If ever the story of a woman responsible for carving the fate of a bank was to be written, the protagonist would be Chanda Kochhar. From starting out as a young trainee, to taking over key departments with quiet ease, to finally holding the reins of one of the largest banks in the country in her hands, few have made leadership look as effortless or as easy as she has. If her parents laid the foundation for that famous tenacity, here she tells us about the invaluable role of her mentors and why the word ‘stress’ is altogether absent from this CEO’s life.
GJ: What part of your personality has been influenced by your father?
CK: I think a lot about how I am is influenced by my father. When I was growing up, there was a lot of focus on education. We lived in a gender-neutral environment, which, in the Sixties, was unusual in a place like Jaipur. I had a basic approach to life, with the usual middle class values and ethics. We believed that it didn’t matter what you are doing, all that mattered was that you did it well. My basic grounding happened during that ten-to-twelve-year period.
GJ: What about your mother? How much of who you are today has been influenced by her?
CK: I would give her the credit for my tenacity. I did see her transit from one role to another in a very seamless manner. When my father was alive, she was really a true homemaker. Then, suddenly, she had to take on the responsibility of having to finish educating three children. She made sure that the three of us grew up to be self-reliant, career-oriented, and educated. Not only did she play a very important role but she also moved from being one person to another, playing each part so well. So a considerable part of my personality comes from her mental strength.
GJ: You joined ICICI in 1984. At any point during these last three decades, did you feel disadvantaged because you were a woman?
CK: I will not say that I faced hurdles, but I do think that in these last so many years, there have been many changes, even in the external environment. When I started my career, there were many organizations where I did not even apply, because it was known that women were not accepted in those organizations. However, ICICI was very gender neutral, and there were no issues. There, it was no big deal that a young girl in her early twenties was asked to visit factories and inspect sites. So, I would not say that I faced any hurdles as such.
GJ: During the 1980s, India’s business sphere was very male dominated, and the men were not very accepting of women coming into it. What or who were your support systems?
CK: My two big support systems were my organization and my family. So, regardless of whatever outside visits I did, I would always come back to my job and my family.
GJ: At Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, you met the two most important people of your life, namely, Deepak Kochhar and K.V. Kamath. Could you share with us the role that the latter has played in your life as a mentor?
CK: Mr Kamath has played a very important role throughout my journey. He was the first person who interviewed me when I entered the ICICI building. Subsequently, by trusting me with more responsibilities and accountabilities, he mentored me and helped me develop my skills. Most importantly, he always had faith in me. Any situation that I found myself in could be classified into three types, and Mr Kamath played his role in each one of these three cases. First, there were things that I did on my own, which I didn’t even need to tell him. In this case, he trusted me with enough responsibility and authority to continue to do the things that I was doing. Second, there were some things that I could choose to do and execute on my own, but I felt it was important for me to inform him, which I did. Third, there were situations where I knew that I needed his advice, and he would always be there to give it to me. The one common factor in all the different situations was that he never dictated anything. It was always up to me to take decisions, in a manner that I felt most comfortable with. And yet, if I ever needed his advice, he was always available. I would say that his biggest contribution was that I always had that confidence that he was around, but at the same time, he allowed me all the independence to contribute to this business that we have built together thus far.
GJ: When you were assistant general manager (AGM) of the regional office, you made a presentation where you spoke about the changes that needed to be made. When Mr Kamath asked you if you had asked anyone about these changes, you said that you hadn’t asked anybody. What did you feel in that moment? Was there any nervousness?
CK: In that moment, I thought that maybe I’d done something wrong by not taking anyone’s permission or asking anyone about the changes. However, I spoke the truth, and that was more important.
GJ: Today, you are known for taking unprecedented decisions. What propelled you to have more faith in yourself and in the decisions you make? Did your experience at that presentation have any impact on your decision-making skills?
CK: Yes, it did; it influenced me in two ways. One, it gave me more confidence in myself. I realized that I had the ability to make the right decisions and that I should take the initiative and keep moving forward. Secondly, it also conveyed to me that I have a mentor who has a lot of confidence in me and who actually wants me to elevate myself to a place where I can take whatever decision I have to and keep moving on. So, it built my confidence in both ways; it gave me self-confidence and it gave me the confidence that I was doing what people wanted and expected me to do.
GJ: In 1993, you were Asst. General Manager, and you were asked to lead the bank. In an earlier interview, you have identified this experience as a defining moment in your life. Please tell us more.
CK: That experience was valuable in many ways. Firstly, for the country as a whole, because this was the time when new banks were being established. Mr Vaghul, who was the chairman of ICICI at the time, said that for the past fifty years, nobody had set up a bank and that banks only set up branches. So, in that sense, it was an important step for the country. Secondly, of course, ICICI was never a bank, so for the institution itself it was a big step in a new direction. For me, it was like learning everything from the scratch. I started with reading about banks, how to design pay slips, and what a cheque book is. I also met with many public sector bankers to better understand how technology is used or not used, how things work, and how structures are formed. This included everything from something as mundane as what a paying slip should look like to deciding the most important aspects such as the technology architecture of the bank. So, all in all, it was something that was unique, with new experiences, and at the same time, it was a very comprehensive learning experience.
GJ: In 2001, you took over retail, and in five short years, you took it from one per cent to sixty-seven. Was there any mantra that you followed to achieve that kind of growth?
CK: First and foremost, you need to realize that retail is a game of scale. If you don’t achieve certain economies of scale, the business will not pay off. So, at the time, we felt that it was imperative for us to achieve that scale. The way we made it happen was to focus considerably on the building blocks. The goal was quite clear, and we invested all our energy in working on the building blocks that would help us achieve this goal. Proper technology, architecture, and manpower skills were very important. We had to build a risk management system that was very different from the corporate one; we needed one that could handle the large volumes of business. We were doing everything that was different from what other banks were doing so as to carve a niche for ourselves. We brought ATMs, infrastructure, call centres, technologies, especially at the backend, to carry out almost every transaction. We also invested considerably in risk management systems and we recruited people from outside; in that sense, we really focused on building the building blocks. That said, at the time, there were 200 to 300 ATMs in the country, so we decided to set up 2000 ICICI Bank ATMs. To some extent, some of the steps we took were much bigger than just building blocks.
GJ: What kind of professional risk was involved when you took the step in 2001? What propelled you to decide ‘okay, let’s do it’?
CK: It was a huge professional risk. However, challenges excite me, and so I took this as one more challenge and one more thing to learn. When presented with the challenge, I said yes, I will take this challenge and I will make it happen. Additionally, another thing that worked was that the organization had faith and confidence in me. Even for them to pick me, someone who did not have any retail background, was reassuring. Mr Kamath said that they wanted me to take it because they knew that I could do it; words like that further built my confidence. Consequently, I was able to move forward with the confidence that I would be successful.
GJ: In 2007, you were the official spokesperson for ICICI as well as joint managing director, both of which were heavy titles. How did you manage all of it?
CK: I was deeply involved with business-related jobs, both infrastructure and corporate retail, and they were very different from finance and strategy or being a spokesperson. For a while, I thought that should I continue doing my old job, but again, the organization urged me to move forward, and to take on newer responsibilities. That was the reason why I took that job, and it made me look at the organization in a completely different manner. Now, I can look at it from the point of view of control functions of various businesses, and put myself in many different shoes so that I can correctly gauge what needs to be done.
GJ: Could you share with us your thought processes during that one year (2008–2009) when you decided on the no-growth policy?
CK: It was both the external environment and the internal structure that necessitated that. The external environment was becoming volatile and it became necessary for us to reduce some of the risks in our own portfolio, and secondly, it was because of the growth that we had in the past. So, both these aspects led me to believe that the no-growth policy was the right step to take. Although it was not very difficult to arrive at that decision, it was difficult to move ahead and implement it. I spent nine months between 2008 and 2009 meeting people and convincing them that this was the right strategy.
GJ: Did you ever have any moments of self-doubt, when you thought your strategy may not work or that the media or investors may take their money back?
CK: There was skepticism in terms of whether I meant what I said, because the environment was such. There was also skepticism about whether we would be able to achieve it, because I was sitting in the investors’ meeting and I was telling people that we will not grow, that we will cut down costs, which was exactly opposite to what was happening in the industry. In a sense, what I was saying was the complete reverse of the industrial trends at the time, so my views were met with skepticism regarding whether we would be able to achieve what we were saying we could do. There were also some who said that we were not acting like the ICICI Bank that they knew and liked. Consequently, there were some investors who decided to opt out; they did not feel comfortable with the strategy. So, there were some moments where people doubted me, but I was quite convinced that what I was doing was the right strategy in the long term. I think the skeptics were those who were looking at it from a short-term perspective. At this stage, I needed to have conviction in my belief. Only when a leader is convinced, can s/he convey that conviction to the team; and it is only then that the team is able to execute the strategy.
GJ: In an interview, you once said that you consider yourself to be ICICI Bank’s employee number one, and that even though you received several lucrative offers at the time, you chose to stay with the bank and grow along with it. To what would you attribute your fierce loyalty?
CK: It is a mixture of job satisfaction, support from co-workers and a sense of dedication from my end. The foremost thing is that as I was progressing in my career, and as the organization was growing, evolving and diversifying, there was plenty to do and even more to learn. Although I have spent twenty-eight years with the organization, it’s not that I’ve done just one job. The organization ventured into so many businesses, and I was most fortunate to be there when new businesses were being set up. In a way, it was a very entrepreneurial experience for me, where I was setting up new businesses, learning from them and growing with them; I don’t think there was ever a dull moment. Second, ethos is in the organization’s DNA, and once I started working at ICICI, I just became a part of it; to the extent that even my children say that I don’t see beyond that. In a way, it became a part of my life, and I don’t think I can think of any other option. Of course, I won’t undermine the fact that I also put in as much in those assignments and jobs, as they required considerable learning, work, and traveling, but I enjoyed every aspect of the effort that I was putting in.
GJ: It must require considerable mental tenacity in order to achieve what you have done. Could you share with us how your typical work day is structured? How do you beat the stress?
CK: Mental tenacity is an important aspect of anybody’s journey. Since my work day is always rather long, I like to wake up before my son wakes up to go to school. I start my day by first figuring out what is required in the house for that day; I need to do this before I leave home. I wake up very early, and in that sense, my mind is ticking and working all day. In fact, when I come home, it’s not like my mind can switch off from office because I don’t think that happens when you are so engrossed in your work. So essentially, it’s like living two lives together. Consequently, I generally don’t sleep for eight hours, as most people do, but since I am doing the things that I want to do, it doesn’t give me any real stress. I think that’s important: I am doing it out of choice, and so it takes away the stress.
GJ: What about the stress that comes with having to take decisions on a minute-to-minute basis? How do you manage to keep the clarity and focus that is required for your job?
CK: To be honest, you simply can’t allow the stress to get to you in such a manner that you have to struggle with unwinding. The more you allow stress to affect you, the more time you need to de-stress. The time that I spend with my family, whether it’s going for movies or even short holidays or just sitting at home, that’s the best way for me to unwind. Moreover, there really is nothing else beyond that which I get time for. The ability to balance the two lives gives me tremendous satisfaction, and that helps me keep stress at bay.
GJ: You are known as the ‘iron lady’ of banking; you are at the helm of ICICI Bank, and today, the bank is viewed as one of the most valued banks in the country. Can you share with us your leadership philosophy?
CK: Firstly, a leader has to keep an eye on the environment and proactively ensure that the organization is ready for any changes in it. One can either follow a reactive leadership policy or a proactive leadership policy, but I think it is better to anticipate changes in the environment and keep the organization ready for those changes, instead of simply reacting to them. Also, a leader has to be the right mix of a visionary and a realist. You need to remain very close to reality, and at the same time, you need to envision where you will be in the next five years. Thirdly, I believe that whatever the strategy may be, it is the leader who decides the strategy and explains to the team what the strategy is and why it is important.
GJ: Amongst your many awards and accolades, you received the Padma Bhushan in 2011. Do share with us how it felt to receive one of the highest honours of our country?
CK: I must say that it was a humbling experience, because to me, it was an absolute surprise. I actually watched it on TV and got a few phone calls. I reiterate, it was a pleasant surprise and a humbling experience. I think the nation was looking up to me because I was able to fulfill many goals that were beyond just running an organization. However, that also meant that the responsibilities on my shoulders were that many more.
GJ: You met your husband in college, and you have shared a very warm family life. Can you tell us how the dynamics worked for you? What would be your advice to a working mother?
CK: It works both ways, so both partners have to be given credit for it. It is also important for both to find their respective goals, rather than trying to do a common thing and messing it up. I feel that there is so much to do in life that you can leave some things for one person to do and some things for the other to do; this ensures that there is less interference with both trying to do the same thing. Similarly, at home, if one of us decides something, the other just goes along with it, or just convinces the other person to change his/her mind. It’s more like you decided this, so you do this, and I’ve decided this, so I’ll do this, or we could both do it.
That is one aspect, and a lot of people talk about cooperation, but I think it has to be much more than that. For a relationship to be sustainable, I think there also has to be respect for one other. You genuinely have to feel happy about the other person’s growth and progress, at least that is what I feel: to know that it’s just not cooperation from my family, but that they are genuinely happy with every step that I take. That is what gives me the courage to keep moving forward. Simple cooperation with no happiness would not allow me to move ahead; it’s the genuine happiness for me and the pride in what I am doing that motivates me to achieve more. You have to have that mutual respect and love because that’s what makes a relationship work.
GJ: You are an inspiration to millions. How does that feel? Do you feel guilty about not spending enough time with your children?
CK: That I am able to inspire and motivate so many other women gives me satisfaction, but more importantly, I feel humbled. I see other mothers who spend much more time with their children than I do. But I believe that as long as my children grow up well, I have nothing to feel guilty about. Nonetheless, I do spend less time with my children, and I cannot run away from that.
GJ: You have already accomplished so much in these thirty years. What lies ahead? What are some of the immediate goals that you have set for yourself?
CK: There’s a lot to be done in ICICI itself. Moreover, my children are still young, and I need to see them through their respective growths, careers, marriage, and more. Thereafter, if I get the time, there’s a lot to be done for the society as well.
GJ: You are one of the youngest bankers in the country; how would you like to be remembered?
CK: I would like to be remembered as Chanda Kochhar!