Life, work, and leadership lessons from SBI’s first woman chairperson, Arundhati Bhattacharya

Arundhati Bhattacharya’s book ‘Indomitable: A Working Woman’s Notes on Work, Life and Leadership’ takes us through the most critical moments in her life and how she conquered them all.

Life, work, and leadership lessons from SBI’s first woman chairperson, Arundhati Bhattacharya

Monday January 31, 2022,

6 min Read

How did a girl, raised in the ‘sleepy towns’ of Bhilai and Bokaro, go on to hold the highest seat in the State Bank of India, India’s largest bank and a 210-year-old organisation? Arundhati Bhattacharya goes on to answer it through her struggles, lessons, and opportunities in her bookIndomitable: A Working Woman's Notes on Work, Life and Leadership. The book takes us through each of her milestones, her worries, and even brings us to moments where she truly just wanted to give her career up for her family. But, like the book says, she remained indomitable in the face of it.

As a child, her mother explained to her the meaning of her name – Arundhati – one who cannot be stopped. And that’s what she strove to be, time and again. Be it working on her communication skills as a child and volunteering to participate in Hindi debates, a language she wasn’t confident in, to taking on the the mantle of Chairperson of SBI from more experienced competitors, Arundhati’s drive and determination plays a key role in almost every chapter of her life.

Assess your performance before externalising blame

Arundhati’s school offered students a silver medal on achieving five grades of ‘A’ in their monthly tests. While Arundhati had been keeping up with the requisite number of As, she ended up scoring A- in her favourite subject biology. The result distressed her so much that her father had to request the school principal to speak to her. What he said to her stayed with her throughout life. “Try and find the lesson hidden in this failure - did you try hard enough? It is easy to externalise blame. But before externalising the blame, assess your own performance,” he said.

Friends are the biggest source of information

Kolkata’s Lady Brabourne College was the next part of Arundhati’s journey that gave her friends for life. Discussing career options while in college, her friend brought up the topic of the entrance examination for probationary officers at banks and sensing her career concerns, dared her to take the exam. Aware of the tough competition, she decided to take the exam along with her friends, and that was the start of her illustrious career at SBI.

What’s the worst that could happen?

An important lesson Arundhati learnt is from husband Pritimoy Bhattacharya. While posted in Kharagpur, she had left the safe in the bank unlocked by mistake. When she asked her husband to drop her back to the bank to check the safe, he refused. Instead he asked her, “What is the worst that could happen? Nobody can take away your education and ability. At the most, you may have to live in a slum. Stop flaying yourself with these worries. Imagine how truly bad it can get and accept it. Once you have done that, the worries will cease to exist.” Arundhati goes on to write that she kept this advice close to her heart and falled back to it many times. “Imagining a doomsday scenario and then accepting it did help me cope,” she wrote.

Stick to the truth

When Arundhati was posted as AGM at the New York branch, the Government of India had decided to launch a deposit instrument called Resurgent India Bonds (RIB) to garner forex deposits from the non-resident Indian population. India went on to raise substantial dollar deposits and the New York SEC decided to launch an investigation. As she was a part of the delegation, Arundhati got a notice for the deposition. The day of the deposition taught her the importance of sticking to the truth. “Answer the questions as precisely as you can - long winded explanations are not required,” she wrote, adding, “Never say something of which one has no personal knowledge. Write down accurately all that you know about the event in as much detail as you can remember.”

Giving up takes seconds, but what is the hurry?

After New York, when Arundhati got posted in Lucknow as the GM of eastern UP, she struggled to find a school for her differently-abled daughter. Her request to be posted in another city was turned down and she wondered if resigning was her only option. When she posted her dilemma to MS Verma, one of her earliest mentors who had then recently retired from chairmanship, he told her, “Giving up takes a few seconds. It’s just a matter of typing three lines and pressing send. But what is the hurry? You are the threshold of the most interesting phase of your career. Why should you give up without even trying once?” His words helped Arundhati make up her mind. She stayed in Lucknow and successfully managed to find a good school for her daughter.

We need to put in place solutions that will enable us to get on with our core industry

“We can choose solutions that suit the Indian situation and create India-specific solutions. But they need to be holistic, not patchwork answers,” she wrote. The lesson came from her stint as MD at SBICaps. She noticed that most large projects had started showing signs of stress. She wrote, “There have been reams written about the corruption of borrowers and inefficiencies of lenders that led to this stress. But there has been little attempt at proper analysis.” She added that all it needed was a single empowered authority to look into such cases and resolve them.

Former SBI chairman Pradip Chaudhuri was to retire in September and it was announced that all four MDs in position at the time of his retirement would be eligible for the role of the next chairperson. Arundhati found herself competing with MDs who had been in the position longer than her, so it was critical for her to come up with a strategic plan to present at the biggest interview of her career.

Considering the stress and challenges of SBI in the face of tech advances and evolving regulations, alongside the fact that its asset quality was worsened by the slowing economy, Arundhati came up with a six-pronged approach. “They consisted of overhauling the risk function, controlling the cost-to-income ratio, creating customer experiences of a superior role, collaboration within and with subsidiaries, and overhauling HR practices - all of this running on a strong technology backbone,” she remembered. Her vision paid off and she became the first woman chairperson of the country’s largest bank. “A journey that had started 36 years ago had now entered its last lap,” she wrote.

Arundhati made many reforms at the iconic bank to make it more accessible. She created awareness for the need of a strong technology backbone and encouraged employees to experiment more. The bank moved towards being more customer-centric under her leadership. On her last day, she remembered the most difficult job as chairperson - changing people’s perception. She wrote, “I wanted to showcase the potential and resilience of this iconic institution.” And she did.

TITLE: Indomitable : A Working Woman's Notes on Work, Life and Leadership

AUTHOR: Arundhati Bhattacharya

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India