Interview with Meera H Sanyal, Indian Public Figure, Former CEO of RBS India

December 23, 2013 - Inspiring Interviews
Interview with Meera H Sanyal, Indian Public Figure, Former CEO of RBS India

“We have to be a little crazy to live. My dreams are really big dreams and I don’t have any illusions as to how tough the challenge ahead is. It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is, it’s something worth standing for”.

Former CEO & Chairperson of RBS India, Meera is a Senior Executive who is a Non- executive Board director of Financial services firms, NGO’s and Educational Institutions. She was invited by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to join her International Council on Women’s Business Leadership (ICWBL), is a member of the Global Board Ready Women’s group (GBRW) and of the National Executive Committees of FICCI and CII. She is also a Board member of Pradan,  AIESEC India, Jaihind College and LiberalsIndia for Good Governance – the Indian Liberal Group. Meera has been a banker for over 29 years, with a wide array of experience ranging from Investment Banking to Operations & IT. She has a keen interest in Public Policy &Governance, Financial Inclusion and Women’s Empowerment and a deep understanding of the economic, social and political situation in India. She has recently stepped down as CEO of RBS India to devote herself to social, economic and political causes that she is deeply passionate about.

Visit Meera’s Wikipedia page or follow Meera on Twitter @meerasanyal, her Facebook page Meera H Sanyal or her blog Meera’s Musings.

“The common thread that inspires me amongst all three women is their courage.”


Who is your leadership role model?

There are 3 remarkable ladies whom I would name.  Aung San Suu Kyi is someone who has inspired me greatly by the dignity and grace with which she has managed her life and led her people. Hilary Clinton who is a great global stateswoman and a leader of our times. And Margaret Thatcher, who re-defined politics and economics for our generation.

The common thread that inspires me amongst all three women is their courage. Aung San Suu Kyi has displayed this in ample measure over the past several decades despite imprisonment and great personal hardship. Margaret Thatcher displayed this when she rose despite all odds, from a modest background to the leadership of the conservative Tory party. And Hilary’s trajectory from First Lady, to Secretary of State, has been an example of how one can emerge out of the shadows of the past, and display both grace and statesmanship, notwithstanding the loss in an election.

The thing I personally like about all 3 ladies, is that they have led with their feminine side. They did not try to lead like men in a man’s world. They have each gained respect as global stateswomen and yet are very feminine – and that is a powerful message to women everywhere, that you can be comfortable as who you are and yet be a very successful leader.


How would you describe your leadership style?

The style that comes most naturally to me is a collaborative, democratic style. However I have come to learn that good leaders must exercise different leadership styles in different circumstances e.g. when the Titanic was sinking, the most effective leader would be an autocratic one who could get people swiftly into the lifeboats. On the other hand, such a style won’t work with young people, with whom you have to be more collegial.

What I have also learnt is that our children can teach us to develop different styles for different circumstances and at different points in time.  Being a mother teaches you both to multitask and to develop many leadership styles! Our children, show us in a very loving and gentle way, that what we think is going to work, is most often, absolutely not the right way to do things!  I’ve found that these lessons have translated very effectively in my business life.

So in summary, I would describe my leadership style as collaborative and democratic, while at the same time I try to adapt my style to the circumstances.


What are your key career highlights to date?

There have been many highs and lows in my career, but looking back over the past 3 decades the 3 points of time that I enjoyed and learnt the most would be:

  1. Setting up and building AIESEC in India during my student days
  2. Setting up the Investment Bank at ABN AMRO
  3. Setting up the global shared services center for ABN AMRO/ RBS in India in 2001

1) As a student, I was fortunate to have been part of the founding team of the global student organization AIESEC in India. That experience was very formative and gave me exposure to setting up an organization from scratch, fundraising, and working in a startup. It gave me access to a global network and opened a new window of opportunity to learn from different people a different way of doing things. I also had the opportunity to do two internships in Denmark and Sweden and my experiences during this period has defined the way I have looked at many things since then e.g. how flexible working hours can help retain female talent in the workplace.

I learned that while generalizations about different cultures aren’t true, each country has its own national characteristics and that if you understand how people think, it makes it much easier to build a relationship and rapport with them. The opportunity for me to have such an exposure at a young age was really wonderful. Being entrepreneurial, and interacting with other entrepreneurs and business leaders both in India and in a global ecosystem was wonderful and I still have friends from that time! I am still involved with AIESEC and am currently the Chairperson of the National Advisory Board in India. I am very inspired by these young people and think we have a lot to learn from them.

2) When I started my career as an investment banker, a big move for me was when I joined ABN AMRO to set up their Investment Bank. Just prior to that I had started up a Think Tank with a group of friends, because I believed that what India needed in the late 1980’s early ‘90’s was a new way of approaching the economy- it was still a very closed economy at the time. It was impossibly ambitious and a great learning experience. Then when the liberalization happened, I realized all my banking knowledge was history. ABN AMRO invited me to set up their Investment Bank in 1992. The choice we made at the time was to look at core infrastructure financing in telecoms, oil and gas (instead of debt capital markets or equity capital markets). That was a really wonderful time in my life, because it allowed my team, myself and my bank to participate in the building of a new India. I learned a great deal – we worked impossible hours, and it was almost like the birth of a baby, everything was exciting and new and you learned something every day. I look back at that time with a great deal of satisfaction and happiness.  In 1997 I moved to Singapore to head Corporate Finance Advisory for Asia. What I learned from the Asian crisis is that your learning’s in a downturn can be more powerful on a personal, professional and national level than in an upturn – that was a very powerful experience.

3) One of my biggest career highlights was setting up ACES – the global offshore-shared services organization for ABN AMRO, now RBS in India in 2001. I had been in investment banking until 2000, when I realized that there was a big global move to offshoring, what people called the ‘Bangalorisation movement’. I put a proposal to our Managing Board suggesting that we should do this for the bank in India. And it was very interesting because they came back to me saying ‘that’s a very good idea, you should lead it’. I was completely shocked because I was not from operations; my job was to give advice! I almost left the bank, because I felt that they didn’t understand me! My husband said to me that this was an amazing opportunity for me as I have always been passionate about creating jobs and about India and that maybe I should ‘put my money where my mouth is and see if I could make a difference’. We built this organization from scratch with 5 or 6 people and today we are 13,000 people. They are wonderful people, the quality of work is excellent, they are happy and you feel so happy and proud when your team does well.


How would you describe the differences between Women’s leadership style and Men’s Leadership styles?

There are differences and I don’t think one is better or one is worse. We do have different approaches to the way we do things. My sense is that men tend to see things more linearly, more black and white and are more upfront about what they think and say, which I think is a very good thing.

I think that women tend to be better multi-taskers and are probably able to see an argument with different facets and opinions, as that’s what we need to do on a daily basis running our home and work lives. Women tend to internalize things more and what can happen is that on the surface all is looking well and then one day, suddenly there is an explosion of feelings and the women can let out all her frustrations in one go. This can be very destabilizing for men, who tend to openly complain when they are not happy with an issue, then move on.

There is a gender difference and we need to recognize there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides and we can learn a lot from each other. When people share the way they perceive our actions, and we listen to the feedback, that can be very helpful.

“The world is quite complex and I’ve always found that if you have diversity around the table, you get better results. Ask people for their views, trust their views and give them a chance to explore, to fail, to succeed – you will get good results.”


What kind of Corporate culture do you help create and support in your company?

I was very influenced by my early years in Denmark and Sweden in the 1980’s. What I saw was a very inclusive society for example, with men sharing housework and doing their own cooking. This was a real eye-opener for me, coming from India, where boys and men are very spoilt and these duties are done by girls and women. I saw young couples, where the fathers were getting paternity leave and this was unheard of in my part of the world. I saw how good the outcomes were, for the men, for the women, for the families, and for the organizations and it gave me a very different perspective and approach that has guided me through much of my life.

Alvin Toffler’s book, the Third wave, predicted the information wave in which we are living now and a particular quote that inspires me is ‘ increasingly we will be able to live and work in our own time and space, we won’t have to go to work and live in cities, the technology will make it possible for us to communicate across the world’. At that time I thought this was completely revolutionary (in the days before Skype, internet and email).

Everywhere I have gone, I have thought, ‘how can we use these technology tools, to make it more flexible for people to work and communicate?’ There is untapped talent everywhere; of gender, age (e.g. people 60 and over who have 20 productive years more to contribute) and people differently abled who cannot use transport, but could easily work from home.

In summary, what I would say is that I have tried to make it possible for people to work in their own time and space and be part of the talent of my organization. ABN AMRO and RBS both supported this flexibility through group-wide processes and also gave the important messages from the top that it is ok to take time off for important family things. We have to be able to bring the human side to work .If we structure our world that way, it opens up possibilities for everyone.


How do you help grow leaders in your company?

If you empower people and trust them, I have never found an instance when they let your trust down. The world is quite complex and I’ve always found that if you have diversity around the table, you get better results. Ask people for their views, trust their views and give them a chance to explore, to fail, to succeed – you will get good results. That’s what we see everyday.


What is your greatest achievement to date?

That is very hard to say! I would say one of the happiest moments of my life, was when our daughter graduated as a Doctor. That was not my achievement, but her achievement. It’s the happiness and success of our children that is in the end, most important.

“There will be times when you fail, that comes to all of us, and you can’t let that get you down. It’s important to have a dream, to follow that dream and work really hard for it. And then to accept whatever the outcome is.”


What advice would you give to your younger self?

What I say to myself everyday even now is: Do your best, and leave the rest to God. There will be times when you fail, that comes to all of us, and you can’t let that get you down. It’s important to have a dream, to follow that dream and work really hard for it. And then to accept whatever the outcome is. I summarize this philosophy in the serenity prayer, which is a good mantra for life : ‘Have the courage to change the things  you can,  the serenity to accept what you can’t, and the wisdom to recognize and accept the difference’.


How do you give back to Society?

Over the years, one of the threads going through my life has been India. Our generation has been singularly fortunate to see our country change from a very poor country, to become an emerging economy. That is a fascinating process. As children, we travelled a lot with our parents and saw much hardship, distress and poverty across the country and to see that change is very wonderful. However there are always things that can be much better.

Through my work in the bank, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to be an “intrapreneur” and get involved in bringing change in areas that were very dear to my heart.

Through ACES we were able to create lots of jobs, which made a difference to many young people’s lives.  We set up a microfinance programme within the bank that became very successful, where we were able to finance over 650,000 women living in very difficult circumstances. The success of the beneficiaries of our Microfinance program taught me the power of that old adage ‘give people fish and feed them for a day, teach them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime’.

What we found as we were going through this process, was there were women who were so poor that even micro-finance was not suitable for them.  So we set up a foundation within RBS and have reached out to 75,000 women to whom we give outright grants. Those who succeed (and they are many magnificent stories of women who have despite all odds) repay the equivalent into a community thrift, which is used for others, or in times of need. It’s almost magical how they take this small amount and convert it into a business to make sufficient money to support their families and educate their children.

Over the past year I took the opportunity to visit these women and spend a day and a night with them in their homes. Through these visits I realized that while policy and the role of Foundations and corporates is important. no matter how much a corporation or an individual contributes, it is no match for the Government. While we have reached 75,000 women, the state can reach many hundreds of millions. Therefore the role of the Government is very important and politics matters a great deal.

Regrettably politics in our country has a lot wrong with it. There are things that shouldn’t be happening. What I have therefore done is to relinquish my role as CEO of the bank and to step more fully into the public space. I will try to combine my thoughts on policies with my practical experience as a banker, to try and demonstrate that there can be a new type of politics, a new type of politician, and a new type of governance which is clean, and competent while at the same time being compassionate.


What would you like to achieve, as a leader, in the coming 5 years?

I would like to see change come into Indian politics and society.  My experience of going out and living in the villages with the women we have financed through the Foundation, is that India is a country of very decent, hardworking, god-fearing, entrepreneurial, good, people.

Sadly, despite this, India ranks very high in the list of nations where it is hard to do business,. It also ranks very high on the corruption index.  There is the perception that ours is a corrupt country because regrettably some of our leaders are very corrupt.  This needs to change and we deserve better leaders.

Another matter I feel very deeply about is the safety and empowerment of women. There is a strong cultural bias favoring male children, which has resulted in unfavorable female to male ratios, and evils such as female infanticide and violence towards women. This needs a societal change. Just as we deserve better leaders, as a society we must treat our women and girl children with more love and respect.

These are the two key changes that I would like to work for. I don’t know if this change will come in the next 5 years, but I am certainly committed to them for the rest of my life.


3 key words to describe yourself?

  • Pragmatic
  • Passionate
  • Hardworking and focused on results

“We have to be a little crazy to live. My dreams are really big dreams and I don’t have any illusions as to how tough the challenge ahead is. It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is, it’s something worth standing for”.


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Anne Ravanona is the Founder and CEO of Global Invest Her – Catalysts for getting Women Entrepreneurs Funded faster and building Gender-Inclusive Workplaces. A TEDx Speaker, Anne regularly speaks at global conferences on the topics of Funding for Women Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and leadership. A Huffington Post contributor, Astia Advisor, she is passionate about funding and inspiring women entrepreneurs. Follow her on Twitter @anneravanona @GlobalInvestHer