WORDS OF WISDOM

Choose your spouse wisely: Life advice for IIM-A grads from the chief of Axis Bank

Obsession
The Office
Quartz india
Obsession
The Office
Quartz india

Convocation speeches are often candid. And Axis Bank CEO Shikha Sharma’s recent one at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), was definitely candid. In fact, Sharma went beyond the usual work advice; she spoke on even choosing the right life-partner.

The speech, on March 25, touched upon the three tough choices one has to make in life. According to Sharma, an IIM-A alumnus herself, finding the right partner is one of them. She even dived into the Harry Potter series to make her point: “As Dumbledore told Harry, ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities’.”

Fifty-eight-year-old Sharma is the MD and CEO of Axis Bank, India’s third-largest private lender. Along with a bunch of other female top bosses, she is a well-known name in India’s financial sector.

Here, according to Sharma, are the three tough choices to be made in life. You can watch the full speech here.

Choosing the right path

Sharma said that, at times, we must choose one road out of multiple options: “When two roads diverge in the wood, which one will you take and why?” She said:

In life, you will encounter forks in the road ever so often: And when you do, you will find yourself answering an unasked question—do you want to stay with the path well known, or do you want to venture forth into uncharted waters, unmapped territories? The choice of which road you take will shape who you become. For me, more often than not, I chose the road less traveled. And it has indeed made all the difference. It started early in my career with an opportunity to be part of the start-up team for ICICI Securities, a joint venture with JP Morgan. My career thus far had been steady and successful. To go off that predictable and well-trodden path to set up a joint venture with a global major was nerve racking, but eventually rewarding. Similar forks in the road presented themselves multiple times thereafter.

After my two first years as a corporate banker, and about five more as an investment banker, the organisation offered me a chance to pivot once again—this time to set up the personal financial services business. I must admit my nervousness; retail finance was a much-debated diversification for the group and I had no exposure to it at all! The institution and I were both taking a big bet…as it turned out, it worked just fine! A few years later, yet another pivot, this time to leave banking altogether and set out to establish a life insurance company. A few exciting years later, one more fork on the road. I decided to return to banking, to lead Axis Bank, the organisation that I have been proudly associated with ever since. So, why all these pivots, these journeys into roads less travelled? For me, the key driver has always been the same—the learning curve…

…The more (number of) learning curves I climb, the more (number of) complex and novel situations I put myself in; the more likely that I will continue to remain relevant. Growth begins where your comfort zone ends. Every time I have found myself at one of life’s crossroads, I have tried to ask myself: “Which path offers me the steeper learning curve?” And more often than not, I have tried to take that path. I have tried to learn new ways to learn, and slowly but surely, learning itself has become a habit.

Choosing the right partner

For Sharma, forming the right partnerships—professional and personal—is key to success. She explained how looking beyond the surface helps in choosing the right partner for life as well as business:

It is a cliché to say that the choice of a life partner is the single-most important choice you will make in your life…it is a cliché because it is true. As H. Jackson Brown Jr wrote, “Choose your life’s mate carefully. From this one decision will come 90% of all your happiness and misery.” I don’t know about the 90%…but the fact is that much of the joy you derive on the journey of life does hark back to whom you choose to share this journey with. A lot of what I am today, the achievements that were so kindly mentioned in the introduction, are a function of the partner I was lucky to have alongside on my journey.

Sanjaya and I are very different people. He is widely read, divergent (in) thinking, and creative; I am a lot more linear (in) thinking and introverted. But on the most important thing, we are not different at all—we have very similar core values. If I were to point out the one thing that has made our partnership successful, it is just that—the alignment on core values. Indulge me for a minute if I sound like a mom! When you are out there looking for a partner, look beyond their looks, their success, their style. The durability and strength of your relationship is not going to come from your partner’s personality—it is going to come from their character. So remember to look well beneath the surface.

My discussion of partner choice has so far been about life partners.

But as professionals you will find that you are frequently faced with a very similar choice—that of organisations or teams. The principles of what makes for lasting relationships with your work team or with your organisation aren’t terribly different from those that make lasting personal partnerships. It is easy to get enamored by the visible but superficial details of a new job you are considering—the money, the fancy title, the foosball table in the break-room. But in most cases, that is not what makes for a fulfilling career. You want to join an organization that has values that match yours; that has people you can be yourself with; that gives you the space to be who you have the potential be as a professional. These are not things that any firm can tell you in their pre-placement talk. It is something you can only find out the hard way, by doing your own research, by looking beneath the surface.

Choosing to do the right thing

The third important choice is to take decisions that are moral. These often come up during dilemmas, Sharma said.

When faced with the minor moral dilemmas of everyday, what do you choose to do? You can do the expedient thing, make the practical choice, take the short cut. Or you can be led by what you believe to be the right thing to do. Every time you decide to take the harder but more principled path, you add one more brick to the foundation of your character. And every time you choose to compromise with what you believe in, you give yourself the licence to do it again, and you take a brick away. We live in a world today that is infinitely connected and has unlimited memory. No part of your history ever truly fades away. This is particularly true if you intend to be a successful professional. Each and every one of you today, with the privilege of these robes you are wearing, has the opportunity to be among the most successful people of your generation. Unless you veer away from your moral compass.

Remember, everything you do today is, for better or for worse, in the public gaze. And the public’s interpretation of it, their retelling of it, even their memory of it, is very likely to be imperfect, even unfair. Many of you may have seen the YouTube videos of Travis Kalanick’s argument with an Uber driver…and his subsequent mea culpa. Well, Axis Bank, and I as the leader, have had more than our fair share of public gaze too, in the last few months. You can rail against the unfairness of the omnipresent media’s judgement of your every act. But that is simply not productive. Just remember, the only real armour you have…is to always do what you believe to be the right thing to do. Let your principles be your true north.

Also read: MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga’s six lessons on leadership—as told to the IIM-A class of 2015.

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