Arundhati Bhattacharya broke the mould when she became India’s top banker, as the first woman Chairman of the State Bank of India. Yet, that was not to be the summit of an illustrious career in banking, as she quickly followed that up with an intriguing assignment—as Chairperson and CEO of Salesforce India. In a wide-ranging chat with Business Today’s Global Business Editor Udayan Mukherjee, she discusses her career trajectory, what it takes to reach the top in a male-dominated industry, and the key differences between the Indian public and private sector from her unique vantage point. Edited excerpts:
Q: From State Bank of India to Salesforce India is such a big leap. Were you not daunted by what you were getting yourself into?
A: Well, not daunted really, but a few of my friends did think I was a little crazy and kept questioning why I wanted to do something like this, take such a big risk. Because, you know Udayan, when you take on something that is so different from what you’ve done for 40 long years, it entails a lot of change. It means learning a lot of things and the chances of success are always 50-50... So I did think about it a lot, but then I had always been very interested in technology and there was not a single technology vendor at SBI that I did not interact with during my tenure. I knew in my bones that going forward, the whole world is going to need digital and every business will need a very strong technology backbone in order to survive... When I got [this] offer, it was like a ringside seat to cutting-edge technology.
Also, during that one year of gardening leave that we are required to take after you retire from the bank, I had been talking a lot to younger generations. And most of them asked me, ‘what’s our future going to be like?’ And I told them, it’s not going to be the same as mine... you’ll have multiple careers and you need to be able to unlearn, relearn, keep learning all the time. So, when I got the Salesforce opportunity, I told myself that I’ve been giving a lot of gyaan, a lot of advice. Here was a chance to do it myself, to have multiple careers. And finally, [Chairman, Co-CEO and Co-founder] Marc Benioff had invited me to the Salesforce headquarters because he could see I was still a little unsure... and while coming back he gave me a book called Trailblazer. There were two stories I read on the flight back, and they both touched me. One was regarding Marc and Salesforce lobbying to pay more municipal taxes as that would cure the problem of homelessness. Till date, I don’t know of a single company that wants to pay taxes, and definitely not one that wants to pay more taxes. That impressed me. And the second one was regarding equality where he talks about how he ordered an audit to check that there was no gender pay gap in the company. His HR department told him that once they look into it, and find a gap, Marc would have to cough up more money. He said go right ahead, and Salesforce ended up paying about $5 million to correct that gap at that point of time. Till date, they have spent about $16.2 million... These were two things that made me think that this could be an organisation that would give me a lot of added value, and that’s the reason I made the jump.
Q: It must be refreshing to be called Chairperson, from being the SBI Chairman because they never called you chairperson there, did they?
A: That’s right! Actually, I did get my first cards printed as Chairperson, SBI, and promptly got a note from the legal department informing me this will not do because the statute that created the State Bank of India does not have the designation of chairperson. And in many cases, where I have to file, for instance, reports, etc., the statute has to come up to show that I have the powers to do this... They said either you go for a change of the Act, but till the change comes through you will be known as Chairman. So I scrapped the cards thinking I had far larger battles to fight at that point. I accepted the term Chairman and went on with it.
Q: When you started your career, your education and your background did not set yourself up to be a top-level banker, did it? How did banking happen? Was it part of a plan, or was it almost by accident that you stumbled into it?
A: It wasn’t part of the plan at all. By the time I left school, I was very keen to study medicine… ours was the first batch of the Joint Entrance Exams, where I managed to secure a spot. But then, when I went around looking at the facilities, I found that the college had no women’s hostel. So, I would have to stay outside or in some working women’s hostel. And frankly, the situation was such that it was just not conducive. I just couldn’t do it—the hostel was so terrible. That’s one of the things that still holds women back even today, the question of college accommodation. So, ultimately my father met the principal of my school and he said you put her into literature because I think she has a flair for writing. But I always wanted to have a career, and when I was completing my education, the subject of what I should do next came up. At that point of time, there were only two competitive exams where you needed nothing other than merit... One was the IAS [exams], and the other was the bank exams. When I looked at the IAS [exams], to my horror, I found that you needed knowledge of any subject up to the postgraduate level, and that had to be something other than a language. I didn’t have that.
On the other hand, the banking exam was a very general kind of exam, just a paper on logic and on general knowledge and English, and I thought I could crack all three. Also, my friends in college egged me on... So I applied with so many others, and got selected. My mother asked me if I wanted to spend my entire life counting notes—that’s the kind of idea people had about banking. But they also felt that this would be within an enclosed space, it would be safe, so they were fine with it. It turned out to be a long and steep learning curve and the bank did a pretty good job of polishing me.
Q: How is it to work in the private sector after spending so many decades in the public sector because you have an insider’s perspective now of both? What are the essential differences? Would you say one is much better than the other, or are your loyalties still skewed towards the public sector?
A: It’s very difficult to get rid of loyalties after 40 years of service, right? But there are a lot of myths about the public sector and the private sector. I keep joking with my colleagues that once I retire from here, I’m going to write a book busting these myths, because actually speaking, at the core of it all, they are very similar. However, there are some grave dissimilarities as well. For instance, in the public sector, you don’t have an incentive or a disincentive that you can give, everything is fixed. So, you have to really go out of your way to determine what other than monetary incentive you can hand out, what are the right buttons [to push] in order to motivate and inspire people. In the private sector, the simple solution is to throw more money at the problem. Now, that is not always fruitful as you are not really ensuring that the person is developing in the right way. However, the private sector does try to compensate for it by creating what they call a business partner from the HR side of it to look at what your development plan looks like; and how they can sort of dovetail it into the organisation’s plan, which is, I think, a great thing, which in the public sector we don’t have—mainly because the public sector is so huge that to have a look at individual plans at every step would need a whole army of people, which probably we can’t afford. But there are good practices in the public sector and there are good practices in the private sector.
For instance, in the public sector, I used to always think that people are so promotion-crazy because they don’t have any other compensation other than their career track. Well, let me tell you that in the private sector, people are equally promotion-crazy no matter what compensation they get. So, the fact is, people at the end of the day are very similar, and yet the surroundings can be very dissimilar, and therefore our responses... are very dissimilar. And you know, this idea that the public sector doesn’t work, I don’t know where it stems from; because I was up till one in the night every night for the four years that I was chairman. However, at Salesforce, for instance, there is much more emphasis on work-life balance. I can log any day off in a week, I can make it a four-day week if I need a wellness break, and it is never questioned. In fact, it is celebrated if you take a wellness break, as you’re trying to ensure that there is no burnout, because here too, the days are long. Being an MNC, my day starts at India timing of 9:30 am and ends by about 6:00 pm and then San Francisco, which is headquarters, wakes up at 8:30 pm India time. So from 8:30 to 11:30 at night, I have calls planned. There is very little space in between, and sometimes you do need that one day off, just in order to feel that you are all there or get some of your very personal things done.
Q: You’re right in pointing out that there is a myth that the public sector does not work and I’ll tell you where the myth comes from—instances of where the private sector has been allowed to enter the terrain of the public sector, and the public sector has crumbled or lost enormous market share to the private entrants. For example, BSNL and MTNL losing out to Bharti, or how Air India crumbled when Jet Airways and later IndiGo took over... And this is probably where this myth comes from that the private sector is more competent and more efficient than the public sector.
A: You know, the reason for all this is really not the people themselves, but the enablements that they had. In the public sector, we are totally bound to processes and unless the process is complete in every respect, you are not allowed to proceed. You spoke about telecom; now telecom has undergone huge changes, right? You have to be very nimble and agile on your feet to acquire the latest technology, which the private sector could do much more easily than the public sector. Because, in the public sector, you are under the scrutiny of a lot of people as to how you’re spending your funds because you have been funded from taxpayers’ money. But at the end of the day, what this ends up doing is make you non-agile, and that is the reason I believe that if the public sector is enabled in the same way as the private sector... things will become much, much better. You know, when I was with SBI, I used to look at the recruitment piece. And I would agonise over it because to select 1,800 probationary officers, I had to go through 180,000 applicants, in a space of nine months. In the private sector, for instance, you don’t have to do any of that. You can make the recruitment tomorrow if you want to. However, even there, I have found because you don’t want to make a mistake in the people you are taking, often you end up taking the same nine months. So it is possible to find your way out and become far more swift on your feet even within the public sector. And, during my time, the amount of digital initiatives we took up in the bank and where we landed up, I think we were even ahead of the private sector. It can be done, you just need that kind of mindset instead of lamenting, and then it’s feasible.
Q: There’s a perception that there’s a lot of interference from New Delhi in large public sector corporations, particularly in areas like banking where the chairman or her senior colleagues get calls from ministers and some-times loans are granted on that behest. In your time at SBI, did you encounter any such thing?
A: I cannot say that I’ve not experienced anything like it... However, such calls or requests need not put you under any compulsion to abide by them. There are ways in which you can ensure that you are not doing the wrong thing, because nobody can force you to do something which is not rational. So, you have got to get the rationale straight and examine whether it’s a viable case or not... For instance, not loans, but in things like job postings, there would be a lot of pressure to post a person here or there, but in respect of the new entrants, we said very clearly that the policy is during the first two years of probation, absolutely no changes would be allowed. If you want to join, you join; if you don’t, there will be others to take your place. And we stuck to it, even if it meant that a certain person did not join. So the fact is you need to lay down your policy and then stick to it. If there is any such request from above, you just say you have to rationalise any decision as it could well come under scrutiny tomorrow. So, to take any such decision that is being asked for, I have to have these prerequisites. If they are available, great. If they are not available, I’m sorry, we can’t do it. So, I had to be a little diplomatic in how we did it. But it wasn’t such an insurmountable thing either.
Q: Now permit me a personal question. I’m sure your husband [ex-IIT professor Pritimoy Bhattacharya] is very accomplished in his own field, but you know, to be the chairperson of the largest bank in the country, did it ever cause any friction in the household, you being the more successful partner?
A: Both of us decided to give each other our own space. So there are many, many social events that I have attended all alone. In fact, once I told my husband, you should put in an appearance otherwise people may think that you’re a figment of my imagination, and I don’t want that. So very grumpily he would agree to come along. But he hated the shop talk which normally happens in such banking events, and I could relate [to that] because, when I went to any of his academic gatherings, well, I couldn’t relate to his shop talk either, because then I was relegated with the spouses, discussing everything other than stuff that really interested me. But both of us accepted the fact that we had our own space. Many times he didn’t accompany me, and many times I didn’t accompany him, but we sort of worked it out. I think we are good, especially women, at making compromises. Having said that, we did have mutual friends and we got on pretty well together. Some of my bank friends are his best friends today and some of his IIT friends are very good friends of mine.
Q: I also want to ask you about your board memberships, because you sit on the board of Reliance Industries. How important is it to be a scrupulous and vigilant independent director? Do you think a lot of independent directors in India fall way short of the gold standard?
A: At the end of the day, you have to realise one thing—that these directors meet the company once in a quarter, or if it’s a big company like Reliance we meet twice a quarter; so in this much time, there is only so much that you can review. Given that is the case, one has to understand that even by looking at what is being presented to you, you are at a disadvantage because the management will only show you what they want to show you.
So I think the merit of a director lies in being able to ask the right questions and being satisfied that the questions are being answered in as complete a manner as possible. Developing that can take a little time, can actually take up quite a bit of your time, especially in the beginning as you get to know the company. There are companies that do three-day off-sites on their campuses and things like that. So I was on the board of one such company where we would start at seven in the morning and end at six in the evening for two and a half days. Even dinner would be with the company executives. Now, that gives you a much better insight into what is the working of the company and what they are doing. There are many more casual conversations from which you can pick up a lot of things but not every company is able to do that.
Copyright©2022 Living Media India Limited. For reprint rights: Syndications Today