Milind Barve, managing director of HDFC Asset Management Company, which manages HDFC’s mutual funds, has spent about 30 years with the company. Prior to his current assignment, he headed HDFC’s treasury operations and then, its retail deposit products. Here, he discusses his leadership mantra. Excerpts:
How do you define a leader?
A leader is one who builds a high quality team by creating an environment where talent is nurtured and retained. He has to give his team a clear strategic direction and take responsibility for decisions taken. This is all the more relevant for the financial services industry, which is very people-dependent.
How do you nurture young executives into leaders?
The quality of talent we hire is exceptionally good. Our job is to give them the right environment to grow. For that, we have to ensure a professional and impartial environment and give them the right degree of empowerment. Most people, I’ve noticed enjoy work. The early stages of one’s career should be devoted to learning. You cannot become a leader if your knowledge base is hollow. Also, looking good and talking well are not enough to make you a leader. You need integrity and team spirit to be a leader.
Can you learn leadership?
No. You can’t learn leadership. You must have qualities that can be nurtured. A mentor can give you exposure. But leadership is not something everyone can take on. You have to create your own path. Peer pressure, how you react to situations and crises and the fire in your belly show you the way.
The last few years have seen many ups and downs. The markets have see-sawed; the economy has teetered on the brink. How did you, as a leader, keep up the morale of your team?
It’s darkest before dawn. Equity as an asset class is good when the markets are down. I had to encourage my team to swim against the tide. People seldom say they have no money to invest. They are always looking for investment avenues. But it isn’t easy to change peoples’ asset allocations. If a client chose debt, I would encourage my team to give him the best options available. I kept my teams motivated by engaging more with them and pushed them to diagnose and identify the pulse of the client in order to serve him better.
What is the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
It has to be the 2008 crisis. At times like that it becomes our responsibility to take leadership of the industry — meeting people from Sebi, RBI, the finance ministry and other decision makers to help tide over bad times. There was a drop in confidence in the financial markets. Bank FDs became popular. It was a really testing time.
You have moved from heading HDFC’s treasury operations to heading its retail deposit products to now heading the MF operations. As a leader, how did you make the transition?
You can never be a leader if you don’t understand your product. You have to learn if you don’t know. As head of treasury at HDFC, I was managing a corpus of 7,0008,000 crore. Unless I built a corpus of at least 8,000 crore at HDFC AMC, my new job would seem like a demotion. Since it was a new company, I had get people from diverse backgrounds, build a new team and create a culture closest to HDFC — open, informal, flat with high standards of ethics and integrity.
What is your leadership mantra?
Delegate and supervise.
What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learnt?
As your company grows large, you cannot be a hands-on manager. Earlier, I would check reconciliation statements, meet customers, etc. but learnt to play the real role of a leader — decide strategy, supervise implementation, empower teams and give myself the time to look at the big picture. Scale is important but profitability is the ultimate barometer to judge success.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
Acquiring Zurich AMC in 2003. Zurich offered a great strategic fit. It was known for equity, we were known for debt.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
We have still not built a meaningfully large international business.
Who are your role models?
HDFC Ltd chairman Deepak Parekh. He has proved that you can be simple, upright, honest and yet successful.