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How I guided SBI through demonetisation, IBC, Jet Airways crisis and Covid: Rajnish Kumar

In ‘The Custodian of Trust’, former SBI chairman Rajnish Kumar writes about telling his 2.6 lakh employees to maintain ethics in banking and a work-life balance.

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Many observers have commented that my tenure as the Chairman of SBI coincided with one of the most challenging periods for the banking industry in the country. I dare say that this was true as these three years witnessed a host of unprecedented events and decisions at the highest level. Some of the prominent occurrences included demonetization, the merger of six banks in the State Bank of India, Asset Quality Review by the RBI, the introduction of IBC, turmoil in debt markets resulting from the failure of ILFS and Dewan Housing Corporation, the bankruptcy of Jet Airways, and the crisis at YES Bank, to name a few. The icing on this unwelcome cake was the arrival of COVID-19 during the last six months of my term, which posed a huge challenge not just to the economy and banking system in India but to every economy across the globe.

How could SBI emerge as a winner amidst all these crises? What could I do to optimally utilize the bank’s inherently strong systems and foundations to combat these upheavals? And how could I harness all my personal energies into dealing with these overarching challenges and taking the right decisions at the right time? I strongly believed then and do so now that repeated emphasis on the values propagated by the organization and its alignment with the personal values of its staff, both in the lead roles and among the rank and file, are a key to its success. My first communication to the staff immediately on joining as the Chairman, which is reproduced below, outlined my vision for the bank.

Rajnish Kumar
7 October 2017
Chairman 

My dear colleagues,
After taking charge of this great institution, I, first of all, thank all my worthy and admirable predecessors who headed SBI and have made it what it is today. I also take this opportunity to express my special gratitude to Arundhati Bhattacharya from whom I have taken over a sterling legacy and a host of path-breaking initiatives. This is a humbling moment for me and I really feel blessed to get the honour of leading a dedicated team of 2,68,705 associates, eager and keen to take forward the unmatched legacy of SBI.

We are a 211-year-old organization. We have relentlessly gone from strength to strength. We have faced challenges. We have enjoyed glories. But during all these long years, we have shone and continually preserved our position of being the Best Bank in the country. This fact gives huge satisfaction to each of us, who are committed to make a difference—each in his or her unique way.

The nation banks on us. We have always been the proud custodians of our people, their trust, and their financial dreams. But let’s face it, right now, the banking industry is passing through very tough times. This is happening worldwide. India has also not escaped the tremors. Despite our grit, fortitude, hard work and resilience, we also could not stay insulated from the unfavourable macro conditions, more so, in a highly interconnected world and economic environment.

But challenges inspire us. We are wired that way. Our history tells us this. The recent merger proves this. A few years ago, we were perceived as a traditional bank. Today we stand out as a technology-savvy, modern and forward-looking bank. Be it on the delivery channels, new cutting technologies, banking products and services, and other less tapped customer segments, we are offering a slew of new age banking services to meet the financial needs of one and all Indians. This is our new persona. This is our ethos of optimism and inclusion. With this essential core of our strengths, I have no doubt that our bank will overcome the current challenges soon. Still, we should not forget that the crown position in the industry bequeaths greater responsibilities on us to push ourselves extra hard.


Also read: Off The Cuff with Rajnish Kumar


In this background, I would like to share with you a few points which strike me on this occasion:

I read somewhere that a man without a smiling face must not open a shop. This is the finest expression of the spirit of a service organization that I have ever come across. A bank is as good as its frontline people. They are the face of the bank. They make what the SBI brand stands for. Being polite to your customers is the best way to grow your community of loyal customers. Customers prefer to bank with the people who treat them well. We may have the best of products, technology, ambience, but if we are not courteous and polite to our customers, our business will not endure. We will not progress. Politeness is what builds a Great Bank.

We are living in a time when technology is changing the way we do banking. A hallmark of these technologies is that only a few realise at first, how transformative they will be, going forward. This situation brings us to confront the new challenge of assimilating technology in our operational culture. Bare adoption of digital platforms for delivery is not going to serve us. We need to educate and functionally update ourselves on the tech-front continually for providing easy-to-navigate and seamless digital services, especially for millennials and Gen-X customers. Only then will technology provide us with a sustainable, competitive advantage. Only then would we be able to efficiently deliver new-age banking for new India.

Each of our employees makes our backbone. SBI has always been and continues to be a great place to work in. We believe in the total welfare of our people, including their families, and form a lifelong bond even when they are not actively serving us. We also care for the aspirations of our staff members by constantly trying to enrich their lives and job experiences. The fact that the global #1 job site ‘Indeed. com’ recently named SBI among the Top Three Best places to work in India only attests to that fact. You will agree with me that a ‘Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body’ is applicable not only to individuals but also to organisations. While performance and productivity are non-negotiables, they are not achievable if the employees are not healthy and happy. We have been taking a number of new initiatives focused towards achieving a work-life balance for employees by introducing facilities like sabbatical and work-from-home, and refining some of the existing ones. I urge all my colleagues to ensure that they and their co-workers pay attention to their health and maintain a proper work–life balance.

Learning is another important aspect for our individual and organisational growth. Our ability to expand our minds and quest for ceaseless learning is critical for upholding our lead position in new India. We have begun an ambitious journey for empowering our 2,68,705 employees for facing the challenges of the future through ‘Saksham’. ‘Saksham’ leverages the power of technology to help each employee realize his or her full potential. On one hand, it supports a data-driven and objective performance management system for identifying and rewarding achievers. On the other, it helps provide guidance and constructive inputs for improvement to those colleagues who lag behind. The ‘Right Person in the Right Job’ is vital for achieving the best results. We also need to groom future leaders of the Bank. ‘Saksham’ is designed to achieve all this in a structured and holistic way as a main pillar of future HR. It is important that we continue this journey, making course corrections, where necessary.

I strongly believe that ethics matters in a fiduciary setting like a commercial bank. Banking must stick to strong ethical standards. To ensure this, our conduct must be absolutely clean. But clean conduct requires that we follow the rules of governance and principles of strong ethics. SBI has always stood for the highest ethical standards in the country. We are the first in the Indian public sector to start an independent ‘Ethics and Business Conduct Vertical’ to weave our trademark ethos into our operational fabric. Today, there is also a severe trust deficit amongst the various stakeholders in the financial ecosystem. I believe that Ethics is the only way out to bridge this gap. Therefore, I urge you all to promote moral and ethical grandeur unconditionally in your daily actions and decisions.

Let us keep in mind the values of STEPS, which stands for Strong Ethics; Transparent and High Standards of Corporate Governance; Empathy and Compassion for Colleagues, Customers and Communities around; Politeness in Dealing with Customers, Peers, Seniors and Junior Colleagues; and Sincerity. Let us ensure that this STEPS spirit passionately persists with us till the end.1

I shall close by saying that I am proud to lead Team SBI and I wish that with the determined STEPS and untiring efforts of each of you, Team SBI will transform SBI into Divya and Bhavya, making SBI a proxy for Grand and Divine India.

Thank you all.
Rajnish Kumar
Chairman


Also read: SBI ex-chairman’s memoirs are as much a personal journey as the story of India’s banking sector


The paragraph on work-life balance in my note touched the emotional chord of the staff the most. I was constantly getting feedback about the staff facing pressure and anxiety due to the long hours they were required to put in. Thus, reducing the anxiety and tension levels in the organization had assumed great importance. When the union leaders came to congratulate me on my appointment, I told them clearly not to worry about anything. The only message they needed to carry to the rank and file was for them to provide efficient and courteous service to the customers.

This excerpt from ‘The Custodian of Trust: A Banker’s Memoir’ by Rajnish Kumar has been published with permission with Penguin Random House India.

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