When I finally left Microsoft, I left with two pieces of paper. One was a $1 bill signed by Bill Gates. So the rite of passage in Microsoft is when you argue with Bill and Steve, and can hold your own. That’s when you win respect.
Once Bill had come to India and we boarded his plane for Chennai, at around 11.30 pm. Melinda was also there, and Bill began grilling me intensely. He was curious and it was his way of testing if you know your stuff. We got into an argument that night — about something that wasn’t particularly consequential. I was tired too and irritable, and thought why should I back off? Bill’s wrong. I was unrelenting, and after half an hour, he gave in. He said, you are right! Melinda turned to him and handed him a dollar. He signed, “I was wrong — Bill Gates” on that and gave it to me. It was a little humour on his part but it’s something I treasure… the framed bill, that’s my retirement plan! I’m going to auction it, if I ever need to!
Overall, those eight years at Microsoft were spectacular. But, by 2010, I was bored silly. I decided I had to move on and did not want to be an employee again. There comes a time when you are not enjoying what you do, but you don’t know what else to do. Usually, people stick around but I walked out, without much of a plan.
I had lunch with Mr Murthy one day and asked him for advice. He asked me to join the board of Infosys and, in April 2011, I did. I was already on the board of Volvo, and I had also started writing my first book Conquering the Chaos.
By that time, Will Poole had started Unitus Ventures and he persuaded me to join him. That’s one of the most active impact investors in India today. He asked me to start Social Venture Partners in Bengaluru. I did, and today it’s a thriving organisation across seven cities with 250 partners.
Thus, a picture of the perfect life began to emerge for me, which had board responsibilities, writing, teaching and philanthropy.
In 2015, Raghuram Rajan called me out of the blue and asked if I could become the chairman of Bank of Baroda. I said, “Wow! Once again, I’m the least qualified for the job, I am not a banker. I don’t understand public sector, what will I do?” But I couldn’t do worse than anybody else, considering the state of public sector banks! That’s what Raghu told me. He was a friend and Jayant was Minister of State. It seemed like a risk worth taking.
Those were three fantastic years working on the turnaround of BoB.
In the very first month — September 2015 — in my apartment, over coffee, we outlined our idea of success in three years. Number one, we would have cleaned up the balance sheet and recapitalised. Two, we would get it to industry-leading growth. Three, double-digit return on equity. And four, and very important, we should be a leader in fintech.
When I decided to leave in August last year, we had done it all. The bank’s growth was an industry-leading 18% for the previous few quarters.
Here too, we realised we needed the right staff to make it possible. But we simply didn’t have the right talent. Too many of the GMs had retired, and a lot of the wisdom and experience had walked out. So I decided to run a risky experiment with the support of the board.
We identified 2,500 high-potential young people from a staff of 54,000. That was about 5% and included all ranks, right from the probationary officer to the GM. We brought in professionals to do the assessment and conduct a one-year leadership acceleration programme. So, we had McKinsey for the senior people, Aon Hewitt, Deloitte and Knollscape.
Half way through this training, it struck us. Only 20% of the group actually had leadership skills — 20% of 5% is 1%. The good news was that we knew who the 1% was. But, it was a hierarchical organisation, so we gave them roles shadowing senior persons; but they were the real doers.
The performance of the bank surged in year three. A lot of this came from my fundamental learning of identifying talent early and not being afraid of systematically giving them challenges that they were not yet ready for. That’s how you develop the best.
It’s something I learnt from Harold Steigerwalt at Cummins. I learnt that you don’t spot talent and wait for them to be ready for a position. He taught me that you get them ready by dropping them in the deep end. They learn to swim. That’s how I learnt, always being thrown into situations I wasn’t ready for.
That’s also something I started doing when I assumed leadership roles — spot talent early, and bet on them. In Cummins, one day, a young man wandered into my office — Rampraveen Swaminathan, a 21-year-old from Tata Motors. I liked him, so I hired him. He was very bright and mature beyond his years. When we started two new businesses — one, the small genset project and the other, power solutions, I made him the CEO, in a hierarchical 50-year-old organisation. Then, before I left Cummins, I made him the head of the whole power generation business, which was more than half the business we did. He did so well that he was sent to the US and became the head of a large part of the global business. Then, at an obscenely young age, probably 31 or something, he became the CEO of International Paper APPM. In July 2019, he became the CEO of Mahindra Logistics.
In 2018, I began to wind down all my corporate engagements to focus on two things. One is our non-profit called GAME, where our idea is to help 10 million Indians become entrepreneurs and create 50 million jobs by 2030. The other is my role as UNICEF’s Special Representative for Youth and Innovation.
I love my freedom. And the control I have over my time. I think the most useful and the most joyous work is what I am doing now, helping young people become better citizens and successful entrepreneurs. My deepest conviction is that I’m going to do my most important work now. I don’t believe my prime was some time in the past.
I gave a talk the other day in Mumbai and Delhi. I said, look, if you’re below 50, rejoice, because there’s never been a better time to be alive. There’re just so many opportunities. If you’re over 50, like me, then this is what you have been preparing for your whole life. Muster everything — what you’ve learnt, all the networks and relationships you’ve built, the little financial nest-egg that you have put together, the reputation you have — and take the leap.
When I look back, what has made a huge difference in my life is that I have had amazing people as mentors. Like Newton said, if you can see farther than others, it’s because you stood on the shoulders of giants. Harold, my first manager, was the first effective mentor I had. He gave me tough feedback and extraordinary opportunities.
Within Microsoft, there were Will Poole and Craign Mundie. Will Poole is partly the reason I got interested in social impact. He got Windows to fund ‘Shiksha’, the largest digital literacy programme that has benefited 40 million kids.
Craig was the CTO of Microsoft and one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. I don’t know many people with the same breadth of knowledge and the ability to go deep, and connect so many disparate dots. When I joined Microsoft, one of the things I missed having around was wisdom. So, with Craig, I created an advisory board with (Ashok) Ganguly as the chair and other stalwarts such as CK Prahalad, Ramadorai, (Narayanan) Vaghul, Arun Maira, Vijay Kelkar and Naresh Chandra. I told Craig that the reason these eminent people are onboard is because they think they’ll learn something from Microsoft, and there’s nothing I can teach, so you have to attend every meeting. He agreed and used to fly over from Seattle.
In those days, Microsoft didn’t do phones. And CK was the one who articulated this. He said, the paradigm is changing. We are moving from a computing-led to a communications-led paradigm, so Microsoft has to start shifting focus. The company never did though.
Personally, CK was enormously influential in my life. I met CK in 2002 when he used to run executive coaching classes along with KV Kamath. In 2001, CK and I had written in the same issue of HBR. And I used to like telling him, that’s the only reason I didn’t win the McKinsey prize! He had great ideas and an extraordinary power of communication, but above all that, he was a phenomenal manager and mentor. He would make himself available 24/7.
I will always remember one incident. In 2010, I needed a reference letter from him. I called him and said, CK, I need this. He agreed. And then, I never heard back. I got really worked up and upset because there was a deadline. I wrote another mail to CK. Deepa called and said, my father is in ICU, but he’s got your mail and don’t worry, I’ll get it done. And he did. He died 24 hours later on a ventilator. I cried. Later on, all of us compared notes and he did this for so many. That’s a mentor. No boundaries. I was very lucky.
As for life, I could not have evolved into a better person without Sonali. She is a thinker, a pure soul, with a very good sense of what is right and wrong. Many people have large greys. There are things that are obviously black and obviously white, but what makes the difference is what you define as grey. Her grey area is very narrow. It may make you rigid but she has helped me refine my moral sense. As a leader, she is visceral and leads from the front. If there is a machine tool show, she’ll be there every day, dawn to dusk, for the whole week!
I recall, once, there was a problem at the TVS factory. The equipment was not functioning and everyone was tense because, at a motorcycle factory, when you’re down for a minute, you lose 10 bikes. Her team began to work day and night to make up for it, and she used to get up at 4.30 am, bake cookies, drive to Hosur and be with them. That’s her, a commander on the field.
Sonali is more like my dad. He was the gold standard of how to conduct yourself. He got a very bad form of Parkinson’s disease. Two months before he died, he had Dr Kalam, who was then the President, visiting him. My father hadn’t talked for days. Dr Kalam sat next to him, shared the silence and then asked him, what is e^i*π? My father replied minus one! And that was the end of that conversation.
He suffered for eight years but not once did I hear him complain. Two days before he died, the nurse had come into the room and he asked her if she had eaten. That was the only thing he asked. As a human being, he was just a superlative man.
In his last days, my father told me something fundamental. He said: “Your biggest strength is your ability to connect with people, don’t think it’s your intellect.” My story has largely been about that — connecting deeply with people and forging meaningful relationships. That’s my story. That’s all the story.