Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I've matured more as a leader: Arundhati Bhattacharya

The Salesforce India CEO for Forbes India's 14th anniversary special about her experience of leading SBI, how she has changed since featuring on our cover in 2014, and why we must try harder to keep women in the workforce

Published: May 31, 2023 11:58:51 AM IST
Updated: May 31, 2023 12:28:03 PM IST

I've matured more as a leader: Arundhati BhattacharyaArundhati Bhattacharya, CEO, Salesforce India Image: Mexy Xavier
I remember my appointment as ‘chairman’ of State Bank of India (SBI) vividly. I didn’t understand if I was dreaming or if it was really happening.

During my tenure, I experienced significant growth and transformation. Looking back, I can see how much I have matured through the journey. When I took on the role, I was naive, and my expectations were not always realistic. However, as time went by, I gained a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.

From focusing on improving technology and virtualising each branch to enhancing customer experience, it was not a cakewalk. I recognised that one area that hadn’t received much attention was performance management. I revamped the assessment process, making it more detailed and data-driven. This shift allowed us to evaluate employees more objectively and fairly.

To address the bank’s challenges, I made organisational changes. I created a position for a managing director of risk and compliance, elevating the importance of these functions to the board level. We also paid attention to improving the bank’s physical infrastructure.

While I led these initiatives, it was not a solo effort. I had the privilege of working with dedicated teams who shared the vision of transforming the bank. I am proud of the steps we took and the progress we made. However, I also recognise that there is always room for improvement, and subsequent chairmen have continued to build upon our foundation.  

What I leave behind will not remain static. It will continue to evolve as new leaders bring their ideas to the table. 

Also read: Arundhati Bhattacharya: Reinventing herself, again and again

As a leader, I have grown and become more patient or, let’s say, less impatient about timelines. I understand that much more needs to be done in the area of personally appreciating people. I don’t think I do that enough. When something goes wrong, I tend to concentrate solely on that and overlook the things that are going right, and that’s not good. I’m striving to ensure that the people around me know that I appreciate them.

I've matured more as a leader: Arundhati BhattacharyaI have also realised that a leader can’t solely focus on bringing about a change only from the bottom. The vision and direction must be set at the top, and good practices should flow from there to the bottom. However, it’s crucial to involve the entire organisation in the process.  

I am also more focussed on self-learning. I have been a strong advocate for creating a learning organisation, and today, in the face of constant change and evolution, learning has become even more crucial for all of us. I am actively putting self-learning into practice, and I find that leading from the front and modelling the behaviour I want others to adopt truly works. 

From the time I was pushed into leadership, to today, things are changing at a rapid pace. For instance, the participation of women in STEM. They are doing quite well, but is the representation enough? No. I think that will take a few more years to get there. We are seeing 45 percent of women are now going into the STEM areas of education, but when it comes to the workforce, we see around 20 to 30 percent of them. Around 15 percent are disappearing and companies need to take accountability for that by ensuring better policies upon return from breaks and for caregiving responsibilities.
Flexibility, a learning attitude, and a strong team-player mentality are crucial in today’s dynamic career landscape. Employees need to be open to new ways of doing things and continuously embrace learning opportunities. Often, I encounter individuals who left their careers at a certain level and wonder how they can rejoin at the same level. It’s essential to recognise that the world has changed during their absence, and new skills need to be acquired. Initially, they may need to accept a lower position, but with their experience and knowledge, they can quickly progress. Don’t let the fear of taking a step back hold you back from returning to work. If you’re competent and dedicated, you will rise again.

(As told to Anubhuti Matta)

(This story appears in the 16 June, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)