Following the arrest of S.K. Jain, the former chairman of Syndicate Bank, the government has modified the selection process for the appointment of chairmen of public sector banks (PSBs). This process has effectively added more layers of bureaucracy in the form of three screening committees (instead of one earlier). Rather than tinkering with a failed system, and possibly making it worse, the government needs to institute a process that incorporates the best practices for the selection of the leader of a PSB.

Unlike the case of a private sector bank, where the selection process follows an extensive search that is usually handled by an executive search firm, no search process is stipulated in the case of the selection of chairmen of PSBs. A shortlist is generated based on certain demographics of general managers in all PSBs, such as age, number of years of experience as general manager, etc. This shortlist is then screened for potential cases of corruption or vigilance enforcement. The shortlisted candidates are interviewed usually for 15-30 minutes before a decision is made on the eventual candidate. Given the difficulty in judging the candidate in such a short span of time, rumours abound about the outcome being pre-decided based on political affiliations/extraneous reasons.

Several aspects of the current process render it sub-optimal. First, government officers and regulators are unlikely to possess the skills necessary to judge the potential talent necessary for someone to lead a bank with assets of 5 trillion or more. Banking is a very specialized activity, and top management needs to combine strategic foresight with a good commercial knowledge of sectors to lend to, prudent risk management and human resource skills. For highly skilled activities, selection by a peer group generally ensures that those who select have the ability and discernment to assess the required attributes.

For example, if the selection of the Indian cricket team for the forthcoming cricket World Cup is left in the hands of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) administrators rather than the selection committee comprising former cricketers, one can only shudder to think about the potential performance of the team. Just like a cricketer representing the national team requires special skills, the chairman of a PSB also needs enormous skills of leadership, persuasion, risk management, people management, etc. Former cricketers who have played the game at the top level comprise the selection committee for the Indian cricket team. Similarly, only someone who has been the chief executive officer of a large bank can understand the skills required for the job. No bureaucrat, politician or regulator can possess the skill to judge whether or not a particular candidate has the necessary ability. The current perception that the selection by such a peer group is unnecessary for top management positions in PSBs fails to recognize the specialized nature of banking and (in the context of government appointments) lends itself more easily to abuse.

Second, the way the selection committee is presently constituted leads to inadequate interaction with the shortlisted candidates. Consider the process of appointment of assistant professors in research-oriented universities. Because research requires application of diverse skills, a prospective candidate spends an entire day meeting and interacting with every research-oriented faculty in the department for 30 to 45 minutes. The one-on-one interaction provides multiple opportunities for each individual faculty to evaluate the candidate. A follow-up discussion where each individual faculty shares his/her assessment of the candidate leads to a rich assessment of the candidate’s attributes. Similarly, interactions with each member of a selection committee, comprising former bankers, would better assess the potential for leading a bank.

The Nayak committee’s recommendations in this context are worth considering. Till the time that the boards of PSBs are professionalized, the committee recommended setting up of a Bank Boards Bureau (BBB), which would advise on top bank management selection. BBB will comprise senior or retired commercial bankers. It should ideally comprise a compact set of three bankers, of whom one would be the chairman. As this would be a full-time position, serving bank officers would need to resign, if chosen. For the process to carry credibility, it is important that the chairman and members be of high standing and should have led banks. Their choice should be made by the government in consultation with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). As the appointments to the top management of banks will continue to require the concurrence of the appointments committee of the cabinet, it is desirable that BBB’s recommendations be generally accepted by the government. In cases where the BBB’s recommendations are not followed, BBB should be mandated to make a public disclosure of recommendations that were rejected by the government.

To stem the rot in PSBs, the government would be well advised to create this professional process for appointment of top management in the PSBs. Given the precarious position of PSBs and the substantial amount of capital that the government may have to provide in the next five years, such a step has become a sine qua non.

Krishnamurthy Subramanian teaches finance at the Indian School of Business and was a member of the P.J. Nayak Committee on governance of bank boards.

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