My Learnings as an MD & CEO
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After reading my last blog on my recent interaction with our new recruits, one of the youngsters at my company wrote back to me. She said she was from a small town, and despite being at a middle management level, she was the only one in her family to make it this far. She sought my learnings as a CEO, a few words of advice from me on making it up to the top, as she wanted to know how I, without an MBA degree had made it to the top brass. She wanted to know how I had managed to have delivered a constant RoE of around 25%, had close to 50% of the market share of the industry profits at one point of time, had constantly grown the business, with a customer base of 50 million and an employee base of close to 10,000. How had I managed to build one of the largest distribution that an insurance company has in terms of its banca partners and many more such questions.
Her mail led me to write this blog post. She and a lot of youngsters like her, remind me of my days back in their shoes, where I had a lot of enthusiasm, but somewhere doubted if my qualifications were enough. If I apply for the post of a CEO based just on my CV, I would not get the job since I am a masters in science, basically a scientist by education. If the CV dictates, I should be in a lab doing research and not the boardroom doing business. Looking back, I feel I have not done something extraordinary or something that would be way out of the world. But let me take this opportunity to share a few things that I truly believe in:
My obsession about my people
As a first, I have always kept my people at the center of all my decisions. They are my first obsession and there is no other way about it. They are not one of the boxes to be ticked off for me, but the very source of my inspiration and my drive to make a difference to the world. Having this attitude towards your people will be a must, especially in a country like India which is as good as a continent when it comes to diversity of people, culture, region, religion. Each person around you is unique, and learning to work with them will teach you that it is never a one size fit all approach, neither with people nor with markets. Also, since I rose internally to become a CEO, I had made it a personal responsibility to bring together all my colleagues, peers, and the fresh blood from other companies and make them all excited about being a part of a new journey. I wanted them to take contradictions and difference of opinions together. I learnt that, if you have a compelling vision which is going to transform the society and the industry and a clear communication of its execution, it will make the puzzle fall in place. Your people will then be excited about reaching their goals, and their differences get ironed out as everybody gets on board. That’s how you bring about massive transformations.
My obsession about my customers
My second biggest learning is to make a difference in the lives of people who are the users of my company’s products and services – my customers. Understanding how a customer sees and perceives an insurance product and the claims experience, and then redefining it to a level which he/she is not even expecting – has been my obsession. I learnt that there were two ways of doing it. One is where you act up on it internally and two you look at it externally. At first I was a firm believer of insourcing everything. I felt that it would give us the competitive advantage. But as I progressed I realized that till we do collaborations we cannot do mass-scale changes to a lot of things at any given point of time. Scanning the market for best practices, meeting newer people who are doing a lot better than us, understanding how to collaborate is something that I learnt along the way. But whatever I do, my learning is that never do it just because everybody else thinks it is a fancy thing to do. Do it only if it redefines the customer experience to the next level.
My obsession about running a robust company
Thirdly, I always say that running a company is like running a ship. Without constant overhauls and proper maintenance, you would be more concerned about its rusted parts and leakages rather than focusing on your staff, your passengers and navigating to newer adventures. Similarly as a CEO I have to always ensure that the company – in all its parameters - be it governance, finance, strategies etc. is functioning well so that its people, customers, innovation – could be taken care of. And that is why the RoE to shareholders is of such importance which you should not lose focus of. Because the people who put their money in the business, expect some forms of returns for themselves, to be excited to pursue the trade on a long term basis.
My obsession about making a difference to the society
The other critical learning was to see how my business could help solve social issues. In a country like India where demographic dividend is talked about so much, the large chunk of youth if not gainfully employed can turn despondent. And that’s where we thought about working towards creating a million jobs in the near future. Another big faceless demon the country faces is of underinsurance, which pushes people to spend out of pocket expenses in the wake of a catastrophe or a health emergency. As a company we are constantly working on it, speaking about it in the right forums, educating the grassroots about the importance of insurance, pushing the agenda across levels so as to make a difference to millions of lives in terms of better financial protection. As a CEO I also learnt that with your CSR activities you can contribute in significant terms of giving back to the society, by making an impact on a long term basis. So for us our focus has always been on children. Whether it be in Pune where we secure a future for homeless children or be it our partnership with Smile Train where we change lives of children with cleft lip and palette, we are constantly working towards securing the tomorrow of our country.
How to handle pressure
As a fifth, I want to share my learning on handling pressure. This is again one of the FAQs that I as a CEO have faced in countless interactions. As a CEO I have multiple aspects to look into which was not there in my previous roles as Head for sales or for geographies. Which means that at any given point of time I’ll be handling highly critical issues. Initially that used to stress me out and by the time I reached home my head would be throbbing. But over time I realized that I would have to look at it all dispassionately with an overall view of the options, give it my best shot and then letting it be. As time progressed I’ve come to find that the philosophy of taking things one at a time and devoting my complete attention to it before moving to the next task is the easiest way to do it!
The parting words…
This brings me to another point close to my heart – to do good business you don’t have to fetch shortcuts or tell lies, rather with ethics, values and principles you can really stand out without having to pull shortcuts. It is never about making a move and feeling contended with it. These obsessions are my personal values, and hence I do them on a continuous rather than an end goal basis. For me the journey is more important than the destination. I always tell people that business is incidental, if you run it with a good heart, clear mind and good intentions it will always be good. For the kid who wrote to me - being from a small town, you are already an inspiration to a lot of girls around you. For you and the others reading this, you have travelled this far only because you have it in you. Keep up the good journey, and never cease to learn from the street and the people you meet - for the inspired the lessons are just everywhere!