The Enabler, A Balasubramanian, CEO, Birla Sun Life Asset Management Company Ltd

Sharad Mathur in conversation with A Balasubramanian, CEO, Birla Sun Life Asset Management Company Ltd.

Mr  A  Balasubramanian CEO Birla Sun Life AMC_Web

You have been with Birla Sun Life Mutual Fund since its inception. What are the key skills that have helped you lead the organisation in all these years?
I think one is being friendly with people. No success is yours; it is always ours. It is collective success. I find it very important to recognise and celebrate the contribution of the people working with you. Second is humility. However high up you get, you must remain aware that your authority comes from the chair you sit on, but you earn respect from your actions. Third, while I am friendly with my team, I am also assertive in my communication. It is important to focus on how you communicate, how often you communicate, how you word it, and deciding when to filter the information you communicate and when not.
When you look back at your career, what were some of the most daunting challenges that were posed in front of you?
Our business is dependent on the economic outlook of both domestic and global markets. Therefore, every three to four years, we go through some ups and downs. The challenge is to build the business continuously on a higher trajectory. To be able to do that, you need to always keep an eye on the details, assess the risks involved, and continuously prepare yourself. With this reality, it is also a challenge to keep people happy at all times. Fortunately in my case, I did not struggle too much with any of these challenges.
We live in a VUCA world and you also mentioned about the volatile nature of the business you lead. What has been your approach to deal with this?
It is a question of how alert and agile you are and how well you manage the situation without creating panic. By remaining agile we could respond to situations by floating a new product or setting up a new process that ensures we remain on the right track. Last but not the least, I believe that maintaining consistency of effort is the best bet to hedge your risks.
When faced with a problem, I believe it is counterproductive to call in a meeting and apprise everyone of the challenge. It is better to start working on resolving it by involving concerned teams and arrive at the next course of action. I also believe that a leader should always be ready to roll up his sleeves and get his feet wet. On all the occasions we were going through a challenging period, I tried to lead from the front.
What are your key objectives at the moment as the CEO of the organisation?
My most important objective is to create happy customers and happy employees. We are a sales driven business and customers are our paymasters. So, their satisfaction is very important for us. To ensure happy and satisfied customers, we need our employees to give their best which they can only do if they are happy. To ensure a continuous growth, we are focusing on both of these aspects.
How are you aligning the organisation to this objective?
We are ensuring this by continuously reinforcing the message. We are also driving it through our learning and development programmes. However, we realise that only learning is not enough. People need to learn, reflect on what they learn, and implement it in their work context, and it is being facilitated in the design of the programmes.
In a highly competitive market you operate in, what are you doing to remain competitive?
You will find competition in any market you operate in. You can never escape competition. The bigger the opportunity, fiercer is the competition. Therefore, my operating belief is that competition is not the ultimate benchmark for what we do. I believe in going about the business in a way that the competition looks up to us.
How do you do that?
We are currently driving an initiative called Pratham. As the name suggests, it is our attempt at becoming number one (in our industry). Now to do that, I am running about 14 projects with a cross functional team.
I also continuously ask my team ‘What are you doing that differentiates you from others’. Coming from a reputed Birla Group, Birla Sun Life Asset Management Company should be distinctly known for its practices and activities. Numbers will follow if you have a differentiating edge. I always tell my team that sometimes you may grow faster than the industry growth rate and sometimes you will not, but if you continuously differentiate yourselves from the competition, you will win in the long term.
How do you orient your team to achievement?
I believe in setting a goal that the people believe in, keep inspiring them that the goal is achievable, and every now and then reassuring them that they are doing a good job. At the same time I continuously review to check whether we are going in the direction and identify the areas of improvement. I personally tell the team that while achieving end goal is important, how you achieve it and the journey you have taken to achieve it is more important. Numbers are the outcome of the efforts you put. Therefore, ensure that you go in the right direction, at proper speed, and with a good alignment with all the stakeholders.
At the same time, how do you keep your workforce engaged?
I lead a team of highly capable and intellectually sound investment guys and keeping them engaged is very important. To keep them engaged, I ensure my top management and senior management team, including me, remain accessible. We have an open door policy. I have told everyone that if they have any issues and they feel my intervention is needed, they can come to my office. We also organise town hall meetings at periodical intervals where I interact with all the employees through web-casting, take their questions, and answer them on the spot. If there are some suggestions from the employees, we work on them. This gives them a sense of involvement.
I also believe that completing the work is very important. Whether you operate from home, or operate from office, or someplace else is not as important. I encourage people to achieve results in a way that maximises the quality of those results.
How are you preparing more leaders in the organisation?
We have a 70-member SMD team, and we invest in leadership development programmes for them continuously. We also believe in mentoring and HR leads the mentoring process. I also mentor role and coach some people in the organisation. Also, we keep encouraging the team to look up to somebody from the management team, which has some extremely capable individuals, as their role models.
How would you describe the work culture of your organisation?
I would describe it as an open and performance driven culture. Good performance brings us closer to our goals every day and open culture ensures that people look at each other as friends and not as competition. I always tell my team you’re not competing here with your colleagues. Your competition is in the market. You have to compete with the outside world, not with your colleagues.
If you have to single out one system in your organisation as the most critical one, which one would it be?
I think it will be our very effective review mechanism where we look at our progress on pre-set five to six areas key areas of focus at frequent intervals. In order to grow and create a differential for the organisation, you need to drive performance and drive different set of people to drive performance. As a CEO, I also have certain critical areas which I need to get evaluated on a periodical basis. I see to it that I do this at regular intervals. In doing so, I get to gauge if we are on the right track and what is to be done next.
What is your growth strategy for the next few years?
Birla Sun Life Asset Management Company comes from the very reputed Birla Group which enjoys a great image and people trust in its brand. I always insist on building on this trust in the market we operate in.
Also, to be the market leaders, we need to have our engagement level with our customers and the market disproportionately higher than that of our competition. In a market like ours, key to this engagement is expansion. Now while we are expanding, it is extremely difficult to have physical presence everywhere. To overcome this limitation, we are heavily investing in technology.

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