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"You have to be visible as a leader"

Transparency is a standard operating procedure for communications during a downturn.

Rachna M. Koppikar | Print Edition: January 10, 2010

I have been with Goldman Sachs for 18 years and this had been one of the most challenging periods of my career. Staying close to the clients was the big focus for us. During the darkest days of last winter, every Monday morning we used to discuss ways to proactively reach out to our clients. The business was lacklustre and our clients had their own set of issues to deal with at that time.

The worst thing to do at such times is to not communicate with your client. We made sure that everybody—from junior team members to the senior management levels—felt an obligation to reach out proactively to their clients to check on them. There may not have been a lot to discuss with them about transactions, but to talk about the progress in their business, exchange views on the world and basically let them know that you are still there thinking of them. As the markets came back in May this year, these conversations paid off. The last thing a client wants to do is to call upon a banker who hasn’t called them in the last one year.

Your team needs to see you, hear from you and understand your thought process.
In the next downturn, go and find yourself the most complex M and A deal and just get deep into it.
One of the things we try to do globally is to make everyone feel that they have the ability to ask questions, raise issues.

The second big focus was to communicate internally with our teams. It is critical to be visible as a leader. The team needs to see you, hear from you and understand your thought process. At Goldman Sachs India, I have a 100 per cent open door policy in my office. In a tough environment, people tend to misinterpret closed doors as a discussion of bad news.

Closed doors are best avoided in circumstances when colleagues are shell-shocked about the developments around the world and specifically in their business. One of the things I did was to ensure that we have regular town hall meetings. Our entire office would be invited to come together in the conference room where each business unit head had to give a five-minute update on areas of priorities and the lessons learnt. This also ensured that everyone shared notes and was abreast with the state of the other business units.

Another interesting approach I used was a copy of Ernest Shackleton diaries from his 1914 expedition to Antarctica. I am a voracious reader and an avid collector of first edition books. In November, my wife gifted me this copy. I kept it on my bedside for six months, referring it every night and I also brought it to one of our town hall meetings.

At the meeting, I circulated a one-pager advertisement by Shackleton in a London newspaper saying: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." This helped to keep the motivation levels up and even today you will find it on most softboards in the Goldman Sachs office.

Through the first half of the year, I drew analogies from Shackleton’s journey for our town hall meetings. In February, I told them: "We are surrounded by endless ice and the boat is in bad shape. But we have each other." And as things started to improve in May, I said: "We are off the ice, we have been rescued. We are still together as a team. But there are icebergs." This got people to think about the importance of being together as a team to overcome a tough situation.

Another tough decision we had to take was to let some people go off as part of the global headcount strategy. Those were some of the toughest days of my career as I had chosen and recruited all of these people. I ensured personal conversations with each person who we had to let go. I fundamentally believe that as a leader you cannot let such messages be delivered by somebody else. I spent a lot of time having coffee discussions with them, brainstorming, giving career counselling, guiding them and giving references wherever possible.

From a personal standpoint, I have mechanisms in place to deal with tough periods in life. I run most mornings at 6 a.m. to calm myself. It helps me structure my thoughts and so I can be productive as soon as I reach office. At one point of time, I used to call my runs my anger management session. It helped in taking emotions out of my system before I saw anybody else. I still recall some of the before-sunrise runs around the winding roads in Bandra-Pali Hill, thinking about strategies to overcome problems.

As we started sensing recovery, we looked quickly at the talent pool in the market, which was available for hire. As a result, once the business picked up, we were among the first foreign banks to start hiring selectively at senior level. We hired people who could move the needle quickly. So, the lesson learnt was to hire back—not a big bunch of people, but selectively the ones who can add value immediately.

Earlier in the year, we had to postpone our plan for the asset management business for some time, but we hope to launch this business in 2010. This summer, we applied for a commercial banking licence in India. In our private equity business, we spent a lot of time in this downturn to help our portfolio companies overcome impediments. We helped them take right decisions and run effectively.

The Satyam deal in early January gave us a significant momentum. The success of the deal was the single most important thing in our working lives for the couple of months we were working on the sale process. It was a high-pressure period. Internally, everyone was busy on the deal so there was less time to worry about rumours.

The Satyam deal closed in April and then we had a visit from the senior management team of Goldman Sachs, including Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, who was visiting India for the third time in as many years. My learning from the Satyam deal and a message to all the bankers is that in the next downturn, go and find yourself the most complex manda deal and just get deep into the weeds on it. It was absolutely therapeutic!

Finally, one of my continued learnings from the global downturns has been that communication and escalation is critical. One of the things we try to do globally is to make everyone feel that they have the ability to ask questions, raise issues. Transparency is a standard operating procedure for communications during a downturn.

— L. Brooks Entwistle 42, Country Head and CEO, Goldman Sachs (India) Securities

(As told to Rachna M. Koppikar)

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