Nilesh Shah, who took over as managing director and CEO of Axis Capital, whollyowned subsidiary of Axis Bank, last October, has created a reputation for being very people-centric in his approach to business. Here, he talks to HT about what it takes to be a leader.
How do you define a leader? A leader is someone who sets goals, mostly stretched ones, and mobilises his team to achieve those seemingly difficult goals with relative ease. How do you nurture young executives into leaders? I like to throw them into the deep end. If they are smart, they’ll learn how to swim… I don’t give them a life jacket but give them tasks to motivate them.
My job as a leader is to guide them but they have to learn to walk or swim on their own. And my experience is that given the right guidance, most people will learn to swim to the other end. Can you teach people leadership? How? Yes. I have seen many young men and women, who everyone had written off, shine and become top performers once they were given proper guidance. You have to lead people, motivate them to deliver, show that you have confidence and faith in their ability.
People can do a lot and surprise you with superlative performance if you do that.
The last few years have seen many ups and down. 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? We used to call the 1857 uprising against the British a mutiny. But now, we call it the First Battle of Independence. In India, we like to paint a picture of ourselves that’s worse than reality.
Many investors abroad have told me: ‘If you stop denigrating yourself, you will be better off.’ If you keep the bigger picture in mind, stick to fundamentals, you will see long-term gains, not the short-term pain. That’s what I told my team when the times became tough. I told them to see how they could solve our clients’ problems and create value... You have to work harder during difficult times. If you do that, the rest will fall into place.
What is the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced? When I first became the leader of my team, I realised that I shouldn’t try to fill someone else’s shoes because everyone has a different style and people’s expectations from new leaders are often unrealistic. Then, over time, teams get used to a particular comfort zone. Unless you shake them up, you can’t take it to the next orbit. Fortunately, I had never thought of myself as a second in command, so the transition to a leadership position didn’t matter much. It only meant added responsibility.
What’s your leadership mantra? Be critical but fair. Then, a leader has to work harder than anyone else. There is no substitute to hard work. I try to lead from the front. It’s very important to earn the respect of your team. What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt? Just keep your focus. I have to deliver only on one thing… A leader has to remove hurdles – especially the seemingly insurmountable ones that my team faces from time to time. If I can do that, I’m fulfilling my role as a leader. What is the best leadership decision you have taken? Over the last 20 years, most people I have worked with have become a part of my extended family.
What began as an official relationship, became a bonding for life — where there is mutual respect, trust and admiration. It feels good to have been able to foster such an environment at work. When I look back, I feel that everything that went into creating such lasting relationships were good decisions. What is the worst leadership decision you have taken? That I had to let go of people during tough times. I feel that process could have been handled better… not said things one later regretted.
Who are your role models? Why? I have learnt various lessons, imbibed many qualities from many of my bosses and superiors. My first boss was fair; he created a meritocracy in the organization. I tried to emulate that. Another boss was a big picture man. He could paint a picture that excited us... make us realise that we were taking tiny steps towards a larger goal.