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Veterans Unpacked | "Today, age is not the criteria to be a leader," B.S. Shantharaju, former CEO, Indus Towers

"My focus and investment in people stay with me even today. I am proud to know 18 of my team members are CEOs today and more than 75 of them are CXOs in various companies."

December 29, 2021 / 05:31 PM IST
B.S. Shantharaju is now chairman of Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, and director on the board of Aparaava Energy Pvt. Ltd.

B.S. Shantharaju is now chairman of Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, and director on the board of Aparaava Energy Pvt. Ltd.

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 series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.

B.S. Shantharaju has spent close to four decades in leadership positions across companies that include Smithkline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, Gujarat Gas, Delhi International Airport Ltd and more recently Indus Towers, the largest telecom towers company in the world and which achieved a value of $15 billion under his tenure.

Shantharaju, who is an accountant and MBA by training from the London Business School, is a proponent of blending business growth strategies aligned with a sharp focus on people and culture and says he gets the most satisfaction out of creating careers for people. Excerpts from an interview:

Veterans UnpackedWhat have you been up to since hanging up your boots?

I am actively engaged as a board member and advisory board member on a few well-known companies. Currently, I am the chairman of Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, the country’s largest waste to energy company owned and controlled by private equity firm KKR. I am also adviser to a large Canadian pension fund called CDPQ and director on the board of Aparaava Energy Pvt. Ltd (erstwhile CLP Pvt. Ltd). I am also an advisory board member of Sterlite Technologies Ltd and also another well-known startup which has been acquired by Brookfield Invit. I am also a passionate golfer, and retirement has given me ample time to pursue that hobby.

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What keeps you busy now?

The above assignments take a substantial time. I am also actively engaged in a few NGOs and give my personal time. I have my own family trust called the Spenta Education Foundation which gives financial assistance to meritorious poor boys and girls who want to pursue medicine or engineering as a career. As we speak, there are 104 beneficiaries, 24 of them graduated and having very good jobs in well-known IT/Engineering companies and Hospitals.

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

First, I was very focused in getting the top talent who has to be better than myself. In one case, I interviewed 23 candidates to get my deputy who should replace me in six years time. The well-known search firm was frustrated with me since they had never seen such a high level of rejections. Finally, it took 10 months to find the right candidate who finally succeeded me and is doing a very good job, better than myself.

Second, I once had to make a very difficult business choice. My choice was having a major impact on the company. After two months of painstaking discussion with all facts and data on the table with my team equally and vociferously divided, I knew I had to bell the cat. Amidst discussion, I went to the washroom, tossed a coin. The decision was made by me but the team did not know how I arrived at the decision. But I took charge of empowering the team and as well continuous review to ensure the strategic decision we made was adequately backed by good quality people and right focus on execution. The decision backfired in the first year with a massive loss but turned into break-even in the second year and became very profitable in the third year. Having made that decision and the number of reviews I had to make and support I later got was unbelievable. The moral of the story is that sometimes a decision may not be clear but stay on top of it and make it successful.

Lastly, my focus and investment in people stay with me even today. I am proud to know 18 of my team members are CEOs today and more than 75 of them are CXOs in various companies. They are my emotional assets even today and are in touch with me and seek my counsel on some important decisions they make.

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

Honestly, I don’t miss anything. I originally wanted to leave the corporate world at age 50 but it took me nine years longer so I was more than ready to leave, and I did so at the peak of the company’s performance. My legacy stays with me.

If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?

I would be less hard on people but continue instead with magnanimity.  Generally, I was a tough boss. If people wouldn't come prepared for meetings, I wouldn't accept it. Would not attend meetings unless I had a pre-read. I used to get very upset with people who put up less ambitious plans. Failure is not a crime but aiming low is certainly a crime.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

When I became CFO for a blue chip MNC in 1992 at the age of 35, everyone was surprised with my age. Today, age is not the criteria to be a leader. Another big change is that capital is no more a constraint than it used to be. Talent is the true constraint today.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

Siddhartha Lal of Eicher group impresses me a lot for building on the legacy he inherited and taking some difficult decisions to make Eicher a very valuable and respected company. Eicher has been known for its focus on ethics of doing business for decades.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

I planned my retirement three years ahead. I prepared my successor Bimal Dayal and as well prepared the board of Indus Tower Limited to accept my retirement and as well my successor.

I came from extreme poverty as a child. My father who was a businessman suffered bankruptcy and as a result of that I learnt a lot as well as saw the value of education, and therefore also saw the value of preparing for life after a career. My key objectives and what is very important is to serve the underprivileged who are meritorious and want to pursue education in engineering or medicine. That keeps me busy. I also read a lot and am currently reading a book titled Mossad, about the true missions undertaken by Israeli Secret Service. I also read a lot of well-known novels in Kannada.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

The world is very large, and India is a big platform. Accept jobs that need relocation and enjoy the cultural diversity of India. Unless you work in different places, you won’t truly understand India. People don't grow unless you relocate and experience different types of jobs and will often give... family and their children's education as reason to not relocate but what one must understand is that children are very adaptive and have no issue realigning their worlds. Your children will become better leaders and their EQ and IQ will be higher than those who are just in one environment. These experiences have enriched my two sons who have progressed very well in life since their emotional make-up is very adaptive. I would have also told myself not to have an inferiority complex and to cut back on the unnecessary aggression and to be naturally one's self.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

Empower your people but don't make it a laissez faire empowerment; it's equally important to keep controls because ultimately the leader is responsible. At the same time, people have to take responsibility for their own actions.  In business, while management is mostly inward-looking and focused on its business and teams, it is equally vital to be focused on your customers. As a key leader, you own your people in the workplace and deliver your promises to your customers.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
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