Note to readers: How do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.
Sandip Das is one of the earlier Indian telco CEOs, with his role at Hutchison Max Telecom (later Vodafone India) in 1994. After that he went on to head Malaysia’s Maxis Group as group CEO. At Maxis, he was instrumental in its $3.9 billion initial public offering (IPO).
On the board of directors at Sterlite Technologies Limited (Vedanta), Das Sandip studied mechanical engineering at the National Institute of Technology, and has an MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), University of Delhi.
In 2013, he joined Reliance Jio as managing director (MD) and CEO, and laid the brick work that has enabled it to become the communications juggernaut that it is today.
What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?
Several things actually. Firstly, I find “hanging up your boots’ sounds like a bit of an epitaph. I may not be doing an office-going ‘9 to 5’ job, but that doesn’t mean that I am not still working. I have re-purposed my life.
Work wise, I mentor people from chairman levels to youngsters, some formally and others at a personal level. I sit on boards as an independent director and an adviser to companies that are mid-sized with enormous potential and those that are ambitious, but premised on strong values. I assiduously and voluntarily commit 25-man days at each one of them, playing critical roles in strategic thinking, inculcating an innovative DNA, building brands, nurturing leadership and creating effective organisation structures. I am also a strategic adviser to a couple of leading international consulting firms.
What keeps you busy now?
The fact that my work hours are flexible and more intellectually stimulating than a routine job is in itself a great spine for me to do the other things I want to do.
Besides work, this has been a wonderful time to whip up the self-actualisation list (I won’t call it a bucket list). I am picking up the threads on all unfulfilled desires. I am writing, reading, speaking to audiences on a wide variety of subjects, learning and trying to master a musical instrument, improving my singing skills, brushing up on my sketching (have illustrated a friend’s book), learning how to write in my mother-tongue Oriya tutored by my 80-year-old mother, learning recipes of all exotic dishes I want to eat (I am plotting to host a spread for my unsuspecting friends), strengthening enduring relationships and thinking of setting up enterprises that will solve problems and transform lives.
I wish I could add travel to that list but currently that’s a bit reigned in given the circumstances. I spend more quality time with my loved ones and am discovering wonderful new things about them.
Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?
In a career spanning over four decades there are many events that are memorable for the lessons that they handed out. These are three but possibly not the topmost ones:
In a group-training exercise we are all blindfolded in a dark room. We are told to clutch a rope which is apparently entangled and we are tasked to straighten it. Almost immediately as the CEO, I assume charge and start yelling out instructions. The trainer whispers in my ear to ‘shut up’. When I do, my CHRO starts doing the same thing and progressively all senior people in descending order start organising the disentanglement. In our group we have a two-day-old trainee who has been assigned to the trainer as a commercial support. She is also jumping in and making suggestions all through the exercise but nobody is listening. At the end of it all, we fail to disentangle the rope. When our blindfolds are removed we are told that this young lady is the only one who knew how to do it as she was not blindfolded. We collectively didn’t listen to her. It was a stunning lesson on bias, prejudice and predisposition.
On a Friday night when Mukesh Ambani is handed out a 250-paged technical document, despite all his weekend engagements, on Monday morning all his reporters will receive the document back. Every word would have been read and all pages would carry his personal notations.
I am asked by my Filipino boss as a young manager to handle the Australasia Cup sponsored by Toyota. He says I am delegating this to you, it's after all your kind of game. I am told by the organisers that I have to offer a Toyota Cressida free as a gift to the player of the tournament, or they go to Nissan. It’s a lot of money. I rush back to my boss who doesn’t understand cricket or the subcontinental passion for the game in Sharjah. I ask him what his view is. He looks out of the window and says, “You are in charge. Are you telling me that you can’t decide? Or do you think it's a waste of time!” It hits me hard and I go back and say yes. Imran Khan wins the trophy and drives the Cressida around the stadium to the cheers of a packed stadium. I can almost hear shouts of ‘Long live Toyota!’ It's the front page picture the next day! The car has returned its cost multifold. The courage of taking clear-headed decision descends upon me.
What do you miss most about the C-Suite?
Having occupied a corner office as a CEO since the age of 35, I have been a bit spoiled and I miss some of the privileges. These are less to do with the perquisites or the clout that I enjoyed but more to do with the infrastructure which was at my command to impact things in a manner, which are now a bit cumbersome, being out of a C-Suite. I also miss some wonderful teammates with whom I could walk both faster and farther. I also kept myself more frequently engaged with great minds in the upper echelons of my work life - those interactions have thinned out a bit due to lack of proximity.
If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t change much actually. When I look back, I see myself as a DCM-Shriram management trainee where I learnt the ropes to be a well-rounded executive. I developed skills across all business functions under the tutelage of some extremely bright young bosses, who were earnest about training. I was 20 when I joined and by the age of 28 was running a large operation. By the time I ended up with them, I had imbibed a strong sense of attention to detail, the thoroughness of rigour, fearlessness to lead and a maturity far beyond my years.
My next stint with the Toyota franchise got me to work with one of the best run corporations in the world which was uncompromising on quality, engineering and Japanese meticulousness.
My telecom stint thereafter at Hutchison Telecom, launching the brands Orange and Hutch, followed by an international leadership at Maxis spanning a spread of Asian telcos, including leading a wide range of senior international executives and raising the largest telecom IPO at that time ($3.9 billion), and finally working on the launch of Jio, was a heady two decades of an extraordinary corporate journey.
If I was to at all relive it, I might have wanted to graduate to run an outfit with a larger footprint, eventually forking out to setting up a large entrepreneurial venture. I would have absolutely loved to have taught at university. The last two have perhaps not eluded me yet.
What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?
Well, for one, the pandemic has universally changed our perspectives at work and put us on the fast track to some seminal changes. These were in the past being mulled over as future possibilities. However, tomorrow is already here. Many myths about office working, teamwork, health, decentralisation of ideas, empowerment and work efficiency have undergone very pleasant seismic changes.
The career goals of young Indians have risen to a higher plane. For them, it’s not a ‘job for life’ anymore but a ‘life full of jobs’.
The middle-class is no longer mired in the drudgery of working for subsistence, they are now a brave breed who do not hesitate to be entrepreneurial. They are rejecting their parental influence of seeking insurance through jobs but working purposefully on their own wake.
The pace of digitisation, which had already set in before the pandemic, has made time asymmetrical. Astronomical growth is happening on the back of digital technology defying gravity.
Davids are felling Goliaths who are complacently resting on past laurels and are ungainly behemoths. Agility on the part of smaller outfits with a passion to solve problems is akin to hungry and ferocious prairie dogs feasting on a buffalo bogged down in a swamp of its own making.
Things like online access to retailing and information, supply chain, block chain and the shrinking of the communication world are expediting the obsolescence of businesses built painstakingly over the years.
This is the age of the ‘never satisfied customer’. Even salary packages are now majorly skewed towards stock options and performance bonuses, rewarding enterprise and democratising wealth.
The role of a leader has morphed with greater emphasis on empathy, astute technology adoption, societal awareness, versatility in cultural diversity and in being agnostic to age, qualifications and gender.
Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?
It is hard to find the embodiment of all virtues in a single person, yet some are truly ‘more equal than the others’. I grew up admiring Jack Welch a lot, and also met him memorably ‘one on one’ at Harvard Business School.
In India, it was JRD who stood tall and even Amul’s Verghese Kurien.
However, I think it's perhaps relevant to talk about business leaders in today’s world. I admire Warren Buffett for his financial longevity and resilience at this age, Bill Gates for his passion for acquiring just not knowledge but expertise in any subject he goes after, Satya Nadella for his sheer simplicity and nobility, Steve Jobs for his genius and almost childlike obstinacy, Jack Ma for his ‘never say die’ spirit and audacity, Richard Branson for his flair and courage and Elon Musk for his vision of the future .
India, too, has had its share, with the Infosys founders, Ratan Tata, Azim Premji, Uday Kotak and Anand Mahindra - all well-rounded, sober, highly intellectual visionaries and game changers.
Then there is a new crop of startup enterprises who have become Unicorns several times over, whom I admire for grabbing the opportunity and making things happen out of no perceivable business heritage.
Closer to my knitting, which is telecom, two individuals stand out for me. Firstly, Sunil Mittal whom I met for the first time when we were both around 20-year-olds. I have watched him grow in half a lifetime from a plucky young business person not part of the proverbial ‘Bombay Club’ battling all odds against international behemoths, taking on big Indian industrial names and eventually building one of the world’s finest telecom companies. Today, his leadership, success, stature, suave personality and statesmanship make him the ‘poster boy’ of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s ‘post 1991 economic liberalisation’ Indian business.
The second would undoubtedly be Mukesh Ambani. He is a genius of our times, gifted with an intimidating intellect, insatiable thirst for knowledge, an unfathomable vision, a master of detail, possessing technical flair beyond his peers, indefatigable capacity to work and an unimaginable ability to scale in execution. Rarely does one see all these qualities in one human being. Such a person comes maybe once in a lifetime.
How did you plan for life after retirement?
I actually didn’t plan for it meticulously because I still feel that I have not retired as I continue to be intellectually restless and am still ready to run a large enterprise. However, the thing I did before I forsook a day job, given my modest upper middle class background as the son of a senior government official, with no inheritance except generous doses of values and intellect, was to be financially stable over the period of a rewarding career. There is no limit to building up a formidable portfolio but to have a ‘stable’ one to my mind is more liberating and pragmatic. It puts food on your table and a roof on your head, but more importantly, it allows you to pursue transformational societal change without luring you into a mindless green paper chase.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self?
I would have certainly wished to have been more physically leaner. My epicurean leanings got the better of me. I should have gone to Harvard in my 40s. It opened new vistas when I went there much later. I should have started writing a diary on business matters so that I could have chronicled a book of great stories. I could have sought out a good mentor more purposefully and maybe formally. My favourite possession should have been my Book of Failures.
What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?
I have been besotted with the curiosity that great leaders possess which is almost fanatical. It’s a great quality to keep learning and reading up on new subjects, particularly those that appear to be hard. I learnt that one must work on consolidating one’s strengths rather than drain time on weaknesses. One must spend a disproportionate amount of time with customers and employees, not be inhibited from learning from others even if they are younger. Battle gender bias and always err on the side of merit. Integrity is an invaluable quality.