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'Narayanan Vaghul style of leadership created a factory of leaders'

In 1994, it became obvious to Mr. Vaghul that ICICI's sustainability as a development financial institution was untenable

N Vaghul, ICICI Bank

N Vaghul

Renuka Ramnath

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My first tryst with N Vaghul, was in 1986, when I joined ICICI as a junior officer on probation. The customary lunch with the chairman filled me with trepidation. Meeting someone so high up in the organisation was intimidating. However, my fears were unfounded. His unassuming style, calm and easy demeanour, using humour in conveying powerful messages -- all took me by surprise, demolishing all my preconceived notions about a “Boss”. This quintessential Vaghul style of leadership created a factory of leaders.

A couple of years later, he invited me to join a conversation about AI. A leading conglomerate from South India had developed an AI product. Hold your breath – this was in the late 1980s. We were asked to examine its relevance for ICICI. The industry captains then were always eager to brainstorm such innovative ideas only with Mr Vaghul. I learnt my second lesson in leadership that day — the limitless possibilities of open-mindedness and how curious, engaged, and bold leaders ought to be to nurture and inspire high-performing teams.

Fast forward to the early 1990s. India was opening up, and financial services were amongst the first to integrate with global markets. Mr. Vaghul was already ready with a prepared mind, to spin out the merchant banking business of ICICI to form a joint venture with a global investment bank. This gave birth to I-Sec, a JV between ICICI and JP Morgan. The team at I-Sec benefited immensely. JP Morgan trained the team in technical and soft skills in Investment Banking to be able to serve the global clients of JP Morgan in India seamlessly. Upon my return from a four-month stint with JP Morgan in New York in early 1993, Mr. Vaghul asked me to share my learnings with ICICI’s senior leaders. It was intimidating to see him in the audience, but it was a testament to his commitment to creating a culture of shared learning and sharpening the skills continuously to stay ahead.

In 1994, it became obvious to Mr. Vaghul that ICICI’s sustainability as a development financial institution was untenable. He engaged stalwart thinkers from academia in the US to articulate a vision for ICICI as a large financial conglomerate. He invited everyone in ICICI, from mid-management to the top, for a three-day closed-door conference. While I paid rapt attention, I did not grasp the magnitude of the change.

Looking back, I learnt from Mr. Vaghul that thinking audaciously, even if it means demolishing everything you have created to emerge as a new, sustainable enterprise, is essential for successful leadership. Such transformations require the conviction and hard work of every team member and cannot be achieved by dictating from the top. This experience helped me later to shape ICICI Venture when I had the opportunity to pivot it to become a large alternate asset management company.

I wanted to set up an outfit in West Asia for ICICI to channelise NRI money.

Despite being a single woman travelling to West Asia in the mid-90s, Mr. Vaghul never expressed concern. Making ICICI an equal opportunity place was born out of his ability to be unbiased and to allow the creativity and innovation of passionate professionals to find their full potential. Indeed, Mr Vaghul was a global leader in bringing equality to work place.

Growing under the tutelage of legends like Mr Vaghul, I had the opportunity to emerge on my own. I often wondered how to repay him for making me who I am. I concluded that I can only pay it forward.

Writer is a founder, MD & CEO, Multiples Alternate Asset Management Private Limited

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First Published: May 19 2024 | 11:02 PM IST

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