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Arundhati Bhattacharya: The authentic modernizer

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-04-2017 Livemint

Some chief executives keep me waiting for hours, others for years. After two years of non-committal replies, in mid-April I finally took the elevator to the 18th floor of the State Bank of India’s (SBI’s) corporate headquarters in downtown Mumbai, to meet the bank’s chairperson, Arundhati Bhattacharya. 

The heritage building’s aesthetics and functionality are best described as “contemporary sarkari”. There are layers of sarkari, or government, style security: bags X-rayed on the way out, as well as on the way in. There are elements of new-age sarkari-style propaganda: screens in the lift, displaying motivational messages and the bank’s latest advertisements, and a blue-and-white building façade in the brand’s colours.

Government-style stratification is ubiquitous—from the washrooms to meeting rooms, all are denoted by rank and title. It’s the same with documentation—each artwork, painting or sculpture is labelled with the name of the artist. And finally, there are sarkari-style snacks: Trays of dry fruits are neatly wrapped and placed, in a custom-made slot, under the surface of the conference table in the visitor’s meeting room, where I wait for Bhattacharya.

Moving things around 

Bhattacharya’s vast office has a presidential desk, upholstered sofas and armchairs, a collection of office memorabilia and a concealed television screen. Flanked by a secretariat, it is separated from the rest of the office by a corridor lined with art. It’s a predictable colonial-era symbol of power and prestige, somewhat modernized by technology. 

But Bhattacharya begins to describe her space to me and I encounter the unexpected—candour and a playful sense of humour that strip away the layers of officialdom surrounding her. 

Did she redo her workspace when she took over? “In fact, I was the only chairman to do so. I think it’s because I didn’t mind moving out of the cabin and sitting out in the open while the work was being completed. This entire floor had been renovated some time ago, except my cabin,” she smiles, suggesting that her predecessors might not have been willing to work outside the chairman’s enclave, even temporarily. 

Does she like the view? “Yes, I enjoy it, especially one building in particular, it quite literally has oversight of me,” she chuckles, pointing to the Reserve Bank of India building, visible from her desk, and referring to the central bank’s regulatory oversight of SBI. 

Bhattacharya’s humour is intact, despite the fact that she is having a bad hair day. While she is not the first chief executive officer in our series to have worried about her appearance, she’s the first to acknowledge it with a smile, a candid observation, and a request for a reshoot. “Some people look at my photos and think maybe I’m feeling frazzled, but I really want to tell them I’m just having a bad hair day!” she says. 

Other design changes to the cabin include the addition of two floor-to-ceiling panels on either side of the television screen. One has the famous Rabindranath Tagore poem (Where The Mind Is Without Fear), the other a similarly epic piece by Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi’s Talisman). “The Tagore poem is inspiring, and the Gandhi piece helps in decision making,” she says. Facing her desk is a plaque listing Bhattacharya’s predecessors. 

The change in office layout was accompanied by a contemporary work style. Unlike prevailing practice, Bhattacharya holds only internal meetings in her office. “It is more professional in today’s world to meet visitors in a neutral venue rather than my cabin,” she says.

A sculpture in the lobby area.

Being true to yourself 

Bhattacharya has often been described as someone who speaks her mind, and is unafraid to tackle tricky issues. Yet she is also seen as someone who is able to carry people along. In her time at SBI, she has worked to digitize the two-centuries-old public sector institution, tried to root out non-performing assets (NPAs), and merged SBI’s five associate banks, including State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, and State Bank of Hyderabad, to create one of the world’s largest banks, among other operational banking responsibilities. 

Our conversation helps me understand how she does what she does. Simply put, it is by being authentic. Management discourse today emphasizes authenticity over strategic vision, but being real is rare, and not a luxury that many leaders think they can afford. To my mind, authenticity serves Bhattacharya in several ways. 

First, her trademark candour and humour, which came through in her comments on her workplace, are disarming. They make her instantly accessible. “If you are approachable, if you keep your line of communication open, then very often you get to hear what you need to hear. If you snap off people’s heads and get on to a kind of a pedestal, it’s more difficult for people to approach you. It’s much easier if you are down there with them. They will talk to you,” she says. 

Being approachable helps in decision making. “At the end of the day none of us are the Oracle of Delphi, so we don’t get everything right. It’s always good to be able to listen and to take on what seems to be the right thing to do,” she professes. 

Second, being real allows her to maintain a sense of perspective in an environment full of stress, hubris and narcissism. Her tenure has been demanding, she believes. “I don’t think the chairman of a bank of this size ever gets to sit back and relax. My ex-chairman did tell me that all of them felt that theirs was the most challenging time. Every one of them had different challenges.”

Third, authenticity delivers clarity. For example, her message to employees when demonetization was announced was straightforward and pragmatic: “I merely said, ‘These are going to be very difficult times. Do not, do not, for any reason lose your temper. You have to be very, very careful about that’,” she recalls. 

Fourth, authenticity delivers consistency. “My management style is to be consistent because I think a lot of time and energy is wasted if you are not consistent. In the sense that people spend too much time trying to read you, instead of doing what they need to do,” Bhattacharya says. 

Fifth, it is fun. “Our meetings are very open, everyone speaks, I think they have a lot of fun at the meetings. The only thing is we’ve really made the diet very healthy. Hot samosas and pakoras have disappeared, and now they only get khakhra,” she laughs. 

And finally, being authentic is productive, because there is little need to waste time beating around the bush. Our conversation took 25% less time than the average Head Office interview, but it was packed. To my mind, Bhattacharya’s work style also illustrates one of the most enduring tenets of this column—the secrets of successful leadership are grounded in how we conduct our everyday work lives (even on a bad hair day).  

***

CEO speak

How does a company sustain itself over 200 years? 

Most chief executives inherit a predecessor or two when they take on their role, but not many are reminded of them every day. Arundhati Bhattacharya’s predecessors have an omniscient presence in her daily work life. A metal plaque opposite her desk lists all the former chairmen, along with their tenures, in chronological order, summarizing the historic bank’s business legacy. 

“It is not by chance that an organization sustains over such a long period, it has to evolve. Every person who has headed the bank has thought about ensuring its sustainability, by contributing to it in different ways,” she emphasizes. Her preferred formula to ensure business continuity: Align strategy with organizational structure and processes, and enable managerial independence. This, she believes, will ensure that her strategic initiatives outlive her tenure. 

The bank’s new sustainability initiative is a case in point. SBI was already pursuing a number of socially responsible initiatives across its business units, under the overlapping umbrellas of inclusive banking, business responsibility, social banking and corporate social responsibility. These diverse initiatives include sponsoring fellowships for rural youth, building off-grid solar- powered ATMs, enabling paperless banking and producing wind-generated power. 

Bhattacharya brought greater clarity and visibility to the sustainability thrust, strengthening it with senior management firepower. “We have designated a manager at the level of a deputy managing director, who is the chief credit officer, to also be the chief sustainability officer. He is creating the kind of structures to ensure that things really get done,” she says.

“Green is an area that we continue to look at not only in respect of our operations, but also in respect of financing. These (considerations) are all part of the credit appraisal process itself, to ensure that the appraisal process happens in a more responsible way,” she says.

While she acknowledges that there are practical limitations to the bank’s jurisdiction over its customers, she hopes that SBI’s influence as the country’s largest lender will drive change in the wider ecosystem over time, to promote sustainability.

As the plaque drives home, this is one of those few corporate opportunities where a long-term view does not seem quite so out of reach.

On competition and collaboration: You should have collaboration within and competition without. Not the other way around.

On her first reaction to demonetization: Wow, we have got a hell of a lot of work. So how you get it done?

On strategy: Having a vision of a period of time that is not immediately understood. You need to have an understanding of the future.

On NPAs: They happen during spurts of growth and have happened in other countries. We’ve learnt a lot, and it’s important to do so and put systems in place so that they don’t happen again.

On the banking merger: The indicator of success would be better productivity, better efficiency, better risk management. If these don’t happen then obviously it has not worked. So we have to work very hard to make that happen.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of  Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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