A young Indonesian accountant is persuaded to take a role abroad to gain international experience. A Singaporean business analyst based in Bangkok is advised to take an accounting role back home to broaden her skill set. These are examples of those who have moved to more senior positions thanks to Sanjeev Agrawal, CFO of Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore and ASEAN, reinforcing his belief that taking a risk on people can pay off.
‘To me, there is an essential element of taking a risk with people that defines you as a leader,’ he explains. ‘I see it as an integral part of leadership.’
Throughout his own career, plenty of people have been willing to take a chances on Agrawal. Back in 1987 he had worked as a consultant at Price Waterhouse for a short period when he was offered an exciting opportunity at Tata Steel’s plant in Jamshedpur, Eastern India.
The accounts officer had to manage nearly 60 people – all much older than him and in a highly unionised atmosphere. ‘It was not an obvious career move,’ he reflects. What swung it was the director’s belief that Agrawal should move out of his comfort zone. ‘I was really amazed he was willing to take a chance on me, but he told me: “I’m hiring people to drive change.” I realised he wanted some fresh thinking.’ The director also acted as a mentor. ‘I learned a lot about how to manage people. Many accountants are very good at technical skills, but they are not particularly trained in, and sometimes lack, people management and influencing skills.’
Today, Agrawal heads a finance team of over 400 people throughout the ASEAN region, with a balance sheet in excess of US$100bn and with Singapore the second largest contributor to the group’s income and profit. It has been a difficult year so far, with the group reporting first-half operating income down 5% to US$9.27bn compared with the same period in 2013, with profit before tax down 20% at US$3.27bn. Standard Chartered Singapore delivered income of US$1.04bn and operating profit of US$455m, announcing that the top- and bottom-line year-on-year growth had been impacted by muted global trade sentiment, regulatory changes, weak commodity prices and a 54% year-on-year drop in own account income.
Like many CFOs in the banking industry, Agrawal is facing very rapid and significant regulatory and other changes. For example, the Singapore government’s property cooling measures, enhancements to credit rules and the recent Personal Data Protection Act have all had an impact on lending and sales, while the historical low volatility of markets and reduced liquidity have resulted in challenging trading conditions affecting the banks’ financial markets business.
Another challenge for Agrawal as a CFO is the constant information overload. ‘While a lot of information is very good, it can also be baggage if you are not using it well, or letting more important information get lost in the overall flood. So it’s a key priority for a CFO to scan the landscape, ensuring that the information is captured and presented in the right way to help the CEO and the rest of the business in decision making,’ he explains, noting that he has never worked so closely with his chief risk officer as he does today.
‘I need to work with him on various scenarios to better anticipate the events and environment, to prepare and to respond in a robust fashion,’ Agrawal explains. ‘I want to make sure that we deal with challenges in a manner that keeps us on course to deliver our overall strategy.
‘As the world remains very uncertain, such as with developments in the Middle East and Ukraine, and talks of ending quantitative easing in the US, my priority for the next six months is to make sure we stay focused on the big themes that will have an impact on the market, on our balance sheet, on our liquidity and pricing, and ultimately on our customers and people,’ Agrawal adds.
People and stakeholder management remain at the forefront of Agrawal’s concerns. ‘As you grow into senior leadership positions in an organisation, the ability to manage and lead stakeholders becomes more and more important, because it becomes about stakeholder management, and stakeholders are largely people,’ he argues.
Agrawal credits his seven-year stint at Tata as having prepared him well, teaching him the importance of doing business in a sustainable way using defined values. After four years at the Jamshedpur plant, and having helped reorganise the team and processes there, Agrawal transferred to Tata’s head office in Mumbai where he moved away from sales accounting and started managing working capital, consolidating and closing the publicly listed company’s accounts.
In 1993, as he felt ready to spread his wings into the banking sector, he joined Standard Chartered in Mumbai as a manager in the finance function.
His experience as a corporate client helped him understand clients’ needs in relation to the bank’s priorities and helped him quickly move up the corporate ladder.
‘I was able to see propositions with the customer lens as well as the internal lens, bringing them together and helping them make a better decision,’ he recalls. ‘I guess my skills at problem solving and critical thinking were noticed and when the CFO role came up next, I got it. I was still quite young and there were a few eyebrows raised, but once again I found people willing to take a risk on me.’
Within a month of his appointment, the bank announced plans to acquire Grindlays Bank in India – putting his brand-new post in jeopardy. ‘Now we had two CFOs when there could only be space for one. It took a few months, with me not knowing if I would get the top job or not,’ he recalls.
In the end, not only did Agrawal get the job; he was also tasked with leading the integration of the two banks, leading to his being named ‘CFO of the year’ in the merger and acquisition category of IMA India’s annual awards in 2002.
While Agrawal’s work philosophy is built on giving employees opportunities, he also acknowledges that mentoring is an important part of the process. This should be achieved by spending time talking to the employee, helping them to identify their strengths and making career choices that play to those strengths.
Known for ‘walking the floor’, Agrawal spends about 20% of his time on the road and among his employees. ‘How do you stay in touch, and have a finger on the pulse, if you stay in your office? If your diary is driving you, you are not managing. You need to take the time, get the right team, delegate, reflect and talk to people.If you do it in your office, there is mostly an agenda; you don’t get a natural conversation.’
Agrawal likens the role of the CFO to the ‘conscience’ of an organisation: ‘The way I see the CFO’s role is as one without boundaries,’ he says. ‘CFOs have a complete responsibility to make enquiries, as well as explore and assess the landscape. You should be asking all the relevant questions. I also see the role as one of value protection and value addition, in that order.
First, keeping the place safe – making sure it’s run on good fundamentals, liquidity is good, capital is good. And that’s where the conscience keeper comes in. There is huge competition and most managers are under pressure, so somebody has to keep that balance of thinking. The CFO has a role to play there.’
Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, journalist