. Arundhati’s mentioned that leadership was about smooth functioning.
On the topic of leadership and delegation, Arundhati again emphasised the art of delegation and “Knowing what you need to do and what you don’t need to do”. And the example she quoted, surprisingly enough, was that of her domestic helper. She said that because she had an excellent domestic help to delegate the household chores she never needed to bother about what should be on the dinner table which in turn freed up her time for more critical things in life. Arundhati also mentioned the need to be kind to people – Smile, be genuinely Interested and be pleasant.
On Indra Nooyi’s oft-quoted line “Women Can't Have It All", Arundhati fundamentally disagreed. Her rhetorical reply was “Who has it all? Do men have it all?”. She goes on to advise that One must decide for oneself what “All” is. She says “Leave the society aside, decide for yourself what makes you happy”. Then Arundhati went on to define what happiness is – “Early on in your career you probably don’t even know what makes you happy. Any decision that makes you light like a corn in water as opposed to a decision that makes you heavy as a stone is what makes you happy”. I shall keep this mantra with me for a long time to come.