The Insiders - CIOs Who Became CEOs

From finance to technology and then to corporate communication, Ashish Chauhan has played at every position possible. And now he has a team of his own to captain.

Man of the Match

From finance to technology and then to corporate communication, Ashish Chauhan has played at every position possible. And now he has a team of his own to captain.

It's rather strange. Every time Ashish Chauhan, deputy CEO, BSE, starts a new innings, he's welcomed by bouncers.

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Take his stint at the IPL, for instance. As CIO of Reliance Industries Chauhan had held various positions within the organization that shot him into the spotlight. This garnered him so much management trust that they offered him the coveted position of the CEO of Mumbai Indians (the IPL team owned by the Reliance Group) - a role that he grabbed with both hands.

But as soon as he took on the mantle of heading one of the most popular teams in the IPL, a spat between the Indian government and IPL's management shifted the venue for the matches from India to South Africa.

This meant increased expenditure, more complex logistics, having to make the team popular in a new country and scoring points with the media.

But 41-year-old Chauhan was unfazed. Having headed the corporate communication department at Reliance, he knew what it would take to get media mileage. Not only that, he managed to use his interpersonal and PR skills to garner popularity for his team on foreign shores. "I used my entire gamut of skills to get my team ahead. I translated my people management skills into effective leadership," says Chauhan.

That's why being a CEO isn't everybody's cup of tea. It is Chauhan's belief in taking on different responsibilities and grabbing every opportunity - IT or otherwise - that helped him reach where he is today. Chauhan credits his decision to head corporate communications for helping him become a better CEO. "I wanted to identify other relevant areas of business and apply myself to them. I wanted new roles in which I could have a profound impact in delivering value to business. I believe one must diversify ones skills. If you harbor the dream of being a business executive, you need to hone your skills in each and every aspect of a business,” he says

First Innings

Juggling different roles has been a part of Chauhan’s career ever since he started in 1991. An alumnus of IIT Mumbai and IIM-Calcutta, Chauhan joined as an industrial finance officer in the project finance department of IDBI. During his two-year stint at IDBI, he delved into the strategic parts of business including financial planning, designing revenue models, managing project finances and fund raising.

This experience, coupled with an adeptness for technology, made him the founding member of the NSE (National Stock Exchange). All of 25, Chauhan was cherry-picked to establish India’s largest automated exchange with four other people. He was instrumental in providing NSE with a first-mover advantage by setting up its satellite communication network. This enabled screen-based exchange as opposed to floor-based trading. But this was just one of the industry firsts that Chauhan is responsible for. After quickly moving on to a more challenging business role, where he set up operations of equity and derivatives markets for over seven years, he created the NSE-50 Index, the largest traded stock Index in the Indian derivatives market. After having acquired an in-depth understanding of the financial market, Chauhan knew he had to search for greener pastures. “My perennial quest for new opportunities to create value for business led to my own capacity expansion and diversity. Diversity in my experience has given me an understanding of the various nuances of business,” he says.

That quest brought him to Reliance where Chauhan faced his first bouncer. He joined Reliance Infocom at a time when the company was planning to revolutionize the Indian telecom market by introducing CDMA technology and offering it at a rate that made it affordable to everyone. “The execution of this project was challenging. I had to modify the billing system to get one million customers to Reliance Infocom every month,” he says.

Although, he acknowledges that it wasn’t easy, Chauhan knew that a good leader stays calm on the face of challenges. “The target was very ambitious and I had to put in place robust processes to avoid pitfalls like a lack of a consistent database of customers. I set up a real-time data entry system, which not only added considerable value to the business but also introduced prepaid in CDMA technology for the first time,” says Chauhan. That project went a long way in proving that Chauhan could be trusted with enterprisewide projects, touching millions of users. So, as the group CIO of RIL, he was handed the responsibility of implementing SAP. This project would provide a coherent framework for IT implementation, operations and maintenance in manufacturing, petrochemicals, refining, life sciences, consumer retail, urban infrastructure and several other Reliance group initiatives.

Under his leadership, this project was executed in less than five months. Apart from that, he was also involved in the legal and commercial activities related to a de-merger of the Reliance group in five companies.

For Chauhan, 19 years of extensive exposure to diverse areas of business have manifested itself in the form of an impressive track record. "The biggest benefit of taking on new roles was that I could acquire a unique end-to-end-view of the business. This gave management the confidence that I could take on any role with aplomb," says Chauhan.

Dabbling in an array of roles and leading from the front have taught Chauhan to deal with anything thrown at him. It's this quality that led him to join the oldest stock exchange of Asia, the BSE, as its deputy CEO in September 2009.

It's been quite a journey. He has a word of advice for CIOs who want to step into the shoes of a CEO. "Risk-averse CIOs risk missing opportunities and making decisions that drive value for their career. A CIO should not adopt a straitjacket and purist approach in accepting opportunities that come his way. Seizing every opportunity helps accelerate and manage the transition to a full-fledged business role. I believe in doing my best to the utmost of my ability," he says.

That's an all-rounder talking.

Q&A with Ashish Chauhan

What sort of CIO makes for the best business leader?

Ashish Chauhan: Not being a straightjacketed CIO. I think the best thing to do is to take on responsibilities from different lines of business. It’s all about being a jack of all trades and the master of most. Being multi-skilled gives you the confidence to take on different roles. A CIO has a unique end-to-end view of business and he should leverage this advantage for his career advancement.

What helps make the transition from a CIO to CEO?

It’s good to have a formal business education. A CIO could probably try to acquire a part-time MBA or some other executive or management development program run by various management institutes. In my case, having a management degree has been immensely helpful. I learnt a lot about the dynamics of business and I applied those learnings to a real-time business environment. This ensures that when an opportunity arises I can seize it. Second, CIOs should be a part of their company’s strategy formulation process. If CIOs keenly observe their management’s decision-making process, they will acquire important insights into how the business thinks. Consequently, they will begin to treat IT as a strategic tool.

How did you prepare yourself for the transition?

After an education in management, I joined as a financial expert in IDBI. And then the IT role came at an opportune time in NSE. During my tenure at NSE, I concentrated more on business and gave up the technology role entirely. Then at Reliance Infocom (now Reliance Communications), technology returned to center stage. My career path is strewn with opportunities – be it business or technology. Solid experience in both fields pitch-forked me into

prominence and gave management the confidence that I could fulfill their needs in different areas of business.

Lessons in Recovery

Entrepreneurs average 3.8 failures before final success. What sets the successful ones apart is their amazing persistence. — Lisa M. Amos

Ishwar Jha, former CEO,Digital Media Convergence, is a man who has been there, done that — and is going back for seconds. In 2006, Jha, then a senior VP at Zee Entertainment, was asked to set up digital Media Convergence (dMCl), a wholly owned subsidiary of Zee that aimed to tap the potential in the Web and mobile VaS space. Making Jha its CEO fit perfectly with the trajectory of his career graph.

But in 2009, after a battering from the slowdown, the $2.5 million (about rs 11 crore) dMCl was re-absorbed into Zee Entertainment and Jha stepped down. Interestingly, dMCl wasn’t Jha’s first entrepreneurial initiative — nor his last. Back when he was just 18-years-old and fresh from his higher Secondary exams, he rented and farmed land and made a clean rs 6,000 (US$130). And as a senior VP at Zee, Jha incubated a number of money-making ideas for entertainment giant including the 57575 mobile platform and India’s first commercially deployed mobile tV service.

But at dMCl he was met with challenges he hadn’t foreseen. The CEO platform is a compelling environment where cost-optimization and operational efficiency aren’t easy issues to tackle, he says. achieving this while keeping expenses under control is a test that makes the role of any CEO a challenge. “And as if that isn’t enough, there are hurdles of mobilizing resources and attracting quality talent while heading a company that is not already well-established,” says Jha.

Today, Jha is head digital Services at Zee Entertainment, where once again he is brewing up new business initiatives. “I generate ideas and put them up in front of the board,” he says. But even his new responsibilities can’t dampen Jha’s entrepreneurial streak business. “This is definitely my last job,” he says. “Unless something goes drastically wrong, I will set up my own business after this.”

Proud to be IT Only

One should fully exhaust all the inherent potential in the CIO's job before taking on other roles - Subodh Dubey

Not all IT leaders are hypnotized by the call of CEO-dom. Subodh Dubey, CIO of Usha International, is amused by the constant chatter around ‘moving on’. “Strengths, capabilities and aspirations vary from person to person. I’ve always felt that there is so much to do in my field, which only a CIO can do, because he is trained to do so. I think that one should fully exhaust all the inherent potential in the CIO’s job before taking on other roles,” he says. But by doing that aren’t CIOs alienating themselves from teams that contribute directly to the bottomline? Dubey doesn’t think so. “I am a part of the core teams of hr, supply chain management, and even sales, marketing and finance. I have developed competencies to understand their needs and then improvise ways to achieve business goals through It. and doing so makes me happy,” he says. That, in turn, empowers him to generate revenue for the company. “I see a lot of opportunity to help business in terms of revenue generation and increasing productivity by improving the supply chain, sales and marketing, etcetera.” Catering to business needs is one thing, but CIOs are constantly hounded about aligning It with business goals. “Business-It alignment has been a buzzword for a long time. We have heard many say that business goals and It goals should be treated as one. But for this to happen, one must understand how to enable business through It. That’s why I say there is lots of scope, and lots of work that a CIO can do,” he says. So where does he see himself 10 years down the line? “Working as a global CIO for a fortune 500 company,“ he says, “because even as a global CIO, I think there are many things that need to be taken care of.”

A Little Give; A Little Take

Not a single person whose name is worth remembering lived a life of ease. — Anon

It’s unlikely that Alok Kumar, former senior VP at Reliance Infosolutions, would have changed any of decisions he made even if he had read that quote. In 2008, as a member of the top brass at Rs 19,068-crore Reliance Infosolutions, a captive IT company for Reliance, Kumar admittedly had a cushy life. Backed by a gold-plated resume from years of working with companies like Hutchison, Reliance Infosolutions, and Reliance retail, he was at the top of his game. Then, he chucked it all in exchange for the thrill of entrepreneurship. “I’ve always looked for change and adventure. If I’ve grown it’s because I’ve taken risks and decisions that were different from what others would have taken,” he says.

That’s exactly what he did in 2008 when he moved on from Reliance and started Comfy Clover Consultancies. One of his first clients was Sears holding Corporation, the fourth-largest broadbased retailer in the US, which wanted him to assess the plausibility of running an IT services business in India. His work impressed them so much that they wanted him to run their Indian operations. “I think, initially, they hired (my firm) to determine how well I understood the dynamics of the market,” he says. It was an offer he could not refuse, says Kumar — despite the fact that he would be heading a captive unit that only provided services to the Sears Group.

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