4 Things That Every CEO Should Learn From KV Kamath

12/01/2016 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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GURGAON, INDIA DECEMBER 3: KV Kamath, Chairman of Infosys Ltd. and Non-Executive Chairman of ICICI Bank at launch of McKinsey Leadership Institute on December 3, 2013 in Gurgaon, India.(Photo Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)

KV Kamath is the first chief of BRICS New Development Bank, handpicked by the Modi government in May last year to set up this $100 billion institution. Most of us have known him as the chairman of both ICICI Bank and Infosys. He is among the most respected business leaders from Asia and a change leader par-excellence who transformed the way India does banking and for pioneering many technology innovations in the field. As CEO of ICICI Bank, he is credited to have transformed a developmental financial institution into India's second largest bank. He has successfully mentored leaders who are CEOs of leading corporations. As non-executive chairman at Infosys, we have all read how he played a role in getting Vishal Sikka as the CEO.

My impressions of him are from my stint at ICICI Bank from 2002 to 2010 (he was the CEO until 2009 after which he became the non-executive chairman). I was a part of the organisational excellence group which he had set up to drive quality practices across the bank.

K V Kamath exhorted the quality team of which I was a part, to look at basics before adopting complicated approaches.

It's not easy to talk about a stalwart like Mr Kamath. He is truly a multi-faceted leader. So much has been written about him and his accomplishments. Here I will focus on the qualities that impressed and inspired me most, and which I think every CEO should inculcate to build a successful institution.

1. Never forget the basics

Mr Kamath is a firm believer that as an organisation grows and does newer stuff, it should never forget the basics.

In the early 2000s, when the entire world was talking about management approaches such as Six Sigma, Business Process Reengineering and TOC (Theory of Constraints), K V Kamath exhorted the quality team of which I was a part, to look at basics before adopting complicated approaches. His view was that an organised workplace is the very foundation of a process-centric enterprise. That's when we embarked on an enterprise-wide 5S deployment program which saw significant improvement in workplace efficiency and branch experience. (For those uninitiated to 5S, it's a Japanese quality approach for building workplace organisation and efficiency in manufacturing companies).

Sceptics were shocked to see how a shop-floor concept from the manufacturing world successfully applied to banking. He was right, with a foundation of "workplace organisation" in place it was so easy to layer the organisation with end-to-end processes and use improvement approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma etc. KV Kamath was not a bystander is this effort. For example, the first deployment of 5S happened in his office and he always found time to regularly review progress. He communicated its importance in relevant forums and was part of many recognition events.

I think the takeaway for CEOs is that while it's always easy to get lost in exotic management concepts, they should never forget the basics that build the foundation of an enterprise. Also, sometimes it's the unglamorous stuff which can deliver huge benefits to an organisation.

2. Set audacious goals and let teams experiment

KV Kamath always set audacious goals and pushed teams to achieve them. He urged teams to experiment with ideas and approaches by reaching out to new markets, adopting newer technologies, trying out new processes etc. When he did this something brilliant happened. The teams got excited, questioned the way they operated and made new things possible. Not only were teams able to achieve goals that appeared insurmountable but it also helped them to discover that they could accomplish more than they thought possible. These successes made them more confident to aim for higher goals next time. Even if they did not achieve what they had set out to, they achieved much more than they would have had they followed the business-as-usual approach.

Once a problem was solved and brought to a new level of performance, he would further raise the standards.

One such audacious goal was the 90-day rule that he set in the organisation, giving teams the goal of completing projects within an ambitious timeline of 90 days.

As I see it, he is a leader who is a firm believer in experiments and the ability of teams to change things around them and achieve the impossible. He was fine if a few of these experiments did not achieve their full objectives but what he looked for in teams was passion, Spartan determination and the drive to never give up in adversity.

The other thing that he did was never allowing teams to be satisfied with achievements. He continuously raised the bar. Once a problem was solved and brought to a new level of performance, he would further raise the standards. He is a firm believer that if things don't continuously improve, they atrophy as the context changes and new problems arise.

For a CEO, the takeaway is to set big goals, push teams to experiment and achieve the impossible. Once they achieve the "unachievable", raise the bar. What Mr Kamath's leadership tells us is that sometimes even teams may not know their true potential.

3. Adopt an explorer mind-set

KV Kamath always urged teams to look at things outside one's experience, holding that innovative solutions emerge when we move beyond our habitual thinking patterns. He would urge us to seek newer experiences that could suddenly throw up solutions that could be implemented in the organisation. When we faced a problem, he would ask us if we had looked at other industries and how they may have addressed the situation.

For example, we learnt quite a lot about customer experience from airlines. To make banking operations more efficient we spent time in automotive companies to see what concepts could be picked from the assembly line. I was myself involved in a few of those exploration exercises and learnt from organisations such as Disney, Toyota, US Bank, General Motors etc. And note, KV Kamath practiced what he preached. For example, the 90 day rule that I mentioned earlier had been picked up by him in the US and later implemented in the organisation.

What a CEO needs to learn from him that humility is a quality that must be consciously nurtured and practiced on a day-to-day basis.

The takeaway for a CEO is that don't just confine yourself to the corner-office, there is a lot to learn beyond one's current context.

4. Practice humility

This is a trait in him that I always found so special. Despite achieving so much in life, he was so down to earth, the complete opposite of CEOs who lose their connect with employees once they get into the corner office bubble. At ICICI Bank, we always knew his doors were open for employees. When employees met him, there was always this feeling that he had their interests in mind. He was open to their ideas and always keen on knowing what could be done better.

For example, when I was leaving ICICI Bank in 2010 and requested a meeting, he immediately agreed. He spent an hour with me and even thanked me for my contribution. Mind you, I did not report to him but he still found time to meet me despite his busy schedule. Even after that whenever I reached out to him for some help or guidance, he always responded without any delay.

The humility of a leader does not come to life through big proclamations but is in the little things that are done every day. What a CEO needs to learn from him that humility is a quality that must be consciously nurtured and practiced on a day-to-day basis.

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