Having spent over 28 years working in business and management, there are a number of lessons I have learnt. But if I were to pin down one lesson that has stood the test of time and been applicable in every sphere of my working life, it would be "Persistence Overcomes Resistance". It is this never say die attitude that has helped me in my professional journey. John D. Rockefeller said: "I do not think that there is any quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature."
This lesson has helped me overcome any challenge I faced and has kept me focused on the job at hand, be it my studies or my career, and now running one of the largest franchises of an MNC bank. Think of a stonecutter who hammers away at a rock, perhaps a hundred times before a crack shows up. When the 101st blow splits the rock into two, he knows that it is not the last blow that resulted in the outcome, but the entire series of them. Success is an aggregation of small endeavours, repeated resolutely day in and day out.
Bill Bradley said: "Ambition is the path to success; persistence is the vehicle you arrive in." Persistence comes into play in multiple ways.
The first example that comes to mind relates to something the banking industry has been dealing with for the last few years - stressed assets. In my earlier role, one of our clients had run into rough weather, and while exploring possible solutions to the problem at hand, I thought of looking for a buyer for his asset outside India. A promoter - a prospective buyer - I approached was not keen on the transaction since more than anything else, the asset purchase would get him into a potential conflict of interest with his sibling. But, in a series of follow-up meetings, I managed to convince him of the benefits and showed him a way to offset the apparent conflict. The asset was sold at zero 'haircut' for the bank. This called for a great deal of homework and steadfastness to see the deal through.
Another example I recall was soon after I took the decision to join Standard Chartered Bank. There was a lot of media buzz about my 'bold' move. I remained steadfast in my decision. When I came on board, I found there were two urgent needs at the bank: one, rebuilding the existing engines of growth with better asset quality and less concentration risk, and two, launching/scaling up engines like retail banking to diversify revenue streams, and becoming a sharper and meaningfully competitive player in the banking industry. It took time to get everyone aligned to the tasks. We also ensured we had the buy-in of the management on the investments we wanted to make to build a more diversified, sustainable and profitable business model and put in place a large number of process efficiencies.
These were significant changes for any organisation. But we made them. I persisted in making sure everyone was aligned to what we were trying to do and it is very fulfilling to see that the persistence is bearing fruit. This has steadily helped build the credibility of the top team, and grown our confidence in completing the last mile. Internal campaigns were launched to reward and recognise employees - contests on innovative ideas to customer service awards (and focus on service parameters) were initiated to strengthen internal engagement levels - and drive our agenda further and deeper.
This brings me to another aspect of persistence - persisting in creating a cultural or mindset change. Often, this is subtler, takes longer, and is, therefore, tougher to bring about. Take, for example, exploring new and better ways of doing things and driving efficiencies. It was persistently communicated at every forum or meeting that each individual in the company needed to look at what he or she was doing and challenge the status quo - was there a better way to do the same thing? This kind of change obviously does not happen overnight. It takes weeks and months of reinforcement and persistence and making people come together to deliver. I ensured that we start encouraging and catalysing change. Through reward and recognition programmes, we pushed up the engagement and interest in change significantly.
What truly constitutes persistence? In my view, there are four core dimensions.
The first is obvious - hard work and perseverance. Persistence comes from putting in the hours and effort. And when you think you have given it everything, giving more than you thought you could. For example, I was a seasoned corporate banker - thanks to the variety of roles and challenges I had taken on - when, one fine morning, I was asked by the then CEO of ICICI Bank to roll up my sleeves and start the agri-business of the bank. Now here I was, a pure bred wholesale banker, not knowing even the basics of agri-business and credit, catapulted straight to 'ground zero' of an unknown and complicated business.
And ground zero was the hinterland of India, to which I had to travel to make sense of the business by engaging across the supply chain - from farmers to distributors. To add icing to the cake, I was a woman, born and raised in the city then called Bombay! I didn't have too many people either in my team to start with - just seven or eight persons. At the end of three years when I moved from agri-business, we had a team of 800-900 people in the division. I had many moments of fulfilment in that role - starting the first rural ATM in India, turning around loss-making branches, disbursing loans to farmers through cards - way back in 2004 - and other exciting stuff. The most fulfilling part was that I could paint my own canvas.
Self-belief is the second dimension, which is especially crucial for women at work. Self-belief is knowing you are no less than anyone in any way; that even though you might feel the task ahead is uphill, it is not going to shake you. Self-belief and perseverance are magical talismans before which difficulties dissolve and obstacles vaporise into thin air.
And this self-belief can only come from knowledge and expertise, the third dimension.
When I took on the role of CEO at Standard Chartered Bank, I knew that the varied roles I had undertaken hitherto, the experiences I'd had and the discoveries I'd made, had shaped my banking acumen and understanding of how the ecosystem behaves. My years in wholesale banking had enabled me to build strong ties with leading corporate houses in the country, and get a close feel of how Indian companies function - their requirements, problem areas as well as resolution mechanisms. My stint of building the agri-business from scratch had helped me believe in myself. My movement across roles and portfolios gave me an aerial view of the banking 'map'. It helped build my perspective, gave me insights, and it is this collective knowledge and expertise I had that have helped me in my current role.
The fourth dimension I would include is adherence to one's core value system. One of the first initiatives we took after I came on board was becoming cost conscious, but we did this by reducing process costs and ensuring that there was little or no adverse impact on the people engaged with us or their morale. It was not just about better budget management; it was more about building a cost conscious culture in the company. It was about making people accountable for the costs they were incurring, and that in turn meant instilling a sense of ownership in the organisation. It is very important to walk the talk and hence it was something I, too, observed. Every time we have introduced major change, we brought everyone on board - be it through town halls, communication or workshops. This helps boost transparency and create an open culture where leadership is trusted and aligned to.
In summary, I think this quote from author James N. Watkins most aptly describes the best management lesson I have learnt, "A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence."
By Zarin Daruwala, CEO, Standard Chartered Bank India
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