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New SBI chief emerges an empowering leader

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New SBI chief emerges an empowering leader
New SBI chief emerges an empowering leader

By Santhosh Babu

The appointment of Arundhati Bhattacharya as chairperson of State Bank of India Oct 7 signals her acumen with numbers. That a 57-year-old career banker will lead the 207-year-old bank, the biggest in the country, to serve the customer is a natural expectation. That winds of change – with her employee-friendly approach and transformative communication – will be felt within days of the change of guard was a surprise.

Change of leadership in organisations is not easy. And for State Bank, India’s only entry in the Fortune 500 Global list, the task is tough, to say it mildly. It boasts of a network of 15,000 branches, over 25,000 ATMs and the largest balance sheet in the country, along with machinery that badly needs fine-tuning to keep up with the changing times.

O.P. Bhatt, who headed SBI for five years till 2011, literally walked barefoot over a bed of blazing coals at one of the deputy general manager conclaves. When colleagues found him unscathed, they too attempted and accomplished the feat, narrate Prof Rajiv Lal and Rachana Tahilyani in a Harvard Business School case study “State Bank: Transforming a State Owned Giant”.

“It is all in the mind and the mind can conquer anything. After that, some of those people have told me, when confronted with a problem, I think if I can walk on fire, why can’t I do this?” recounts Bhatt in the 2011 case study.

It is not going to be a walk on fire for the newly-appointed chief but it is also not going to an easy walk.

For the new chief, energizing the workforce and growing collaboration seem to be the top priority. Since Bhattacharya has a collaborative leadership style, it would help spawn positive energy at workplace.

By choosing to focus on employees in her very first media interaction, a day after taking over, she instantaneously won the trust of 3,00,000 colleagues by promising three sabbaticals (of two years each) for women employees to look after their young ones, in helping them in their Class 10 and 12 studies and spending time with their aging parents and in-laws.

Currently women employees at State Bank can avail of a sabbatical of about a year on childbirth without pay.

It is an exceptionally powerful initiative aimed at empowering employees – both women and men. I see this as brilliant example of people-centric leadership that can create an escape velocity for the bank to move to a new orbit of growth.

Along with these positive moves, Bhattacharya may need to align the top team and those below them with a new aspiration that could help the bank get out of the current challenges she so eloquently admitted.

By preventing mobility of women work force to the world of educated, under-employed home-makers, the people-sensitive SBI chief will retain and nurture talent.

At the same time, HR will not face the issue of last-minute leave of absence, and managers can assign workforce in a better way knowing that an employee is not available for two years.

She has also made SBI an attractive career option for the bright talent passing out of our colleges.

Bhattacharya also made her mark in communication.

Without getting stuck in the transactional communication that many leaders are prone to and that fails into inspire people, she quickly outlined transformational themes to the entire organisation.

She did away with the bureaucratic rule that says not more than two transfer requests on account of spouses getting transferred.

It signals that with the changing societal needs, outdated rules will get updated, especially in nuclear families where both partners work. This benefit, when implemented, will empower women employees to give their best at work place.

As someone who has led the technology function at State Bank, Bhattacharya used its intranet to connect with its 300,000 people. With this move she was able to engage the employees in the bank’s vision to deliver more value, rather than first sharing it with a small subset of people and then it cascading down.

Communication experts point out that she could not have articulated her vision better when she chose 3 simple themes – risk, delivery and collaboration – to help the bank achieve its vision of retaining the premier banking institution badge that others follow.

In her broadcast to employees, she minced no words when she admitted that the bank is under threat from more nimble organisations. Bhattacharya also placed the responsibility of undertaking any activity in the bank, with each employee, of understanding the inherent risk, and of measuring, monitoring and mitigating it.

By emphasizing the importance of collaboration among different product groups and employees Bhattacharya has cooked a perfect recipe for “problem solving” and won the hearts of her people. The success will really depend on how much they collaborate and leverage each other’s knowledge.

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