Debnarayan Bhattacharya

DEBNARAYAN BHATTACHARYA, popularly known as Debu, is the backbone of Aditya Birla Group’s metals business – Hindalco-Novelis, whose revenues, at $16 billion, amount to nearly half the group’s total. As Managing Director of Hindalco Industries, his vision and leadership has transformed the company from a single location, India-centric, commodity aluminium producer to a global, non ferrous metal major in a short span of 10 years. During this period, the company has grown 36 times in size to US$16 bn at a CAGR of 40 per cent. Before taking over as Managing Director of Hindalco Industries Limited, Mr. Bhattacharya was the Managing Director of the erstwhile Indo Gulf Corporation Limited. Mr. Bhattacharya quit his fast-track job at Unilever in London to join Hindalco in 1999. Mr. Bhattacharya earned a B. Tech (Hons.) in Chemical Engineering from IIT, Kharagpur, and a B.Sc. (Hons.) in Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata.

Our Exclusive Interview:

What is your definition of a good leader?

If I have to distill the essence of leadership, then it is to persistently deliver and demand excellence. Leadership is, of course, very much about vision and team-building. But it does not end there. What people may sometimes miss is that it is also about perseverance and excellence on an ongoing basis. You cannot just build a great vision, create a great team and then leave things to happen on their own. The vision and the team have to be sustained and nurtured; and the dreams have to be translated into reality on a day-to-day basis – which cannot happen unless one perseveres. The job of a leader is also to keep reinforcing – so that the strengths of the vision and the team are leveraged to their fullest potential.

The other important quality of leadership is flexibility. Leader must be rooted to the ground but must have an open mindset. A leader must be open to explicit and implicit feedback as it could be a great learning experience.
And, at a core level, leaders should be role models in ethical values. This is an aspect on which there can be absolutely no compromise. A leader who lives values creates a value-based culture in his team. It’s only the success earned on the foundation of values that can be durable and sustainable.

Fundamentally, successful leaders are those who command respect in every relationship. The respect does not flow automatically, but has to be earned through knowledge and commitment and by leading from the front. That’s a common thread we observe in all successful leaders.

How do you think organizations should evaluate/measure “quality of leadership”?

There are different leadership styles; their value to the organization is shaped by the context in which the leader operates. There have been some studies that say that leadership can be attributed nearly two-third of the differential in performance of a company, controlling for other factors. But for me fundamentally, it is best to desist from quantifying the value of this asset. At the end of the day, a leader is successful when the organization delivers on a sustainable basis by pursuing its value system. The Leader has to become, in a way, inseparable from the organization – through a complete alignment of interests. “Become the enterprise” is what a good Leader would practice.

How can one improve one’s leadership skills?

Developing Leadership skills is not something that can be done by attending workshops or reading leadership books. A leader has to be like a sponge, learning with passion from whatever interactions he has or the situations he is facing. For an organization, therefore, the best way to develop leadership skills is to throw the potential leaders into multiple experiences – working on different projects, working in different cross-functional teams, working with the best minds within and outside organization.

What are the three most important challenges in front of leaders in today’s time?

The successful organisations are those which are allowed to survive by stakeholders. The leader should create a harmonious ecosystem in which all the stakeholders are engaged for mutual benefit. Maintaining and managing the ecosystem to allow business to sustain is the primary challenge. The second challenge is the creation of an organisation which can adopt to the scale, speed and intensity of change in the business environment. The third daunting task is to assemble, motivate and retain quality teams with appropriate skills to achieve the corporate goals.

What are the three most important challenges in front of leaders in today’s times?

Leadership, by definition, is a multi-faceted term today. One can imagine the complexity when one considers a global set up with multiple nationalities, diverse socio-political aspects, complex technologies, global markets and hyper-competitive environments. To deal with such complexity, a leader must be a quick learner with an open mindset, adept at adopting to any change and more importantly, taking people along with him towards the common goal post, that itself continuously keeps on shifting.

He must take cognizance of various external forces such as competition, regulatory environment and socio-political issues, which perhaps did not matter as much in the previous era. Being aware of these issues and also pre-empting some of them is an essential requirement for a sound leader, which not only calls for an inquisitive mind but also certain degree of clairvoyance.
This ability to anticipate is very important factor and can prepare you to not only to face uncertain environment but also allows you to exploit such situation to your benefit.

What is your advice to future leaders?

My perception of what leadership is has been developed over the years from many leaders and environments that life experiences brought to me. Usually, I neither give nor seek any explicit advice. I feel that these are the lessons that are best learnt the hard way – by observing and learning from every situation and challenge around us.

In essence …
A leader sees miles ahead,
walks half-a-step forward,
Finds time to teach the new
and tend to the injured,
yet weed out the corrupt and indolent.
He challenges and is always open to challenge.
He stimulates excitement in mundane chores
and revels in developmental crusades.
He acts bona-fide
in the best interests of the Organization.