Nilesh Shah, the veteran mutual fund official, who is group president and MD, Kotak Mahindra Asset Management Company, opens up about his management style, the best place to prepare for leadership and why he is a stickler for deadlines.
Note to readers: How do corporate India’s leaders manage their businesses? Where do they draw inspiration from? What is their management style? Like A Boss is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from corporate bosses on how they run their companies.
There are broadly two types of heads of mutual fund houses. One group consists of those who have a sales and marketing background. The other, albeit a smaller group, is of those who were once fund managers. Five years ago when Nilesh Shah took over as the managing director at Kotak mutual fund, he entered the second group of leaders. But Shah feels that neither group or background is really at an advantage over the other; it’s the team quality that matters the most. A sticker for timelines, he draws management lessons from his early readings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
There is no fixed timing. It depends on my meeting schedules and work load. In 2008, during the sub-prime crisis, I was at my desk 24/7. There were days when I didn’t go home at all. And then there are days when I start at 11 am also. In the initial part of my career, I was tracking markets. So, we had to be in office ahead of the market opening in early hours. Now as the chief executive officer, I do not have to be there before the market opening. So now I have a bit of flexibility; I can afford to start a bit late in late part of my career.
We cannot discount what we learn on the job. I think I’ve become a better boss at Kotak MF than I was at Axis Capital; better at Axis than I was at ICICI Prudential and so on. The job experience certainly helps us become better.
That said, theoretical learning is also necessary. Many times what we learn in theory is applied to the practical world.
A combination works better.What is your management style; centralised or decentralised?
My subordinates may have a different opinion. But to my opinion, I will draw the boundaries. There are certain things which cannot be done. And you can never, ever cross that as long as I am the boss.
Some boundaries are set in consultation with the team, some boundaries I fix myself. It all depends on the mandate I get from my own boss and my conscience permit. For instance, if my sales guy wants to take a short cut in order to generate sales, I will never allow that. If my fund manager gets tempted to make a quick gain by trading in a stock but the company is not of acceptable quality, I wouldn’t allow it.
I am not constantly over someone’s head, but I am always available to guide my team.In the mutual funds industry, we have seen two type of CEOs. Those that come from a sales and marketing background, and those who are former fund managers. Who do you think makes for a better CEO?
In cricket, you can have a batsman who can do little bit of bowling, like Sachin Tendulkar. You can have a bowler who can do a little bit of batting like Javagal Srinath Or a batsman who can do wicket-keeping like Rahul Dravid. But all of them are successful cricketers.
So there is no typecast that only a sales personnel or a fund manager can lead a fund house. A firm needs a strong leader who is able to get the best out of the people. There was a time when despite having Sunil Gavaskar, arguably the world’s best batsman in his time- on the Indian cricket team, India didn’t win many matches because after him, there was a big gap. Gavaskar alone couldn’t lead India to victory. Today, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan….they are all very capable players. And that is why India is winning matches. As long a leader is able to draw the best out of the team and inspire the staff, he or she will run a successful organisation.Do you want to be liked, feared or respected?
I want to be feared by my people if they are doing something wrong. If someone violates boundaries, he better be afraid of me. I don’t want his liking.
At the same time, if someone has committed a genuine error, I don’t want him to fearful of me. He should have respect for me to share it openly. At the same time, I want to be liked by my people outside the office.
I remember once a colleague’s performance had dropped sharply. It was evident. At first, I couldn’t figure out why, despite my prodding. His thinking, motivation and body language had a marked deterioration. He didn’t open to me, at first. But later he did confide in me and it turned out he was having marital discord. We talked at length over days outside office and by god's grace he was able to overcome his problems.
This is something which can happen only if he likes the leader outside office work. If he was fearful or if he only respected me, he wouldn’t have come to me. In the meeting room, I always tell my staff; we would debate while in here, but once we step outside, our debate is over and we are friends.
I want to be liked, feared and respected in different contexts.We hear you can be unforgiving when someone skips deadlines.
With age, I have mellowed down a lot. But yes, I want a deadline for every task. And I do want an impression that the deadline has to be honoured, so that there is a seriousness in achieving it. But at the same time, if there is a genuine reason or constraints behind someone not have met a deadline, then that’s fair. Make an honest attempt to complete task in a timebound manner, is what I ask. If you don’t put timelines, then there is no fun…what are you competing against then?Are tough decisions best taken by one person or collectively?
Ideally, two minds are better than one. However, there are some decisions which has to be taken by an Individual without consulting others. The boss had to decide what boundries the organisation is going to respect without consulting others. As a subordinate, one has to take a moral call on honouring those limits. This are individual calls which defines one.A business outside of the mutual funds sector or a business leader that you draw inspiration from?
Lord Ram sends Lakshman to learn from Ravan when he was on the death bed after being defeated. Ramayan teaches us that one can learn even from Ravan.
Fortunately, for me I have worked with some wonderful people at ICICI Group, Templeton Group, Axis Group and Kotak Group.
I am indebted to so many people who have taught me so many things.
Which management book has influenced you the most?
When I was a kid, I used to read Mahabharata and Ramayana. That is part of my family culture. But they also taught me management lessons.
My boss told me to keep in mind four quotients in lives; Ram quotient, Krishna quotient, Duryodhana quotient and Ravana quotient.
What is Ram quotient? His objectives as well as means to achieve those objectives are righteous. He will happily chose vanvas over kingdom to honour his father’s promise.
Krisha quotient: His objectives will be noble but occasionally means to achieve the same could be compromised. In the final battle, he knew Karan had to be eliminated, so he waited for Arjun to kill Karan before telling him that they were brothers. He didn’t tell Arjun upfront; which would have defeated Dharma.
Duryodhana Quotient: He will follow righteous process but his goals were mostly compromised. He didn’t hit Bhim below waist-level in his final battle; Bhima on the other hand, hit him on his thigh and killed him. His means may have been right but his goals were mostly wrong.
Finally, we come to Ravana quotient. Wrong goals and means to achieve them were also wrong.
This is far more simplified management lesson than those we heard from management gurus. My philosophy is to be in the Ram quotient as far as possible. Occasionally I will be in Krishna quotient, since we are living in Kal-yug. I will never ever be in the Duryodhana or Ravana quotient. That is how I would like to run my organisation.Do you socialise with your team outside of work?
Everyone wants to socialise with the boss. The beauty is how many of them remember you once you’re are no longer the boss. Do people respect you or your kursi (throne)?
I am lucky to have built some wonderful relationships that have transcended beyond organisations. They have become stronger and better over time, like an old wine. I have some of my best friends from my career, and not just from my school and college days.What would your key management advice be?Be fair. Fair dealing brings trust and commitment. Once you have a team that is committed, no task is unachievable.Liked it? You can read the rest of the interviews from our Like A Boss series here.