NAINA LAL KIDWAI
With a nonchalance that comes so naturally to her, Naina Lal Kidwai will tell you that it is the first wins that are the most difficult. She would know. A trailblazer from the very start, this is someone who has almost made a habit of setting records – from being the first ever Indian woman at Harvard, to procuring a job at PWC by compelling them to change their no-women-employees policy, to being appointed the head of an investment bank – the first woman to have done so anywhere in the country. If you are expecting a complex discourse from her on what has driven her all along, you will be disappointed. Because she will tell you simply and plainly, that her greatest strength was in the belief that she was as good as anyone else could be.
GJ: Is there any principle that drives you to be a trailblazer as you were the first in PWZ, HPS and the first women to lead a private sector bank?
NLK: I firmly believe that I was good as any other. The confidence that I can deliver when I met people, who I believe are as capable or may be less capable than I am, worked in my favour. I think it’s the competitive nature in me that helped me to be a bit of a fighter. I had a boss who called me a fighter and I think the belief in me instigated me to fight back.
Moreover, I was very fortunate that none of my fights were in an upsetting situation. There were situations when I felt that I wasn’t getting my due and then to get that recognition I needed to argue a little bit more, work harder but I was not one of those feminist saying ‘don’t open the door for men, believe in womanhood at the cost of fighting all the men etc. It was more a quiet determined fight to stay the course and not get pushed aside.
GJ: Over the last 30 plus years in your corporate life you must have placed integrity over the immediate success. Has it ever put you on a very limited position, where you prioritized integrity at work place over the immediate goals of the team players?
NLK: I don’t see it as a conflict because when you live with a certain standard it hardly happens. My standard of integrity has always been to be open, fair and honest at all stages. I absolutely abhor politics at the work place. If you do well you get recognised and if you don’t you might as well leave the organisation. So you stay in a place because you are good and the organisation recognises you for that. The best thing you can do is understand their weaknesses, not hide that away, and in one’s own dealings.
I have worked in organisations where it never was an issue because the banking environment does not bring you into day to day contact with having to get permissions for telephone lines and all the things people struggle with. And all the companies I have worked for, despite the reputation that India is corrupt, organizations never had to succumb to corruption, but may be in hindsight it took us longer to get permissions. Despite living in the country I never saw the issue of integrity being questioned. At the personal level you get petty corruption and it’s all about the dilemma. It’s like the same kind of dilemma that happens when you see a young child at a traffic light. I serve my conscience by working with a donation agency for street children projects knowing that if I continue to pay them at the traffic signals I am encouraging them to beg and get into the world of drugs. But you could as well encourage the pavement workers to join the institutions. I think there are these dilemmas that you will have to live with in this country. It isn’t right to do it and yet you are pulled into doing it.
GJ: What is your USP?
NLK: I think speaking more for Indian women. Having to manage both work and office at the same time their conditions should be taken in mind and made to fall in line with the western counterparts. And I would say there are enough of us who done that. But I am proud of the fact that I have a family, two kids, husband and that part of my life is as important to me as work and the balancing act is something which has been difficult but entirely achievable as well. What differentiates me from some of my counterparts is that I have worked globally. Always having to argue within the system for India and standing for India and ensuring whether it was our own organization or global customers we would convince them that India is a good story. So I think my being a citizen of the world rather than India alone, the way I am engaged with my organization differentiates me. The organizations I worked in and still work gives me insights which are global. I enjoy global cultures and my desire to assimilate and learn. I travel a lot. My work requires that I travel a lot. So I think that sort of international global footprint is quite an important part. At the end of it to remain anchored as an Indian is all the more important.
GJ: You’ve been a leader right from your childhood days, holding many important posts in school. Can you tell us more about your life while you were growing up?
NLK: I was born in Calcutta, grew up in Bombay, moved to Delhi in 1973 with my parents, and then completed my chartered accountancy. I went to convent schools and it was particularly the last two years in school when I held leadership positions. Initially I was the vice-captain of the house, then becoming the school captain later heading the library squad. I played lots of games in school and in fact was part of the basketball team for 4 years. Two of my friends and I entered the basketball school team when we were in Class VIII and played till four years. We used to play for Himachal at state level and won many tournaments. Badminton was again another game in which I excelled. I played mainly doubles. We were a winning team as I had a partner who was superb.
When I was 11-years-old I studied in a school in Bombay. There again I was the head girl of the junior school leading the march past squad and doing all kind of errands for the headmistress. I think the fact that I got these leadership positions early in my life, which I enjoyed doing, made sure that I aspire for it more and more. And not everybody is given a chance, because once you are in it, you enjoy it to improve yourself, you learn from your mistakes and you aspire for it.
I was also very competitive when it came to academics and I could not handle not coming first. I ranked first in class I but in the second grade I did not and that was a huge jolt to me. Dad was really good in counseling me and he used to say ‘it’s not about coming first rather it’s about putting your best foot forward. And even if you’ve come first and did not put your best foot forward then that victory was of no use.’ He encouraged me to compete against myself. I think those lessons shaped my thinking quite a lot.
I think the environment that we grew up in, with our parents allowing us to grow with the philosophy of ‘you have to do your best’ ensured that we rise to the top.
GJ: Your father laid the blueprint for your education and career from a very young age. Can you share with us how has your personality been influenced by your father?
NLK: He was very hard working man and was highly respected for his ability to speak to anyone. Whether it was the man on the street or the chairman of a company he would talk with deep respect. I never saw lose his temper. I think what I have taken from him is the respect for people’s opinion and their attitudes.
I remember there would be discussions at home where my mother would say this is crazy, we live in India, we got to be able to make things work the way it should be but he would adamant that he would not be part of that system. So he would go abroad with whatever meager amount they would give us, may be 50 dollars or something similarly ridiculous. He could have easily arranged for the money and got along with the system like everybody did. But he just believed that he lived entirely within the law and wouldn’t take favours from people and never let his integrity at any stage get questioned. So I admired him a lot for sticking to that side of his personality. And he was both a great golfer and a finance guy and I think that part of his gene went to my sister and me as well.
GJ: What about your mother? How has she influenced you?
NLK: My mother is a very strong person with strong family values. She was always someone who made sure that the entire family came together for dinner. We usually sat for dinner very late at home and my mother would keep on calling my father if he would be late just to make sure that all of us were there together at the dinner table. Dinner was always a bit of an event here. Mom was in that sense a fabulous home maker. She made sure that we came together as a family and that we are understood.
GJ: Going further into education you studied in the best colleges like Lady Sri Ram and Harvard Business School. How has education widened your perspective and helped you?
NLK: I think both education and traveling has helped me. I traveled abroad when I was 18-years-old. I did my first offshore trip with grid Euro rail trip around Europe and that was an eye opener in terms of exposure that it gave to me. The next trip I made was when I was 23 to join Harvard Business School. I had never been to the US before and I think those journeys and the stay in US was an educational exposure in its own way.
Nothing I learnt in business school is entirely relevant today because the management education keeps developing, the skills keep updating but what stays with you is the ability to learn. How you are trained to read in a certain way, to analyse, distill data which gets thrown at you and narrow it down to a small bit of very important information and articulating that information keeps changing.
So I think education is very important for the way it trains your mind, to receive information rather than the information itself. That is why it is extremely important to be continuously tuned with the learning process.
When I was young, I used to love reading and my mother was always keen to distract me and I would rebel against it because I love staying with my books. But in a way she moulded my desire to do things beyond books and the more she made me do it the more I hated it. I was someone who was focused more on reading and learning rather then concentrating on other stuffs. I was not going to be the one to be sitting at home and managing a house. I don’t like it. I’ve got another mission in life and that had settled in my mind very early when I was 8 or 9 years old. The more I helped in the house hold chores I would make a mess out of it.
GJ: You are the first Indian woman to graduate out of Harvard Business School and it’s an inspiration for young girls. Does that accolade mean anything to you?
NLK: I didn’t apply to Harvard knowing that I was the first Indian woman going to Harvard. I just happened to enroll to Harvard because I was ambitious enough to understand that I might get in. It was only after being there for a month that somebody came up to me and said, ‘do you know you are the first Indian girl whose come to the school?’ It was more of a discovery for me and I was there so that epithet remains.
I was not surprised by the fact that more women did not join at that time. I knew that despite belonging from a very progressive family I still had a battle to fight. My mother was very uncomfortable about me going away for two long years. In those days if you went off to America to study you didn’t come back in between as travel was not easy. Also the concept of mobile were not there and communication was possible through landlines where again you had to book calls, you didn’t just get dialed in. Moreover, communication was expensive with lots of glitches. My mom’s situation was justified because she nobody from her family had done more than just schooling and nobody worked either. She it was difficult for her to understand my desire and she understood it, but I believe she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t have complete support from home bit it was my desire that drove me to explore the world.
GJ: What drives your zeal given that you were the first woman to join PWC, an office with cubicles of only men?
NLK: There were three of us who joined PWC and I was amongst those who led the fight to make sure that they hired women and when they did they said that they couldn’t handle just a woman there. They made the decision directly of hiring three women, so there were three of us.
GJ: You’ve seen the transformation in India, how has it been for you to live through that?
NLK: It’s really exciting. If you think about 1991 and we had Dr Manmohan Singh as our finance minister and I remember working with him through some of those plans including privatizations which was a bad word in India. But working on some of the biggest private organizations of the country and seeing those companies go out professionalize, to see the setting up of the National Stock Exchange which happened through deliberations at a time when we were trying to get the Bombay Stock Exchange professionalize and it wouldn’t, so the only way was to encourage the setting up of a new exchange which has to be bigger than the Bombay Stock Exchange to work through the national depository system because we were working a lot with the capital markets then and not so much in banking. We had volts full of physical stock certificates which would be duplicated and scanned, all telling us that this would be going out of control. Ad India need to be in a system where all these physical certificates had to be removed and put in to what we have today is a national depository. That whole exercise to force the change I think that’s again where my global experience helped. India was very close those days, only few of us moved to this international sort of learning which we were able to bring back and not bring back on mass. The last thing we have to say is that we have to Indianise what UK or other western and eastern countries are doing and have a Indian solution for everything.
GJ: What would you say are the professional milestones in your journey? The one that absolutely stand out and make you feel like
NLK: I think the early milestones count for a lot more. When I was heading investment banking in North India and then I was the first woman head of investment banking anywhere in the country, quite early in my career and I think for me that was a very important milestone because internally in the bank there was everyone 10 to 12 years older, externally there no women heads and this was way back in 89. Seven years into the job and Greenlays bank that time was the largest investment foreign bank in India and that’s where I formed relationships and partnerships with people like Mahendra Kothari and Nimesh and later I took Morgan Stanley to him to form JM Morgan Stanley. And Himendra with whom I formed a partnership in Greenlays when we jointly bid for deals because he brought the Indian end and we brought the foreign end. So those were very important milestones which were those first wins were very difficult. They were the ones which if I look back I was not sure. It would happen as it did but it did. I was very fortunate that I worked for an organization like Greenlay and then I also quote the point of change there, they were moving from hierarchical to less hierarchical more meritocracy based. More open to the diversity that was present in India, present as in not just Anglo Saxon English speaking Indians but also just looking at the wider variety of Indians that worked there, not just men and women. So sometimes you are just fortunate because you are at that point of change where the organization accepts you, so I would say that was a very important one and I think Morgan Stanley and heading it in India was another important step. It was for me quite an important step starting from the scratch and I think that became a milestone. And to take it from nowhere to ones amongst the top as we were ranked at that time amonst the top investment banking industries including forming the joint venture with JM because when i took the deal TO JM I had to fight an internal fight with Morgan Stanley for a while for them to agree that I could even approach JM for this. And then HSBC itself, because HSBC had only ever had one Indian head and he had been a part of the international manager cadre and himself was an UK citizen but an Indian, and there was no one else and he was like 30 years in the bank So I joined HSBC on the express understanding that I could have a shot at being the head of the bank. Also I came from investment banking and the fact that came to pass was I think quite an important milestone Because I had to prove my ways, I had no commitments, it was a chance I took, living Morgan Stanley and investment banking to join HSBC which was not so important as investment banking with a view to that next big step. So that risk was a very important milestone when that materialized. And these all happened because you had good bosses, people to support you and because the organization was ready to accept change as well. So each of those job changes were important milestones in themselves. I could have gone wrong because there were risks I took, they could have gone horribly wrong. The risks were worth taking in the hindsight. That way different because some of the women who have made it had made it through the same organization by working very long.
GJ: What propelled you to write the book Contemporary Banking in India?
NLK: Essentially there is no book on banking in India. It does not exist, I was amazed to find it did not exist, so that’s what inspired me to pull it together knowing that it would be easier for me because I knew all the players that I had the frameworks which I thought were important or them to come and then be able to persuade on that subject because otherwise everyone wants to write on the same subjects. I had to make sure that we had a reasonable spread of areas. I see this book being a reference book for young people coming into banking, young people working in BPO’s of service banking, university kids, policymakers. There are a lot of people who impinge on the world of banking without really knowing the whole thing and I really don’t know how they educate themselves, so just to make it an easy read for young people in particular, for anyone who is interested in understanding that what banking in India is about and using the opportunity of having the best people, real practitioners not professors telling the story.
GJ: What kind of rural activities are you personally involved in?
NLK: I sat on board of grass roots training programme for women. The real role that I can play is not teaching someone embroidery but really the overall sort of visioning and financing and making sure the NGO was well run and helping with network to establish linkages of corporates etc. The corporate linkages which enable what these women do to be connected with the market, both ways. So really using my networks and understanding of the global and the financial world to help them. But in order to understand the issues you have to go to the grassroots and understand why certain things are not happening for them, how they should go about it, resolving their problems. So sometimes it’s as simple as when it is the quality of thread that they buy, if all the labour goes down to waste because the quality then it’s no use expecting a better quality product. You need to provide solutions as well. My engagement at best is superficial because I got a full job otherwise but it’s certainly an area where whenever I have dabbled in it and do the work I come back feeling a lot more better than what India and Indian women are about.
GJ: I have read about the work you have done for women working in HSBC and financial institutions… Can you tell us a little bit about women empowerment in the glossy world?
NLK: I think women are doing very well and I take a lot of pride that in our banks particularly, women have done very well. And I think a lot of it is just networks and friendships that get formed. It is very important that each organization have a scale. If the lone woman works much harder than if you are a battalion. So you have to create enough depth where women can find each other and it’s very important to sensitize the men to the fact that women can work differently. I think the ideal organization is where a woman is not afraid to say that I have a kid at home, I am going to leave at 5andI am going to get the job done.
I think the frankness of being able to share that I dont have to prove myself by sitting in office till 9 in the evening and that I am ready to work from 7 to 12 once my children are asleep. And working out a schedule for the work is important for men also. Being sensitized to the fact that ultimately it is the output, it’s not the show of sitting in office from 9 to 9 and I think that change at a manager level becomes very important in terms of attitude and approach. But women can also be very harsh bosses, particularly the older breed of women who went through the system saying they had to prove themselves all the way and it’s very hard to tolerate women who make excuses for their time so sometimes the complaints I have heard of is from women, on women subordinates because they believe that they need to be toughened up and not to the point that the environment is unfriendly. I think there is a balance there which women cant use, motherhood and pregnancy as an excuse. But organizations must also be sensitive to their needs and if the woman is delivering at the level that you would require in terms of work, at the end of the day it’s her brain and her mind that you are using her for and f she is able to give you the output at a level which is acceptable then the fact that she is not physically there and that flexible work hours being used by her which the organization permits should not be held against her. We were the first organization in the country that introduced flexible work hour. And wherever possible it was introduced for both men and women across the organization. Initially 60% of the uptake was from men and mostly senior men. We realized that it was actually a nee in the organization and it wasn’t for women alone. It was an eye opener and it is 50-50 even now. But the organisation’s ability to enable that is much harder than you would believe. Because to have that fist conversation is to have lot of hesitation. To train the managers was actually far more important than just putting the system in. It also needs continuous rejuvenation, but when you put it in it really changes the work environment.
Another simple thing that I did when I took over as the CEO of the bank everywhere in the world we worked for five days a week, we had a six days a week and I had 5 days a week and initially our costs went up in a very small way. We worked for 5 days but added only half hours more to the days of the week. Saturdays the branch staff had to work. They worked in shifts. So people had a five days week. It was amazing; it was like putting new blood in the organization. Actually our productivity went up and our costs went down because our electricity costs were saved. So it ended up exactly as we had hoped. And I didn’t do it because of women; I just did it because I thought lets do it because it just makes sense both in terms of morale and costs.
GJ: How do you de-stress?
NLK: Well the family is a big de-stressor which constitutes of family members, dogs, short wildlife trips to jungles and also music. I am particularly fond of Indian and western classical music and I hear a lot of that and I even like opera. Also, a big de-stressor is where my husband works, in rural areas. It is kind of a social entrepreneurship so I go with him in some of his trips when I am on leave and he is on work. It’s not just about microfinance but about creating livelihood to help women earn their living.
GJ: What is the less known fact about Mrs Kidwai?
NLK: My husband is Muslim and his name is Rashid Kidwai and that in itself is also a little less usual. I never thought of it much because we met socially and there were enough points in our marriage like our parents and older generation people questioned or asked do you know what you are doing or are you sure. So there were never moments which I paused to think but I was always still surprised that at this day and age it’s a question on people’s minds which is quite telling. Amongst an intelligence here, progressive educated India it can still be an issue in India.
GJ: How would you like to be remembered?
NLK: Harvard Business School has a case going on me now which they would be teaching in January, so may be that will give me a better idea of how I would like to be remembered. But I think with love and respect.