Whenever I am faced with a challenge, which is too big, I quickly rally my reserves of strength to work towards my goals
O. P. Bhatt is the former Chairman of SBI (State Bank of India). In the 36 years that Bhatt served at SBI, he worked on several important national and international assignments and led the bank through challenging times by capitalizing on its strengths. As the Chairman of SBI, he was heading the largest financial group in India, comprising of seven associate banks, five international banking subsidiaries and nine financial services companies in India. Under his leadership, SBI rose on the Global List rankings of Fortune 500. After his retirement in 2011, he is now on the Boards of some of the biggest companies in India.
Looking back at your early life, what shaped you to become the person you are today? Any interesting anecdotes you would like to share.
Like all Indian middle class households, my childhood was rather uneventful. However, there is one particular incident that stood out. An astrologer had come to our house and like everyone else I too showed him my palm. I asked him if I would come first in class that year, to which he replied ‘no, you will come 10th or 11th’. As a student who had never come first, I found this prediction very hurtful. It was then I decided that I would work very hard to be the first in my class and I actually did that year and a few more times in the following years. Looking back, I think I had the will and the determination to accomplish any task given the right provocation and the right circumstances. I have seen this trait grow in me over the years.
Whenever I am faced with a challenge, which is unfair or too big or it is important enough to work towards, I quickly rally my reserves of strength to help me work towards my goals. This is one of the things that I used to tell my staff to motivate them. If one tries with pure intent, everything else falls in place to help achieve that goal.
In your 36 years of working and leading SBI, the company grew to be part of the Fortune 500 Club. How did you start out and what were the building blocks of your success?
It wasn’t like I was destined for the post (of Chairman at SBI). Actually, I was the dark horse and even I was surprised at my appointment. However, when someone is appointed at a post like this, they do not come with a transformational agenda. What possibly helped me to make the transformational changes was the fact that I am temperamentally very passionate about the things that I do and have a belonging for. As a youngster, this was a very sought after job and the bank was a great institute. Over time, with competition and liberalization and a variety of other reasons, things have changed and banks have fallen behind. With more than 30 years at the bank, I thought I should do something about it. Psychologically that is how it started for me. The plans, the agenda and the experts came in later. Bit by bit, it all fell in place with the people, policies, strategies and then even the customers.
How did things fall into place? What were the steps that you took?
This was the first and the only job that I had and I did not have a plan or an agenda of making a change then. Most of the thoughts were probably lurking in my subconscious, while the others came as epiphanies. However, once I had realized that this is what I wanted to do, I was quite shameless in asking for help and reaching out to the right people. In order to make the right changes, I realized I needed the bank and its senior management to be on my side.
While some things needed drastic changes, some others could be corrected with just a minor change in structure. So I started training, moving people around from week one. For the bigger and deeper changes, I collected my top team of almost 25 people and took them on a five-day offsite, a first-of-its-kind initiative in the banking sector. I planned this offsite for the outcomes I was looking to get and crafted it with the help of market experts like McKinsey. We even invited the spouses and pampered them and then made them part of the discussions.
I presented the delegation with my view of the bank and what had gone wrong with it. Then I asked the question about who was responsible for this state of the bank and slowly all the employees said that it was their own collective fault. When I next asked about who could bring about betterment of the institution, they were even faster in saying it would be them. When we left that offsite, we had a one-page agenda of the things that we had to do and the enablers required to make it happen. There were many other things we did to align everyone to the goals and get feedback and have ownership with assessment in the following years.
Looking at leadership development in the public sector, exposure to different fields is limited compared with private sector CEOs. Do you think that is a limiting factor?
It might be surprising, but all the public sector banks in India are universal banks and they dabble in every area of banking. As you rise up the ladder in the bank, many things happen to you. Due to your changing goal profile, you deal with different segments and classes of products. You also move to different geographies. I was in Lucknow, Dehradun, Mumbai, London, Washington and various other places. Depending upon where you are, the industries keep changing as well. You might be in investment banking one day, move to small scale industries and then agriculture or something else. You not only interact with large specific sectors of the economy, but the likelihood of interacting with different sectors is far more in a public sector bank than any other company.
You are present on the Boards of a number of companies now. What is your view on companies’ race to nominate one woman independent director on Boards? Will it really make a change?
It is a difficult question to answer. Diversity is a very important element of any Board. It can also build a slightly different perspective, bring in sensitivity, inclusivity and psychology to the decisions. If companies are looking to bring in women to bring about that change, then it makes sense. However, if women are being included only due to a law and then they are doing a disservice to the company. Considering that this change has been made due to a law, maybe the industry is not ready for this. Having said that, a number of companies have been able to find good directors for their boards and overall this has brought about a positive change.
What is your outlook for 2015 from the people point of view? How do you think the Modi government has fared as they complete one year in office?
If you look at the expectations that were created a year ago and measure them to the changes in the economy, then I think we are running behind and there is no doubt about that. If we, however, look at where we were before and where we have reached, in terms of the sentiment, negativity and corruption, then we are definitely ahead and have moved to a better place. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, but there are also some things that we do not know about. The government doesn’t seem to say much about the work that are in progress and we will find out about them in due course of time. So information and communication from the government’s side is a little less than it was before. On the employment side, there doesn’t seem to be any direct attack of decisions. Anything that will happen will happen indirectly. The economy will grow at 6 per cent and investments will increase. Jobs too will see an increase, but I don’t think there is any number chase on that front right now. It is very difficult to make that happen. We need to bring in the right policies, incentives, infrastructure and culture. It is a huge challenge, but I think there are positive efforts towards making the change happen.