Moving from vanilla term loans, ICICI was introducing a new product linked to the prime lending rate (PLR) and Kochhar was to market it to corporates in the western region, with an ambitious target. Some might consider this an unkind way to treat a lady with a year old infant at home, but Kamath knew what he was doing.
More importantly, he knew Kochhar and what she was capable of. Working tight hours, squeezing the most out of her time in office, rejigging systems and procedures where necessary and pushing her team to the limit, Kochhar managed to achieve the annual target – in three months.
“Of all the people I have mentored, Chanda is my favourite,” says Kamath. “She knows how to manage her priorities. However challenging the assignment, she always delivered. I just had to keep giving her bigger opportunities.”
By naming Kochhar as his favourite protege Kamath will be upsetting the many others he mentored over the years. But KVK is nothing if not the consummate professional, so he probably doesn’t mean it to be taken personally. Kochhar is, after all, his chosen successor as managing director and CEO of ICICI, where he is now non-executive chairman.
But she is one of a minority. Most of Kamath’s best known mentees left ICICI en masse after his retirement and are now CEOs of competing banks. How does he feel about that?
“It’s only natural that people will leave for other opportunities as the leadership cone gets narrow. There was a time when Unilever and Citibank were corporate India‘s the leadership factories, now it’s us. So long as the engine is active, we will continue to produce leaders,” he says.
Returning to ICICI in 1995, after an eight year stint with the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Kamath consciously decided that if the government-promoted project finance institution was to transform itself into a universal bank, he would first need to develop the talent pool.
THE PYGMALION EFFECT
“My journey into mentoring was a very conscious one,” says Kamath. “We had a large pool of people, most of them in their 30s, but none of them at seniority levels required by the organisation. I had to watch for talent and once I spotted it, it was my job to provide them opportunities to grow.
Once they had reached a senior level, I then needed to rotate them through different areas so their talents were rounded. At the same time, mentoring is not a group exercise. Each one’s need is different.”
Shikha Sharma, managing director of Axis Bank, was one of Kamath’s first mentees. Ten years his junior at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), she joined the bank through campus placement in 1980 and initially worked with KVK in the strategy department, where he taught her how to work with spreadsheets, which wasn’t part of the IIMA curriculum back then.
Sharma recalls how Kamath’s mentoring style changed completely after he returned from Manila:
“Before he left, he was fatherly, a classic mentor. When he came back, his style was detached. He was like Professor Higgins fromMy Fair Lady. But he was equally effective in this second avatar. He didn’t demonstrate any softness, but he was supportive.”
Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JP Morgan India has been known to call Kamath “boss”, even in the presence of her present day bosses from JP Morgan world-wide. The former lawyer recalls how KVK moved her from ICICI’s legal department to head its treasury and communications functions and ultimately to the post of joint-MD: “I had thought my functional expertise as a lawyer was my most valuable contribution, but he felt I had leadership qualities. He has this uncanny ability to identify traits in his subordinates that they don’t believe they have.”
For feedback junkies, Kamath would probably be the worst possible mentor. He never praised or chastised his mentees. Instead, they had to read the signals. “He was a very unconventional kind of mentor in that sense,” says Morparia. “He never sat us down to tell us what he thought of our work. Instead, he threw new challenges. That was his way of acknowledging the contribution you made.”
Most people consider Kamath’s amazing success in promoting women like Morparia, Kochhar and Sharma to the top as his greatest achievement. In 2005, ET collectively felicitated ‘the women behind ICICI’ with The Economic Times Award for Corporate Excellence. But ask them about it and they deny KVK made any conscious effort to promote women in the organisation. “He didn’t notice whether we were wearing sarees or suits,” says Morparia. “The fact that we were women had nothing to do with anything.”
The boss did notice the difference between sarees and suits, but he actually took great care not to let it show. Kamath recalls a time when he had assigned a team of three men and three women the task of preparing a set of proposals for the Board. It was a lot of work, but they managed to finish everything by deadline. When he complimented them and asked how they had managed it, he learnt they had all been working till two in the night and then going home by taxi.
“I was worried about this but I didn’t say anything to them. Instead, I quietly called HR and said all ladies should henceforth get a car drop after 10 pm. The emotional context is different for women leaders, but you should never deny opportunities because of gender,” he says.
“Gender was never a factor for Mr Kamath,” he says. “And neither was age. He took early calls on people and when he was convinced about their talent. His mentoring was never in-your-face. It was about giving you big opportunities and then letting you play the game. He was caring in his own way, but you had to understand his signals, the non-verbal cues.”
Now managing director of Future Capital Holdings, Vaidyanathan remembers Kamath as being accessible to his mentees, but within time limits. The meetings were always brief – 20 minutes max – with no room for lingering, no chit-chat. So Vaidyanather took it upon himself to hitch rides home with his mentor after work, when he would ask him questions him on his life lessons.
“He was otherwise shy when it came to talking about himself,” says Vaidyanathan. “The car rides gave me a chance to goad him and know more about him and his thinking. I learnt that he is a spiritual man, something that is not generally known.”
Morparia and Vaidyanathan agree on one thing: though they admire the man, they can never emulate his mentoring style. Both of them are high on verbal skills and they love to talk with their proteges, about everything, something which Kamath never did. Why did he choose to stay distant?
“I don’t believe a mentor and mentee should have a confiding relationship. If you concern yourself with their personal life, the relationship can get unmanageable,” says Kamath.
Chanda Kochhar recalls the year following her maternity leave, when Kamath gave her some of the most challenging assignments: “He was aware of what was happening in my life, but he never brought it up in our conversations. And I didn’t feel any need to discuss it with him because I was fine. I had no problems. A mentor should not meddle in your personal life unless there are serious problems. I learnt that from Mr Kamath.”
In her bid to meet the targets set for the PLRlinked loans, Kochhar recalls making a series of productivity-enhancing changes in the systems and procedures of ICICI’s western region offices. Later, Kamath asked whose permission she had taken for making such drastic changes. “I said no one, I’d decided on my own. He said that’s exactly what he wanted to hear. He believed in empowering individuals, it was part of his style,” she says.
Over 15 years, till he retired as CEO, Kamath estimates he spent 30% of his time in mentoring ICICI’s people. Mentoring has never been a human resource (HR) department initiative at the bank – it is something discussed at Board level, with the executive directors given specific responsibility for mentoring individuals.
In fact, Kamath is not much of a believer in HR-led mentoring where the mentee might be several rungs junior and outside his normal sphere of influence. “There’s no need to make it complex. You shouldn’t have to make special time for mentoring. It should happen in the course of normal interactions,” he says.
Appropriately, Kamath’s first big assignment after retiring from ICICI is the chairmanship of Infosys, where the previous chairman referred to himself as Chief Mentor. Why hasn’t he retained the title for himself ? The man checks to see if we’re joking, but we keep a suitably earnest expression on our face.
So he says seriously: “At Infosys, Narayana Murty is a unique person. He built the organisation brick by brick and taught others the importance of mentoring. But the context has changed. Infosys has now become a leadership factory for the IT industry.” That’s exactly a clear answer, but hey, you have to learn to read the signals.
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