Fresh Perspective: A Conversation with Om Prakash Bhatt, Chairman of the Board State Bank of India

Prasad Kaipa

Prasad Kaipa

Om Bhatt

Prasad Kaipa

Prasad Kaipa: This is an interview for the Integral Leadership Review. There is a special issue that is going to be published on India. We have chosen to pick one corporate leader for an interview. We think you are the right person to be interviewed. We have formulated these questions with the editor of the Integral Leadership Review and myself.

With regard to your personal history—what are some of the things that you went through, that got you to your current position of leadership?

Om Bhatt: It is a little difficult to say [what I went through to get to this Chairman role] because this is a public sector organization. I joined the bank about 37 years ago as a probationary officer and it just so happened that when they wanted to select the next Chairman, I, along with four others, was well positioned in terms of hierarchy and in terms of previous service to be considered for the job. It just happened that I was chosen. So in the context of the public sector one person is simply as good as another. It does not need to be a big deal to become a chairman of the State Bank of India. What I really mean is that I was not considered outstanding or superb or anything. Maybe that would be so in another context, but not here.

Prasad Kaipa: Do you feel that your education or life experience helped you once you joined this job?

Om Bhatt: There was a time that I used to think that I have a little bit of a handicap because I am not professionally qualified in anyway, either as an MBA or an engineer or a doctor or as a lawyer. Of course, for a long time I used to think my education really acted as a handicap, not that I did much work in terms of acquiring additional degrees, but privately I have been voracious reader.

Prasad Kaipa: You have a Masters degree in English; you are a gold medalist (you were at the top of your class).

Om Bhatt: Yes. But then, having got to the job and having seen my peers both nationally and internationally coming from various backgrounds, I no longer think that the fact that I did not go to some professional course really puts me at a handicap. In fact, sometimes I get this feeling—I may or may not be right about it—that merely because I come from a different background maybe I do not look at things from too narrow an angle.

I am able to take a more holistic view. I am also able to look at it slightly differently and not get bogged down by some of the details…When you have to look at it [at making decisions] holistically…in terms of the future, when you have to look at it in terms of vision, it’s a huge advantage [not to be bogged down by details and technical issues]. The fact that I have a degree in the humanities broadens my mind. Maybe that was an additional advantage.

Prasad Kaipa: How about life experiences—early childhood or school experiences or any other events you recall that affect your leadership role?

Om Bhatt: Basically I have had a happy life—not too much grief or bad things in my life. Perhaps this is because I am temperamentally an optimist. The fact that my life, by and large, has been reasonably good may have added to my optimism. It may have added to the kind of disposition I have, which is largely positive. Therefore, not only can I look at the brighter side of things, the ability to take risks—by that I don’t mean that I am reckless— the ability to be decisive, the ability to be a quick thinker or quick decision maker, gets enhanced or I get an extra inch because of my life experience.

I did well in school and college in terms of academics. I was exceptionally good in games in the sense that I used to play for my class team and school team and enjoyed what I was doing. I have never been financially rich or anything, but I never thought that I was really in want, so there were no feelings of deprivation or want or even yearning that I don’t have this and that or I must get it. So, all those desires were not there. I suppose that this has helped create a mental make up that is comfortable and self sufficient and yet wanting to do whatever one has to do to be fair to one’s colleagues or contribute without expecting anything in return.


Prasad Kaipa: Let me repeat what I heard: Being optimistic, being positive in your attitude and being self sufficient—not necessarily wanting it, not necessarily being greedy about it, not necessarily being obsessive, but having a certain attitude of being satisfied—that allows you to take risks and allows you to explore life in a much more open and holistic way. Am I tracking you?

Om Bhatt: I would say that. Yes.

Prasad Kaipa: Do you think that being academically good or being in a comfortable state, any of those, is especially helpful or it doesn’t really matter? For example, if I were to be not academically good, if I were to have gone through a lot of serious circumstances in my life would you say that would put me in a negative scenario?

Om Bhatt: No, not all. In fact you may be in a similar or better position than I. I am only talking about my situation the way I look at it. I am not putting myself in a superior position or in a distinct club. There may be several different situations or different kinds of life experiences that may end up putting you into a similar mind set.

Prasad Kaipa: So, whatever you experienced or received, you framed it as your advantage. You looked at it as not wanting something else that you don’t have, but being satisfied with what you have, being optimistic with life, whatever life has presented.

Om Bhatt: Which is to say that I have not strived for anything unreasonable in my life. If I joined the bank and worked hard, it was reasonable to expect that someday I will become a branch manager and to become a branch manager I have to clear some exams or acquire some knowledge. Becoming chairman of SBI is also a step by step process.

Prasad Kaipa: You were not anxious to become chairman, but you knew that by doing well you could potentially become the chairman if everything worked out…

Om Bhatt: I don’t think anxiety was a major issue at all. So whether it is because of my temperament or whether it was because of ability, they knew I can do it. So that was one part of it. The other part of it was not having been over ambitious. I did not strive to leave SBI and go to private banks where one could get much more money for doing a similar job or strive for out of turn promotions. I did not want to have something that is not legitimate, fair or proper. Those cravings were not there.

Prasad Kaipa: A certain amount of equanimity—not longing for something, but not necessarily striving beyond a certain thing but comfortable with what you have.  There is what Bhagavadgita calls samabuddhi—the equanimous attitude I see in you. It is not like obsessing, yet nor is it like a feeling of not having it. That is a way in which you seemed to have moved through life. I just want to highlight that part because it is an uncommon attitude to be found in many Indian CEOs let alone western CEOs.

Let me move to another question. So what degree do you feel you play a management role versus a leadership role in your current job as chairman of SBI Group?

Om Bhatt: Today, I think it is more of leadership, less management, clearly. That is not to say management is absent. It is there. But I think there is more leadership in everything that I do than there is management.

Prasad Kaipa: Can you give me some examples of how you see your role as a leader?

Om Bhatt: Partly it is contextual. The bank I inherited was definitely not doing well. So one was just to take a short-term perspective and to get on with whatever was there. The other was to look beyond that—or I would say much beyond that—and see what can be done to turn that around. What I did managerially was to promote incremental growth or address the hygiene issues which are there in the bank, but not necessarily using it to catapult the bank into a different position altogether.

But that is what I tried to do.  I don’t think I played by the conventional rules in many of the things that I did. There are many things that we have done that were not done earlier in the bank, We were first in issuing retail bonds and in working with the unions and employees and boosting their pride and commitment…I can’t really say it was transformational leadership, but elements of transformation were in our actions. It is not just actions but the manner in which actions were taken or the manner in which it encouraged employees to provide superior customer satisfaction, the manner in which we have tried to regain market share—many of these things had a stronger element of leadership.

Prasad Kaipa: If you reflect on your leadership role, what helped you to be successful in being the kind of leader that you have become.

Om Bhatt: I am comfortable with people. And I have tremendous faith in the goodness of people, which again goes back to my experiences in life which has been good, happy, optimistic. I have a good feeling for people. You know that basically people are good and they have skills that can be put to use properly. That is a generic mindset that I have worked with.

The second thing is that I think I am fairly articulate. I can communicate well. I can persuade well. The difference for a leader comes from the ability to articulate issues or to paint a clear picture in being able to motivate in difficult circumstances.

Almost everything that I do, I tried to do “the right thing”—right not only from my perspective but from almost any other perspective—individual or institution. Sometimes, it was difficult, sometimes, it required a lot of effort or sometimes even a lot of courage, but essentially there was something right about what I was trying to do.

Prasad Kaipa: Right in the sense of principles or right in the context of larger good?

Om Bhatt: Right in the sense that one is correcting what had gone wrong in the bank. Right in spirit, right in principles, some times both or other times, they may be two different things. But definitely they were right actions. People may or may not join me in those actions. People may or may not agree with me in terms of the particular decision.

Prasad Kaipa: Can you think of any scenarios or stories where your communication and persuasion skills or your comfort with people were useful to you?

Om Bhatt: Not only did I try to align my top management, but almost the entire bank in the past 4 years. Various exercises and communication were done in a new different and innovative way.

More importantly, I was able to sit and talk with my leaders of various associations (unions) across the bank and sit with them for a period of 3 days or so and be able to make them see what it was that I was trying to do and to get their buy-in for it. So that was one of the reasons why the bank had done well—there was buy-in.

Prasad Kaipa: So your ability to articulate, communicate and negotiate made your unions your partners. That has been instrumental in making the State Bank to regain its pre-eminent position. You have reached this level in the last four years. What else has been instrumental in helping you become the kind of leader that you have become, like getting the kind of awards that you got for yourself or the bank.

Om Bhatt: As a bank, we had to do the planning. To be able to turn the bank around, we had to gain market share, gain profits, go into new territories, launch new products, use new technology, create new structures. Many of these things were done and were done successfully.

Prasad Kaipa: Being the leader of a public sector bank, you have to work with a lot of people in politics and government. You have to work with regulators, political influencers, finance ministers, the Prime Minister—how did you manage some of those relationships? These are difficult relationships to manage and are in the critical path of public sector units becoming successful. What helped you to navigate them?

Om Bhatt: Some of the impressions that people have about government or ministers interfering too much in the public sector may not be true. Frankly, I did not get any interference from any of these people. So I can’t say whether I was lucky or I was spared. I think they don’t interfere the way people think that they interfere. The other thing is that in fact I was able to get a fair amount of support for the “right” issues. We were able to persuade the government to put in something like over 2 billion dollars as their share, at one time when we were going public, which they did, quite happily.

Prasad Kaipa: And I guess they got a healthy return as well?

Om Bhatt: They got a very healthy return. Plus, they got their money back. But even in day-to-day operations, there is no interference or direction, nothing of that sort. You may have an occasional conversation that you could have with anybody else, some guidance or help in the bank, but nothing that could be construed to be improper or wrong, nothing you have to do. At least, I have not experienced any of these.

Prasad Kaipa: Do you think it is because of who you are that you didn’t experience them? Or do you feel that other public sector bank leaders might be experiencing these and you did not?

Om Bhatt: Well, definitely because of who you are and the kind of image that you convey that definitely tempers the way people respond to you or deal with you. So that is true. But I still believe that in the last four years or so I don’t have the impression that the government or its agents go out of their way to get arbitrary things done across the system, at least in public sector space. There might be some personal favors where somebody wants a rental car for a day or use of a guest house or something like that; I don’t think in terms of business objectives or the organization there is any effort to bend it this way or that way.

Prasad Kaipa: Is there any philosophy in terms of Indian culture—Indian philosophy, Indian history—that influenced you? if so, how?

Om Bhatt: Well, I am an Indian in every which way—from family and from school, college. I have been absorbing Indian history and culture from everyone. When I was in school, it was proper for a young man growing up to be idealistic. Idealism did mean being more socialistic. It did mean talking about patriotic figures and national leaders. It did mean dabbling in some intellectual aspects of Indian literature; it could be Vivekananda or Paramahamsa or could be yoga. Frankly, I had my share of all these inputs.

Prasad Kaipa: You also spent time in the United States and in other parts of the world. Were any of those influential in the ways you lead, in the ways you manage?

Om Bhatt: Yes. What I think work-wise is that I may not have learned much that would have affected me, because when I was abroad, those places were not so terribly computerized or anything. But in terms of living in different cultures, living with different types of people and developing the ability to be comfortable, as I said earlier, also to be comfortable with different people to be able to see different view points, I think in that sense, yes. There was a richness of experience, particularly in regard to different people believing in different principles.


Prasad Kaipa: How does that show up in terms of your behavior, the direction that you take or the bank takes?

Om Bhatt: I am one of the few people in an organization in the position that I am in that doesn’t have any coterie, right? If you look at the way people are posted or promoted in the bank, it is purely on what we think is right or meritorious. There is no influence of a person’s background in terms of where he hails from—north, south, east or west—this that or any other. If you look at my top team, or people who advise me, they come from all kinds of backgrounds. The only common feature would be their suitability or their merit.

Prasad Kaipa: So merit is primarily what you operate from. What kind of challenges did you face in past four years and how did you address them? Were there any road bumps along the way?

Om Bhatt: The challenges I think were that there were some people in the organization did not buy into what I proposed and some even opposed it. But apart from that there was no major challenges. The surprising thing was how people aligned themselves to the cause and did whatever they could or whatever they thought was right. In some cases or in many cases they did the extra bit; they walked the extra mile.

Prasad Kaipa: So road bumps were minimum along the way?

Om Bhatt: Yes. Road bumps were there but not more than what one should expect.

Prasad Kaipa: What do you want to share with others about leadership? Readers of this interview are going to be coming from many countries. The subscription for Integral Leadership Review seems to come from at least 30 countries or more. What kind of leadership lessons that you might draw from your experience that may be useful to them?

Om Bhatt: Leadership is very difficult to define. If you were to ask the question about leadership five times even to the same person, you will get five different answers. It is being true to your goal, true to yourself. It is being true to the people you work with. Every now and then, maybe in this situation you are trying to be true to everything, there are times when the decision you have to take or the thing that you have to do may requires a fair amount of courage.

In certainty, the atmosphere would not be conducive. Yet, since you are wanting to be true to everything—your role and your people—at times you have to act decisively. Maybe it requires a fair amount of not only courage but persuasion, motivation, strategizing all those things. If you are the kind of person who can get all of it right, who can make that effort from mind, heart, instinct and intuition, put all of it together to make it happen and can do these things repeatedly, again and again, without losing hope, without losing heart, without losing energy, I think those would be some attributes of leadership.

Prasad Kaipa: I remember you sharing in your talks,  “Many of the things we did in terms of transformation we did them ourselves.” Is the part about people doing things by themselves and knowing themselves one of your messages to our readers?

Om Bhatt: You are talking about people in leadership positions?

Prasad Kaipa: Yes, people in leadership positions.

Om Bhatt: I think they need to understand their organization. An organization is almost like a living thing. It is a living thing! Actually they have to understand their organization, culture, its DNA, its objectives, its strength and weaknesses, what makes it tick, what are the buttons which can impact the organization for better or for worse. I think it is very important for leaders to learn.

Then they also need to understand various alignments, misalignments and disconnects in the organization—in terms of objectives, people, roles, the organization culture, marketplace and the customers. If there is a lack of alignment or disconnect, as there might be, then one of the things is to bridge it first. Only then they will be able to do whatever it is that they set out to do for that organization.

Prasad Kaipa: I keep hearing that there is no magic formula.

Om Bhatt: None.

Prasad Kaipa: What you said seems very simple and big theory, audacious vision, goals, those types of things are not necessary to bring about organizational transformation.

Om Bhatt: No.

Prasad Kaipa: And much of the transformation in a bank, an organization or an individual doesn’t seem to be based on significant events alone. They seem to be small incremental, dialogical, listening, speaking, taking risks, making decision.

Om Bhatt: Yes. All of them may not be small, but they are not unrealistic or huge. They may be significant, may be important, and in the context of the organization’s history, they may also be big, but not big as in huge or impossible. Appropriate elements are necessary.

Prasad Kaipa: What would you do, if you were given a role in one of the American companies or one of the European companies? How would you apply the lessons that you have learnt in this job in helping those companies? How do you bring a transformation into them?

Om Bhatt: Hmm…I do not know what are the exact conditions in the West because here we have been working in a environment where the economy has been going positively right. In their environment the economy is not doing so well. But even then, whether it is to cut your losses, or to do better, I would say the same things that we tried here would apply.

So, in addition to that, one would have to analyze more deeply the data and the markets and come out with strategies which would be sort of counter intuitive. The strategies have to be totally different so there would be a greater element of strategizing of the normal managerial type of work in an organization. Having done that, to make sure that those strategies deliver, we need to have some of the things which we are doing here be done there.

Prasad Kaipa: And I heard you repeatedly say over the time that we have known each other that you pay attention to not just the reason and logic, but also to your instinct, intuition and emotion. Similarly, for analytical stuff you pay enough attention. But, also, you have talked about things that are not analyzable. In my mind, you take an integral view, a much more systemic view. Is that conscious? Or do you just do whatever is necessary without necessarily having any philosophy or models in mind?

Om Bhatt: Yes. I don’t have philosophical principles and models. That is correct. But I do both—I do operate from an analytical level and I also operate from a gut level or intuitive level. So, partly it is my make up. Partly it is because of the reading that I keep doing. I think anybody who is in my position does a fair amount of reading, not only around the business, but reading management or psychology books, reading fiction for pleasure or whatever it is.

So I have done a fair bit of reading and am inspired by some of the readings. I have gotten the support for this view of mine that, yes it is possible to take decisions that are based on hard facts, but are also being supplemented with soft facts. And possibly over time the art may have gotten slightly better honed.

Prasad Kaipa: You talk about being comfortable with people. How much do you rely on other people’s leadership? How do you develop those people for leadership and general management?

Om Bhatt: For me, it’s difficult to accept that people don’t have some stuff in them. And the people with whom I need to work are at a fairly higher level, not only in terms of position in the organization and hierarchy, but also in terms of all the qualities that we are talking about regarding leadership attributes.

I would say that a fair amount is already there in them. So you have to tweak that. You have build upon that. We extensively use some of the specialized programs from institutions both in India and throughout the world. We give appropriate inputs to these people. But more importantly, we have a lot of conversations. I think the State Bank of India uses big or small groups to discuss various issues. At the end, many times we are right about the decision and therefore it has to be done.

And the job is to be done by whoever is occupying that slot for that role in the bank. The way the decision is made may or may not be through consensus, but the decision making process is transparent. Therefore, the pros and cons and the reasons as to why it has been done is apparent. Everybody may feel that this should or should not be done and this is or is not the right thing to do. The reasoning is all there. So, that is one thing. The other thing is the diffusion of that decision. If there is any difficulty about some issues, my 100% support is there whenever it is required. Whether I have to give a resource or a decision or whether, I have to find something from outside the bank—all those, that support is always there.

The other thing is that many times in the process it is not necessary that what you want gets done. Sometimes it not only does not get done, but it could actually cause some damage when you are lost. So whenever these things happen it is okay that we don’t find fault with anybody.

Prasad Kaipa: I also see that there isn’t one specific leadership development approach you take. You seem to be willing to do any and all of it. Are there some leadership models that you have in mind that may be more useful at this time for people? Do you have anything specifically that you can recommend?

Om Bhatt: Over time I have spent some time here and may be as I get older, for want of a better answer, the model of leadership that gets more and more appealing to me is the Servant Leadership model. It may have something to do with my temperament. It may have something to do with the way ancient Indian philosophical literature is. I have read that if you become a servant leader, it seems to be psychologically the right thing.

I mean that is what leadership is all about. When you lead you need not lead for power control. You lead to serve. That is more the reason for leading. You don’t lead because you will buy a big house or make more money or you will do this or that. That is not the drive for leading. So if you are a driver for power, etc., that is not leadership, It is some other drive.

Leadership is about doing something good, something positive for people, for community, maybe for intangibles that you can’t even define what good it will be, specifically. But that is the right thing to do and you do your best to make it happen. So, at some level you are doing it for the general good or specific good, but for the good of others. If you have that mindset, you cannot really excel in it unless you come with the spirit of service and with the humility to serve. Now these are strong words and it may not always appear when you sit with a person. This is the mindset from which you connect.

Prasad Kaipa: Do you have any role models or people who you look up to in terms of being servant leaders or leaders who you admire?

Om Bhatt: No, not specifically. But there are several leaders across the world, both current and historical and also from different walks of life, whose aspects of leadership would have appealed to me. It is not that there is a person X whom I hero-worship or is a role model. That is not there.

Prasad Kaipa: There is nobody?

Om Bhatt: Yes, but there are traits of leadership or aspects of leadership that I respect.

Prasad Kaipa: Can you give some examples of that, some people and their traits that you admire or respect or appreciate?

Om Bhatt: For example, Ratan Tata—he inherited an empire which was in some way in a huge shambles. It was very disparate with lot of pulls away from the center, lots of strong people wanting to do whatever they wanted to do. The way he has gone about setting it right and making it a world class conglomerate and one of the world’s largest conglomerates by doing it with ethics, doing it with principles, without any noise without any showdown. He has just gone about doing his job quietly and very efficiently and he has believed in that.

At the same time he has been progressive. He has been liberal. He has been unifying. He has been forward looking, not only for all the companies of the group. They are ethical for which they have a huge reputation in India. They have not lost sight of the philosophy. They have not lost sight of society. They have struggled between business and society with equal aplomb without making any noise about it. There is no flash about them. Definitely, he is one of the greatest.

Prasad Kaipa: Anything else? Any other people living or not that come to your mind

Om Bhatt: In some senses, Buddha.

Prasad Kaipa: What traits of Buddha do you admire?

Om Bhatt: Same thing. He also was not flashy. Just because he got enlightened he never even talked about it.  The major thing about enlightenment is that you can’t talk about it. But more importantly, even though he was a sort of religious or philosophical leader and almost got equated with the Godhood, he was extremely rational. Whatever he said, he tested or experimented. If you don’t get it, you don’t have to take my word for it, but experiment. So both his humility and his transparency were admirable, even though he was coming from such a deep philosophical place. If you are able to do that, then it is not a small feat.

Prasad Kaipa: Alright, thank you. In working with you on and off for the past 5 years, I see many of those qualities in you. I see humility, I see rationality. I see transparency. I see fairness, passion, energy and commitment. You are working for the bank at a much higher level and you can joke about being the lowest paid in the fortune 500 companies. That doesn’t stop you. Day in and day out, it looks like you have made the bank successful, I think that is what is most admirable about you. I hope there are enough people who can take it from you and take it to the next level.

Om Bhatt: [laughing] I hope so and yes, not just for the sake of the bank but this bank serves for lot of people—hundreds of millions of people. Through those hundreds of millions of people it serves a large community. So many hopes and aspirations are pinned upon the bank. The bank’s work, the  bank’s values, it’s a huge thing and I hope people can take it from me and take it to the next level [laughing].

About the Author

Prasad Kaipa, PhD, is the CEO of the Kaipa Group in California and works with companies and senior executives in the areas of innovation, leadership development and CEO coaching. He is a Smith Richardson Visiting Fellow at Center for Creative Leadership. He is a senior research fellow and a visiting professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB) and was the founding Executive Director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). Prasad focuses on transformational leadership, mental models, wisdom leadership, Indian models of innovation and leadership, affordable innovation as core themes for his research.