The Insiders - CIOs Who Became CEOsAdded 18th Feb 2010
Man of the Match
From finance to technology and then to corporate communication, Ashish Chauhan has played at every position possible. And now he has a team of his own to captain.
It's rather strange. Every time Ashish Chauhan, deputy CEO, BSE, starts a new innings, he's welcomed by bouncers.
Take his stint at the IPL, for instance. As CIO of Reliance Industries Chauhan had held various positions within the organization that shot him into the spotlight. This garnered him so much management trust that they offered him the coveted position of the CEO of Mumbai Indians (the IPL team owned by the Reliance Group) - a role that he grabbed with both hands.
But as soon as he took on the mantle of heading one of the most popular teams in the IPL, a spat between the Indian government and IPL's management shifted the venue for the matches from India to South Africa.
This meant increased expenditure, more complex logistics, having to make the team popular in a new country and scoring points with the media.
But 41-year-old Chauhan was unfazed. Having headed the corporate communication department at Reliance, he knew what it would take to get media mileage. Not only that, he managed to use his interpersonal and PR skills to garner popularity for his team on foreign shores. "I used my entire gamut of skills to get my team ahead. I translated my people management skills into effective leadership," says Chauhan.
That's why being a CEO isn't everybody's cup of tea. It is Chauhan's belief in taking on different responsibilities and grabbing every opportunity - IT or otherwise - that helped him reach where he is today. Chauhan credits his decision to head corporate communications for helping him become a better CEO. "I wanted to identify other relevant areas of business and apply myself to them. I wanted new roles in which I could have a profound impact in delivering value to business. I believe one must diversify ones skills. If you harbor the dream of being a business executive, you need to hone your skills in each and every aspect of a business,” he says
“It’s all about being a jack of all trades and the master of most.”
Juggling different roles has been a part of Chauhan’s career ever since he started in 1991. An alumnus of IIT Mumbai and IIM-Calcutta, Chauhan joined as an industrial finance officer in the project finance department of IDBI. During his two-year stint at IDBI, he delved into the strategic parts of business including financial planning, designing revenue models, managing project finances and fund raising.
This experience, coupled with an adeptness for technology, made him the founding member of the NSE (National Stock Exchange). All of 25, Chauhan was cherry-picked to establish India’s largest automated exchange with four other people. He was instrumental in providing NSE with a first-mover advantage by setting up its satellite communication network. This enabled screen-based exchange as opposed to floor-based trading. But this was just one of the industryfirsts that Chauhan is responsible for. After quickly moving on to a more challenging business role, where he set up operations of equity and derivatives markets for over seven years, he created the NSE-50 Index, the largest traded stock Index in the Indian derivatives market. After having acquired an in-depth understanding of the financial market, Chauhan knew he had to search for greener pastures. “My perennial quest for new opportunities to create value for business led to my own capacity expansion and diversity. Diversity in my experience has given me an understanding of the various nuances of business,” he says.
That quest brought him to Reliance where Chauhan faced his first bouncer. He joined Reliance Infocom at a time when the company was planning to revolutionize the Indian telecom market by introducing CDMA technology and offering it at a rate that made it affordable to everyone. “The execution of this project was challenging. I had to modify the billing system to get one million customers to Reliance Infocom every month,” he says.
Although, he acknowledges that it wasn’t easy, Chauhan knew that a good leader stays calm on the face of challenges. “The target was very ambitious and I had to put in place robust processes to avoid pitfalls like a lack of a consistent database of customers. I set up a real-time data entry system, which not only added considerable value to the business but also introduced prepaid in CDMA technology for the first time,” says Chauhan. That project went a long way in proving that Chauhan could be trusted with enterprisewide projects, touching millions of users. So, as the group CIO of RIL, he was handed the responsibility of implementing SAP. This project would provide a coherent framework for IT implementation, operations and maintenance in manufacturing, petrochemicals, refining, life sciences, consumer retail, urban infrastructure and several other Reliance group initiatives.
Under his leadership, this project was executed in less than five months. Apart from that, he was also involved in the legal and commercial activities related to a de-merger of the Reliance group in five companies.
For Chauhan, 19 years of extensive exposure to diverse areas of business have manifested itself in the form of an impressive track record. "The biggest benefit of taking on new roles was that I could acquire a unique end-to-end-view of the business. This gave management the confidence that I could take on any role with aplomb," says Chauhan.
Dabbling in an array of roles and leading from the front have taught Chauhan to deal with anything thrown at him. It's this quality that led him to join the oldest stock exchange of Asia, the BSE, as its deputy CEO in September 2009.
It's been quite a journey. He has a word of advice for CIOs who want to step into the shoes of a CEO. "Risk-averse CIOs risk missing opportunities and making decisions that drive value for their career. A CIO should not adopt a straitjacket and purist approach in accepting opportunities that come his way. Seizing every opportunity helps accelerate and manage the transition to a full-fledged business role. I believe in doing my best to the utmost of my ability," he says.
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