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Emulating an inspiring leader

Five senior executives at IDBI Federal relate how their CEO Vighnesh Shahane transformed their lives:

Vighnesh Shahane has transformed the lives of many people who see him as a role model for leadership qualities

Measuring leadership through the bottom-line company performance may not be the exact way of measuring the effectiveness of the leader, for a leader, besides anything else, needs to inspire his senior colleagues down the line to be performance-oriented. What do the senior colleagues think of the leader is an important factor that HR practitioners consider while devising methods for improving leadership qualities. In spite of different styles in functioning, true leaders should be able to build trust among his colleagues, even to an extent that the leader is near indispensable. Trust is built when leaders think clearly about the future and move their organizations to the right place, in terms of product, sales and people. The art of building trust is complicated and is closely tied with a leader’s ability to communicate with integrity. It is built when you say the right thing at the right time, and show empathy and good judgment, and at the same time maintain informality as much as possible in human interactions.

Vighnesh Shahane, MD & CEO at IDBI Federal Life Insurance, is a leader whose approach to management is somewhat unorthodox, for he believes in a lot in informality in communications with his colleagues. We had interviewed Vighnesh a few months ago, which was again marked by his informality when he discussed various aspects of leadership that can significantly make a difference in an organization as it passes through critical times.

How do his colleagues view his style of functioning? We met 5 senior managers, who work closely with Vighnesh and sought their views on the changes that he could bring about in their life, incidents involving him that could make a major impact on their thoughts and actions, and leaders who they see as role models.

EMPOWERING IS KEY

Mathivanan Balakrishnan says Vighnesh has given people like him the confidence to take decisions faster, following which he has started empowering his own people

Mathivanan B, Chief Financial Officer at the company, goes to the extent of saying that it is Vighnesh who changed his way of working. Says he: “Vighnesh has empowered most functionaries to take decisions on their own, without too much dependence on him. That has given people like me the confidence that we can take decisions faster. Following him, I have started empowering my own people to take up challenges and to do things on their own. During this current pandemic, he has been concerned about employee safety and security. Not many people would have taken the kind of calls that he has taken during this time, especially when there are many pressures around cost and business disruption. He has taken some bold decisions for employees, which have made a difference to the company.”

He adds that as a CFO, he is expected to be a taskmaster and result-oriented, but he has learnt from Vighnesh how to consider different problems, empower the team, and take quick decisions.

TRANSPARENCY ALL THROUGH

Rajesh Ajgaonkar, Chief Compliance & Legal Officer and Company Secretary, too believes that he has changed because of Vighnesh’s leadership style. What he profoundly appreciates is the transparency that Vighnesh maintains in all his actions. Besides, he gives his senior colleagues complete liberty and does not micro-manage. This and the transparency flow down the line changes people. “The department that I handle – legal and compliance – can be the most bureaucratic in any organization. But at IDBI Federal, it is the most business-friendly department, and it is not because we throw away regulations, but just how we facilitate business within the 4 walls of the regulations.”

He maintains that one has to be a business enabler, and this is what he got to know from Vighnesh. “I could have been the typical person sitting in the corner and showing the rule book to everybody, but that is not how we behave. Because of our approach, problems no longer remain hidden. People feel very comfortable coming to us and telling us what problems have arisen so that we can help them, rather than go witch-hunting. Being solution-oriented and a team player is something I have learnt from Vighnesh. This has helped me to be a better person and a boss. Before my interaction with him, my focus was more on the rule book. In any organization, people first want to cover their backs and then focus on the company’s progress. That is not the approach here. Also, this means more face-to-face discussions rather than emails,” elaborates Rajesh.

COMFORTABLE ENVIRONS

Karthik Raman was induced by Vighnesh to become more open and express views, and also switch from sales to marketing

Karthik Raman, Chief Marketing Officer & Head – Products, admits that generally, his attitude had been to remain to himself unless asked and was very reserved about expressing his views. “This hurt me a bit in my career and this is where Vighnesh made a difference in my life. He actually made an effort to understand me. A team leader in the organization must make his team members comfortable in order to be able to extract the best out of them. Vighnesh clearly did that to me. You need to literally hold the person’s hand, and I was not a junior person in the organization to be handheld and asked to express my views,” says he.

Rajesh Ajgaonkar says Vighnesh has helped him become solution-oriented as opposed to being compliance oriented

Ganesa Ratnam, Chief Distribution Officer – Banca, Broking, Direct Sales & eCommerce, recounts how Vighnesh met him when he was heading the zonal office in Kerala and in the least possible interaction realized that he had a great relationship with the distributors. “The observation left a very positive vibe in me. When we were driving to the hotel, we were chatting about our distributors, but during that conversation, he was also assessing me without me even knowing about it. I explained what I could have done better with better support. And during his third visit to Kerala, he said that I have a very high sense of ownership and am very passionate and very committed. He said that business could be good or bad over a period of time, but the focus should be on building this geography so that it could contribute to the organization in a very big way. He said he looked at me as one of the leading founders of the organization.”

QUICK ASSESSMENT

Ganesa Ratnam says that admits that he has been able to imbibe many of Vighnesh’s qualities, except the one of being egoless

Ganesa says he was actually stunned by the fact that Vighnesh was doing an assessment and could do so in a few short meetings and being so candid about it. “That is how he built the culture of trust in the organization and that is my biggest point of admiration for him. He also empowers people. Thanks to him, I work as if I am the owner of my department. He gives you space and he makes you accountable. When you fail, usually other bosses would pin you down, but not him definitely. He does not make a drama about it. If you own up, he respects it. He respects the quality and effort put in more than the result. This motivates you to be all the more accountable,” he adds.

TRANSACTIONAL PERSON

Another quality that Ganesa finds in Vighnesh is that he is a very transactional person. “It is like, after an issue, debate or fight, it is over. He is egoless. I have fought and differed with him several times and I may be pouring out like a volcano, but he listens and he will argue, but after it is over, he forgets it. This is a very rare quality. He is apolitical. You cannot play politics with him. All of these qualities come from being a sportsman. He will demand performance every day and every second. If I don’t perform, I get stinkers. I attribute all my successes to him and his traits. When I fail, he will take the bullets on his chest. He will not even talk about it,” says he.

Ganesa admits that he has been able to imbibe many of these qualities, except that of being egoless, and believes that he has a long way to go.

He also points out that during this covid crisis, normal leaders would have chosen to conserve cash and cancel bonuses, but Vighnesh refused this approach as it would mean depriving people of the results of their sweat and blood.

He states that as a senior functionary in the company, he is a ruthless business person and used to do a lot of micromanagement, even as he was rising in his career. “But, one day, Vighnesh told me that at my level, I should be doing certain things and leaving the rest to my subordinates. It would be better if I was focused only on certain aspects and if I did not get into the nitty-gritty. He observed that I am a very detail-oriented person and rely on a lot of data. It took me time, but eventually, I did it. But it was like taking Excel out of an MIS person,” he says.

PROMOTING SPORTS

Ronald Fernandes, Deputy Vice President – Channel & Sales Support, is moved by Vighnesh’s clear focus on issuance/completions, and not just sales, and adds that this has slowly but steadily seeped into him and his team. “Procrastination was a big issue for me earlier, but having worked directly with him in the past, decisions today are quicker and I consciously try not to engage in analysis-paralysis which eats up a lot of time.”

Ronald also highlights the efforts made by Vighnesh in encouraging sports activities in the organization. “After he joined, there were a lot of tournaments for football, cricket, etc, which got us into the fitness mode. He also sponsored some of the employees for the Mumbai Marathon and now encourages us to participate in our company-sponsored marathons,” he says.

As many other organizations cut jobs, reduced or staggered salaries, and brought in austerity measures during the pandemic, Ronald says employees in IDBI Federal Life Insurance not only received their salaries on time (in advance actually in the initial months) but even the final appraisals happened on time. Moreover, he also undertook to improve the medical benefits to further help employees.

TIMELY INTERVENTIONS

His colleagues also recount instances where timely interventions by Vighnesh have wholly changed situations.

Mathivanan cites a personal instance where Vighnesh had a lot of trust and confidence in him as one of his team members. “After a couple of months of my elevation as CFO, I had to make a multi-year budget presentation to the shareholders. We prepared all the documents and readied ourselves for the meeting. Vighnesh prepares extensively for any meetings and this is something I had learnt from him. I remember that when the presentation started, because of my first interaction with the shareholders as CFO, he supported me with a lot of inputs on the historical data from his side. He is very good with numbers and can remember them easily. I don’t know how many people in the industry have so much knowledge.”

He also states how Vighnesh is excellent at engaging with people and giving them the confidence and reassurance that the company is performing well and is on a growth trajectory.

AMPLE IQ & EQ

Rajesh also finds his boss an exceptional person who is high on IQ as well as EQ. “He calls it his gut-feeling, but I think he absorbs a lot of information and processes it at the back of his mind, which helps him when the time comes for a decision,” says he.

He maintains that IDBI Federal Life Insurance, unlike any typical insurance organizations, has people who are always smiling. “In fact, Vighnesh calls the company an ‘un-insurance’ organization. When there is a need to send out a tough message, he will do that, but he is very transactional about it. He knows everyone’s emotional requirements and communicates with each of us differently. There was a point of time when there were 5 buyers interested in buying this company. During the meetings, the people there would often be our ex-colleagues and friends, and this created an awkward situation because at the back of everyone’s mind was the knowledge that many jobs which were duplicated would end up being eliminated. After those meetings, they told us that our body language was such that we were the buyers. Vighnesh had pepped us up so well that we went into those meetings with full confidence. Not a single person from our team resigned during that period. One thing he does is protect his people. He told me that if the bullets come, they will come for him first and then for any of us,” Rajesh narrates.

 

BETTING ON PEOPLE

Kartik highlights Vighnesh’s having faith in his people. He often bets on them, says he, narrating his own very experience: “I was in the world of sales till October 2015. At that time, the earlier chief marketing officer decided to pursue a career elsewhere. Out of the blue, Vighnesh called me and asked me to take over the marketing function. I had zero experience about branding, marketing, corporate communications, etc, and marketing is quite different from sales and for him to take a chance and put the responsibility on my shoulders was quite a punt. He told me that he would back me and support me and that he had the confidence in me to deliver on the job. That changed my entire perspective of how I should take the responsibility given to me because I felt far more assured that I had his backing. So, first, he pulled me out of my shell, and then he gave me a huge responsibility.”

He narrates how as a part of sales, he used to dabble in marketing by making some sales collaterals. “I would interact with the marketing people to discuss new ideas or work with the actuarial people to discuss product ideas, but that was as a sales-person. After I took over as CMO, we changed the entire dynamics of how we approached marketing and how we built the brand. We adopted the route of sports to achieve our brand positioning; we changed the positioning of life insurance as a product being sold based on fear and took a contrarian approach to brand building by saying that life insurance is a good thing and a positive product to have. I also started experimenting in those areas where I thought things were amiss. For all these things, Vighnesh always had one approach – let’s give it a try. I have never heard a ‘no’ from him in this area.”

He says a change after 22 years in sales would have hurt him badly if he failed. He asked Vighnesh several times why he did not choose a professional CMO from the market, and he always said: “I will back somebody who I think is capable of doing the job. It’s okay if he does not have the experience, but everybody has the capability of doing things.”

Naturally, this instilled a lot of confidence. What I have learnt from him is that if you back people, they can achieve a lot, he says.

ADDING PERSONAL TOUCH

Ronald Fernandes says that procrastination was a big issue for him earlier, but having worked directly with Vighnesh, decisions today are quicker and he consciously tries not to engage in analysis-paralysis

Ronald cites an instance of Vighnesh getting involved in cases where it is not an area for the CEO. “One of our team members from Aurangabad managed to close a case in which a claim was to be disbursed. With a lot of effort, he managed to find the kin and get the payment disbursed. The customer happily wrote an appreciation email and when this mail was forwarded to Vighnesh, he personally wrote to that customer thanking him for his appreciation mail. He got involved even though this could’ve been viewed as a very trivial matter from a CEO’s standpoint,” says Ronald.

All these examples and testimonials point to the impact that Vighnesh Shahane has made on the people at IDBI Federal Life Insurance, who have started emulating his admirable qualities. As for people outside the organization, that can be another story.

ROLE MODELS

When discussing the attributes of a leader and the attributes that made Vighnesh stand apart, who would these senior colleagues like to work with if they had a chance?

Rajesh: I would have loved to work for a person like our late President APJ Abdul Kalam. I have read his biography and I admire the way he took responsibility for the failure of his people and gave them full credit when projects succeeded. This is a rare kind of leader, and Vighnesh has this quality too.

Mathivanan: When I was doing my chartered accountancy after graduation, for some reason, I always wanted to work for Infosys, because of the leaders that emerged from the company, the way they took the company to new heights and the vision they had for the organization. I have been tracking the company right from its initial stages and have witnessed how it has grown phenomenally over the years, becoming the first Indian company to get listed on the Nasdaq in 1999.

Karthik: I always wanted to join the defence forces but unfortunately, I could not make the cut. The kind of leadership that one sees in the defence forces is something that I have always admired and would like to adopt. If you see the leadership of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, it is amazing. He is revered by his people. That is something that has inspired me.

Ronald: Both Ratan Tata and Azim Premji – because of their philanthropic work, I relate to them.

Ganesa: I worked in ICICI Bank from 1998 to 2005 and I have great admiration for K.V. Kamath. He is a visionary in terms of what was going to happen to the business and the country and did the seeding for that. He is extremely ambitious, aggressive and his scale is extraordinary. He is fearless. He and Vighnesh are a few leaders who take decisions on the spot.

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