Mumbai-based banker Ravi Subramanian’s third book, The Incredible Banker, will be released this week. The last in his trilogy of banking chronicles—after If God was a Banker (2007) andDevil in Pinstripes (2009—The Incredible Banker is set in a foreign bank and tells the story of two employees who get embroiled in “dirty” corporate politics and become scapegoats.
An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, Subramanian is the president and CEO (non-chit) of Shriram Group. He has worked with various multinational banks, including Citibank, ANZ Grindlays Bank and HSBC, in a career span of more than 18 years.
His next book project is likely to be more of a family-oriented story about three generations of a south Indian family. In a phone interview, Subramanian spoke to us about the existing corporate culture in India, where it is headed and why, and his new book. Edited excerpts:
The Incredible Banker: Rupa and Co.,301 pages, Rs195.
What is ‘The Incredible Banker’ about?
This book, like my previous books, is set in a foreign bank. It’s about how two people, trying to be one-up, play with each other’s careers, and in the process, how the organization as a whole suffers. It’s also about how people external to the organization actually make use of such conflicts.
I’ve attempted to ask pertinent questions about the functioning of corporates in India. For instance, many MNCs in India have foreign CEOs. Do we really need them when we’re so rich with talent? I also want to put across the message that even if you have the best policies and processes in place, if the people behind those are compromised, then nothing would work.
About the storyline, the two protagonists are Deepak and Karan, who work in an American bank called Boston Global. They enter into a conflict with each other, try to settle old scores, Karan eventually leaves and joins a media firm that exposes the big scam. But finally Karan realizes that Deepak was innocent, yet suffered as a consequence of the exposé.
In this one and in your previous books, you’ve used fiction to portray the way corporate culture operates. Do you think this approach works better than straight educational management books?
In fact, I do. That’s why the tag line of the book is: The truth can only be told through fiction. While a lot of management development books try to teach you a lesson or give you a scenario of what corporate culture and work practices are about, they’re theoretical and written in a sermonizing way. Most people don’t get past the first chapter and they just look nice on the bookshelf. Whereas with fiction you relate to the story better, you remember the characters and what they did. So lessons learnt from fiction stay with you.
What is the key learning you want to give through your book?
Get used to corporate politics. Stop cribbing about it. Generally, people who crib about corporate politics are, more often than not, those who’ve played the game, but lost it. You’ll rarely find a winner whining about it. And dealing with corporate politics is not something that any (management) institute will teach you. You have to learn to grapple with it because even if you don’t want to play it, someone around you will play politics and you’ll invariably get pulled into it.
Stop whining: Corporate politics is inevitable, learn how to handle it. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
From where do you draw your inspiration and your plots?
I believe any fiction writer is inspired by real life. I’ve spent 18 years in this sector and in my banking career I’ve seen a lot around me and interacted with people. A lot of things that I write about have happened to people around me, if not necessarily to me or in the organizations I’ve worked in. Having said that, it’s fiction and has a lot to do with my imagination and creativity.
What is your opinion of the corporate culture that exists in India currently?
Corporate culture in India has undergone a sea change in the past few years, and not necessarily for the better. I say this because people’s aspirations have gone sky high, competition has intensified significantly, there are fewer jobs, growth is not as much. Take the banking sector, for instance—today it employs far fewer people than it did three years ago. People are resorting to crazy means to stay in the race. Even at the organizational level, expectations of organizations are becoming unrealistically high, which in turn forces people to become aggressive and use inappropriate means to succeed. What’s changing fundamentally in our system is that the end is becoming far more important than the means.
What sort of company policy can counter a culture like that?
Company policy can fix a lot of things. For instance, longer-lasting results. Take the lending industry. Today most business managers get compensated on revenue; the more business you book today, the more revenue you get, and in turn the more bonus you earn. But I believe that the incentive of a business manager should be linked with how the portfolio he brought in actually performs two years down the line. The moment you time that portfolio management to medium-term result, the approach of the manager and management will change.