by Anup Varier, Priyanka and Sneha Jha

The Insiders – CIOs Who Became CEOs

Feb 23, 2010
CIOIT Leadership

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.

Kumar represents a rare breed of leader; one that has been CIO then CEO of his own firm and then CEO of a captive unit. “The key difference between being the boss of your own company and the CEO of another is that suddenly you have a big brand behind you. It definitely puts you on another plane and people treat you differently.” Kumar says he has the independence to make his own decisions — and in return for being the boss of someone else’s company he has both financial backing and a brand. It’s the trade-off he’s willing to live with — especially since he plans to offer IT services to companies outside the Sears group after two years.

Playing For High Stakes

Sanjay Sharma threw himself at projects that changed the way business did business. By choosing to grab these opportunities, he made his presence felt and bolstered his chances of being CEO.

“Nothing speaks louder than success,” says 43-year-old Sanjay Sharma, CEO and MD of IDBI Intech. And he should know, because that’s the route he took to occupy the CEO’s cabin.

After working at SBI for four years, Sharma took charge of IT at IDBI Bank in 1995. By that time, he knew that he wanted to see himself running a business.

But he also knew that mere interest wouldn’t take him the distance. He would need his management’s backing. And one way to do that was to gain visibility across the board. So, Sharma took on projects that differentiated him from other CXOs and earned him recognition not only from within the organization but also within the industry. “It’s all about getting your success story out and being ‘visible’ internally as well as in the industry by way of industry conferences, seminars and leadership panels,” he says.

One such opportunity came in the form of a merger between IDBI (which was a development bank) and IDBI Bank (the corporate banking wing of IDBI) in 2004. The former CEO of IDBI Bank Guneet Chadha, wanted to convert IDBI Bank into an aggressive commercial bank that would offer a complete bouquet of banking services.

However, the project called for an enterprise-wide realignment of business processes and technology. The scale and scope of the project was monumental because the bank had to migrate all the branches of the new entity to a centralized platform under the name of IDBI Bank. Just the thought of what needed to be done made people within the IT department — some who were twice Sharma’s age and experience — apprehensive.

But with help from his peers Sharma completed the project. The training of the entire staff was completed in less than six months and the actual implementation took only between six and eight weeks. The project was so transformational it’s still used as a case study within the industry. For Sharma, the project was a milestone because he met dynamic business needs, managed a large team and executed an important project within budget and on schedule.

More importantly, it got the bank’s management to look at him with new eyes. “My executive peers had seen me accomplish enterprise-wide mega projects. They had seen me play a proactive role in leading enterprise change. Management had the faith that I could take the lead in delivering business results. Their confidence strengthened my case and bolstered my cause,” says Sharma.

Sharma didn’t stop at that. In 2005, IDBI Bank acquired the Rs 70-crore United Western Bank (UWB), whose profits were dwindling. IDBI wanted to leverage UWB’s distribution channel to align product, service offerings, and its operations to tap into new areas of business. Sharma proved his mettle yet again by integrating 175 UWB branches with on core-banking systems to a common platform. Because IDBI Bank demanded no downtime, Sharma adopted a big bang approach and integrated 175 branches in a single day.

“The projects not only gave me business insight but also catapulted me as a potential leader in the eyes of the management. The point is that even as I managed these projects as a CIO, I always thought and acted in terms of cost efficiencies, profits, and value for money. This inspired confidence that I could drive a business,” says Sharma.

Brand New Territory

A year later that confidence took shape when he was asked to head IDBI Intech (a wholly-owned subsidiary of IDBI that takes care of the IT-related activities of the IDBI group companies). The 52-strong IT team from IDBI bank was shifted to IDBI Intech and Sharma became its CEO and MD.

What’s significant is that IDBI Intech was in a dormant state, when Sharma took over. The company, which was started during the IT boom in 2000, hadn’t recovered from the slowdown that had clipped its wings in 2001. But today, the company rakes in profits of over Rs 100 crore.

That’s primarily because Sharma realized that there were lucrative opportunities for his company in the BFSI sector. He convinced his management to harness IDBI Intech’s potential and then met external clients.

“Getting your first deal is difficult even if it is free. I personally went to meet potential customers, gave them a patient ear and tried to understand their demands. In order to forge strategic alliances with the customers, you have to be more outward facing. I had to orchestrate everything,” says Sharma. Today IDBI Intech has 22 clients across India, the Gulf and East Africa.

It helps that Sharma has spent 19 years in the banking industry and that has acquainted him with the nuances of business management. But it still required Sharma to adopt a customer-oriented approach in everything he did and explore new areas of business. Initially, his firm focused on providing IT services to the group businesses of IDBI, but Sharma decided to offer services to other players in the IT intensive BFSI sector.

However, it was not easy. “Convincing your customers that you are not just the IT subsidiary of IDBI and can deliver services in a neutral environment is a tough job,” he says.

Q&A with Sanjay Sharma

What drove you to the CEO role?

Sanjay Sharma: After playing an IT role for 14 years in the banking industry, I had built close relationships in the business circuit. I reached a point where I wanted to create new technologies for the industry. I realized that there is a lot of potential in the market. Being a business-minded IT executive, I could appreciate the needs of the business. So, I decided to switch to a business role. Also, I didn’t want to confine myself to a single function.

What’s the most important thing a CIO needs to do in order to make the transition?

That would have to be experience across different departments including sales, marketing and finance. A business executive has to walk the tightrope while overseeing different lines of businesses. A CIO should speak the language of his executive peers. He should have a sound knowledge of the industry in which his company is operating. He should also know the ecosystem and the competitive challenges of his sector.

What challenges did you face in the course of heading IDBI Intech?

When you are starting a company from ground up, micromanagement is the most important thing. Because none of my team members had any experience in business, I had to get into every small detail of the business. Handling independent financial statements was another issue. It involved a fair amount of number crunching. It’s also tough to keep your team motivated while handling customer demands. Your vision should be communicated to the bottom of the pyramid. This helps you achieve targets easily. I also draw on analogies from movies. People relate to them instinctively. Whenever we have steep targets, I ask my team to handle it with a ‘Chak De’ spirit. And they put their hearts and souls into everything

they do.

Networking to the Top

Chinar Deshpande made friends and nurtured them. Years later, he called on them in his push to be CEO, proving that building bonds isn’t just good advice — it’s a very real way to grow a career.

Seated in the chair of the CEO at the heart of a plush 10,000 sq. ft office facility and a datacenter that can support up to 15 companies at, it is clear that the 41-year-old Chinar Deshpande is having a ball. But this luxury wasn’t gifted to him on a platter. It was built brick-by-brick on the strong foundation of relationships. It all started with the bonds that he built during the three years that he spent as senior IT manager at HLL (Hindustan Lever).

“To begin with, I was no different from a traditional Indian good student, fulfilling the traditional Indian dream by enrolling myself into an engineering course,” Deshpande recalls. But, he says, he was always thrilled by the prospect of running a business. So, after completing his masters, he enrolled into the University of Louisville for an MBA in operations and healthcare management.

He joined HLL in 1997 as senior IT manager. In 2001, Deshpande started his first stint as CIO at the India operations of the Dodsal Group — a construction and infrastructure company in Dubai. In just under three years, he had created a stable IT strategy for the company, and Deshpande felt that it was time to seek new challenges.

Those new challenges were waiting for him right around the corner. Known for his sharp negotiation skills, Deshpande also possesses the ability to talk his way to the top. That’s why, in 2004, Future Group’s retail arm, Pantaloon Retail India offered him the CIO’s job.

But joining a company when its industry is in a growth phase is never easy. Deshpande’s first task was to ensure that the company’s systems were ready to scale up to match its growth. To do that, Deshpande deployed SAP that armed the company with accurate data in real-time to make quick and precise decisions.

Providing business with IT solutions is one thing, but a CIO’s biggest challenge is getting management buy-in. That’s where Deshpande scored. “When I had to convince the group of an internal IT project, I would first talk about the challenges we faced and then explain the business benefits of the technology,” he says. Deshpande was also able to develop acquaintances with business heads. “They were no longer just my internal customers, but were friends within the group.”

And it was during one of his water-cooler conversations with his friends, that Deshpande’s business acumen was first noticed.

That’s how Deshpande found his way into Future Group’s CEO Kishore Biyani’s core management team. He soon started contributing towards mentoring new recruits and management trainees, organizing brainstorming sessions on marketing and more importantly, expanding Pantaloons’ business.

“In 2004, Pantaloons was a Rs 350-crore company with 20 stores. When I left the organization three-and-a-half years later, it was an Rs 8,000-crore company with over 900 stores,” he says.

But, though he was part of Pantaloons’ growth story, he was still an employee.“I was already in talks with Mr. Biyani to play a role in Future Group as a business head or to setup my own company which he would fund,” says Deshpande. While he was in discussions with Biyani, he went on a vacation to the US. He was about to get lucky.

The Big Break

A US-based IT company, Creative Information Technology (CITI), which offers identity management solutions wanted to move into India. So, the board of directors approached the then chairman of Computer Society of India (who prefers to stay anonymous) for the CEO’s post for their Indian operations called Creative IT India (Criti).

While CITI set up its India operations it also wanted to get a feel of the market and longed to meet an Indian CIO from a reputed Indian company. Deshpande’s networking skills stood him in good stead again. The CEO of Criti was the former CIO of HLL and a good friend of Deshpande. The CEO soon arranged a meeting between Deshpande and CITI’s board of directors. With over a decade of experience in the retail sector behind him, it didn’t take much for Deshpande to impress them.

Criti represented just the sort of opportunity Deshpande was looking for. “I didn’t run the risk of investing my own money. My responsibility was to scale up operations and take it to a new level,” he says.

Deshpande joined Criti as a director under the then CEO in 2007. Because the CEO was about to retire, Deshpande was offered the job. It wasn’t going to be easy as he had to keep track of RBI regulations, understand Indian tax laws, HR and payroll and generate balance sheets. But his challenges had only just begun. Criti didn’t have the luxury of unlimited funds from its parent in the US and business wasn’t easy to come by for the new company. “The recession of 2008-09 triggered by the financial meltdown in the US only made matters worse and getting new customers in a market characterized by tighter budget constraints was a real pain,” he recalls.

Deshpande also realized that he was no longer in the position of power that CIOs enjoy. “As CIO, I was the customer and IT companies were my suppliers. But suddenly, the tables turned; I need to go door-to-door either to ask for more business or to ensure that our customers are satisfied or even just to collect our dues! It’s a very humbling experience,” he admits.

Today, after about two-and-half years in Criti, Deshpande has expanded the company to cater to the IT needs of healthcare and pharma, government, education and entertainment. Its clientele includes big names spread across the world like My Dollar Store, HUL, Aditya Birla Group and Spencers, to name a few.

Would Deshpande go back to being CIO? “Only if it is an exceptionally challenging role,” he says, “which involves influencing IT strategy across geographies and only if IT defines the future of the business would I think of going back to being CIO.”

Q&A with Chinar Deshpande

How did you chart your course to become CEO?

Chinar Deshpande: From the very start, I felt that if I had the resources I could do a lot more. After getting an engineering degree, I immediately moved on to do my MBA as I was clear that this would help me handle a business leadership role. So even before I started playing senior roles in the IT field, I had already completed my management education with a clear intent that one day I would like to head a company and be responsible for business and not just an independent IT function.

What has this journey taught you?

I realized quite early that as CIO, my primary objective was to understand all the aspects of the business and then design a strategy that encompasses the vision of the company and its growth plans. Another thing that made an impression on me was how Mr. Biyani, MD of Pantaloons, was keen on promoting innovation and out-of-the-box thinking within the group. He was always open to ideas that could help him expand the business. If somebody wanted to leave the group to pursue other opportunities, he was always willing to let go. His opendoor policy helped me move into my new role at Criti.

Why do CIOs get stuck just being CIOs?

Typically, CIOs tend to unnecessarily complicate matters when it comes to technological issues. For job security they maintain a certain level of secrecy around things. They tend to use technological jargon as a shield for job security. This, I feel, doesn’t help them grow. I make sure that even if I have to convince the group of an internal IT project, I would first talk about the challenges we are facing and then talk about the business benefits of the technology. This lets the management see that you are thinking in terms of business and not just technology.