May 2005 | Saloni Meghani

Men of steel

Chetan Tolia, Koushik Chatterjee and TV Narendran, three top-notch achievers from Tata Steel, recall their voyage of discovery in a company that offers its people the world, and then some

At Tata Steel, there is an important by-product of manufacturing steel; the company also makes leaders. It has proved to be the cradle for a steady pool of steersmen, not only for its own ventures but also for the entire Tata Group.

Does the company put potential candidates through a pre-arranged production line? As there is no method for the mass productio of character, the process through which the innate qualities of an employee are distilled is unique for each individual.

Says Niroop Mahanty, vice president, human resources, "The senior-most people in the organisation spend a lot of time and energy plotting the growth of each potential leader. As a result, our value proposition for the employees is that their resume looks better every year. We take calculated risks on our people by consistently putting them in positions of opportunity and testing them again and again."

With that in mind, we spoke with some of the young Tata Steel torchbearers who now hold positions that give them occasion to demonstrate their grooming. Their experiences, and the philosophy these have helped refine, reveal the nuances of how future captains are created.

Chetan Tolia, chief of strategy and planning
Chetan Tolia
Self-knowledge, an imperative for leadership, can hit you at the oddest of moments. Like when you are heaving your way up through bramble
or loose rock. This is exactly what happened to Chetan Tolia.

Fresh out of IIM Calcutta, he had just joined Tata Steel when he went on a company-organised trek with ace mountaineer Bacchendri Pal. Mr Tolia remembers being the least-prepared candidate for the toil at Uttarkashi. But the secret, as he found out, lay somewhere outside his body.

On the last day, the organisers took him by surprise by giving him the best trekker's award. "They said I got it not because I ate the most food, rested only after pitching the tent, swam in a freezing lake and carried the backpack of someone taller and heavier than me after he broke his foot," says Mr Tolia. "They said they gave me the prize because of the tenacity I showed throughout the trip."

His special characteristic was thus spotted in the first lap of his marathon career at Tata Steel. It has been fortified many times over in his various assignments, since he joined in 1987. "It does not appear as if I have been with one company," Mr Tolia adds. "There has been such tremendous depth and variety in the work I've done."

Mr Tolia vividly remembers his tenure at Tata Steel's branch sales office in Jalandhar, Punjab, "at a time when bullets were flying around". From this learning in adversity he went on to the routine of an executive assistant in Kolkata, where he learned important lessons in time management and discipline. Even in phases like these, when he is busy juggling jobs, Mr Tolia always steps back to get the right perspective. "You may fool yourself that you are headed in the right direction by engaging in a lot of activity. But it is important to take time off and look at the whole equation."

The tendency to pore over the finer points stood Mr Tolia in good stead when he was involved with planning the Gopalpur project as also the
cold-rolling mills in Jamshedpur. His current assignment as the chief of strategy and planning, at a time when Tata Steel is moving into the
global league, has brought this preoccupation to a head.

The inclination towards thorough groundwork is one of the reasons why Mr Tolia, who also studied engineering at IIT Madras, was drawn to the steel industry in the first place. "Things are not easily reversible in steel," he says. "You need to be meticulous in your planning. This suits my temperament." Mr Tolia says that he labours over decisions in the beginning so that, once he arrives at them, he does not dither. He believes that leadership is not just about being able to survive the long haul, but also about sticking to the course and never jumping ship.

Mr Tolia had to bring this steadfastness into full view while setting up the joint venture between Tata Steel and Ryerson Tull, USA, for India's first steel service centres. He started the venture in Pune from scratch: selecting the land, getting the plant constructed, acquiring the equipment, and recruiting the people. While on this job, he was at two junctures given the option to leave, once to return to Tata Steel (Wasn't he always there? If not, please explain where) and then to move to a position in the US. "As the task of getting the market to understand the product and ensuring steady profits was uphill, I did not think it right to abandon the team at that time," he says.

The germs of this resoluteness may well have been laid while Mr Tolia was still at school in Rishi Valley, Andhra Pradesh. "Sessions with founder J. Krishnamurthy instilled in me the sense that, after you have made a decision, it is better to work towards making it come true rather than go where the wind blows," he says. Mr Tolia has taken his teacher's tenet not just to his workplace but also to all other aspects of his life.

Koushik Chatterjee, vice president, finance
Koushik Chatterjee
The lessons of leadership are not necessarily learned within an office cubicle. Koushik Chatterjee had some of his most enriching and out-of-the-box experiences inside a room of a different kind.

Going to an academic campus early in his career opened up many vistas of leadership for Mr Chatterjee. Soon after he joined Tata Steel in 1995, he started teaching corporate finance at XLRI, Jamshedpur. "Guiding the students and looking at the subject from their point of view was a big learning," he says. "It kindled my energy levels to do a lot of other work. It was a less explicit part of my empowerment at Tata Steel."

Mr Chatterjee stretched his people management skills to the fullest in classrooms full of students as old as him if not older. Many of the students in the evening classes were employees of Tata Steel and Tata Motors and more experienced than him. Being kept on his toes during lectures certainly prepared Mr Chatterjee for his current role as a young head for a team of senior and experienced people.

When he took charge of the finance department two years ago, Mr Chatterjee had colleagues who had been with Tata Steel much longer than him and were also senior in age and experience. "When the announcement was made I spoke with the team about the financial mission of the company in view of the emerging challenges," he recalls. "My task has been to give them a career path and a direction in line with that of the company. I am leading a team of about 200 accountants and I do for them what was done for me: I give them good work as that is the best form of recognition."

Mr Chatterjee considers himself lucky because such validation has come to him from the beginning of his career. He has always been involved with assignments of the highest calibre. After his first job with an accounting firm, he joined what was Tata Steel's Synergy group. As part of the team that monitored satellite companies, he had to give the managing director updates on their financial matters. To add to his exposure to the view from the top, he was selected for a three-month tenure at Bombay House, the Tata headquarters. Even though he was still with Tata Steel, he had the opportunity to work with Ishaat Hussain, an executive director with Tata Sons and a member of the Group Executive Office.

Mr Chatterjee remembers that in this phase there was no certainty about where he would continue. "My parents could not understand why I never sought clarity on the issue. In fact, I found out I was moving to Tata Sons only a couple of days before I actually shifted to the fourth floor at Bombay House. The time of transition was not easy. But I was as certain then, as I am now, that as long as I am involved with work that creates value for the company as well as for myself, nothing else really matters."

After about four years, Mr Chatterjee's association with Tata Steel has come full circle. He has returned to the company and to some very exciting times, the historic acquisition of NatSteel, Singapore, for one. And he believes he has been able to tackle all these assignments with courage and confidence because the company has fostered the entrepreneurial spirit in its employees. "Tata Steel always affords enormous space to its employees," he says. "Your bosses trust you to create your own mandate. This was as true in my first assignment in the company as it is today."

TV Narendran, principal executive officer
T. V. Narendran
The maxim that threat and opportunity are two sides of the same coin has proved true for TV Narendran. And the lesson he has learned is to stick on even when the situation gets sticky. "It is good to be in the midst of difficult situations in the beginning of your career because you learn how to deal with rough times very early," he says.

For instance, three weeks before his wedding in 1991, Mr Narendran was busy, not because he had to look for invitation cards or a house, but because he was getting a dressing down from an American customer for an unsatisfactory shipment. Mr Narendran was sent on a fire-fighting mission to the US after this customer rejected the goods. Mr Narendran improvised a motto while listening to the irate man: "When customers are angry, you have to let them shout you down."

But this was only one of the things Mr Narendran discovered with the incident. He was humbled by the fact that, at the time, Tata Steel did not enjoy the same equity overseas as it did on home ground. His understanding of the requirements of customers in advanced markets went up many notches with this one experience. Most importantly, he learnt that his employer had placed a lot of trust in him. "It was scary because my decision would have had an impact worth a couple of million dollars to the company," he says.

Mr Narendran picked Tata Steel in 1988 after graduating from IIM Calcutta because it was among the few companies with plans outside the country. His first three years in the export department were well spent learning the intricacies of the international field. "Our customers were demanding because they did not know about us or about our country," he says. "It was difficult to match up to their standards. They would expect us to respond to them in a couple of hours, which in the era of no emails and bad lines for faxes was tough."

This adversity equipped him well for his next five years in Dubai. This period, spent in a small group in a new place, provided Mr Narendran the benefit of working in a startup enterprise within the security of a large company. In 1997, having got a firm grip on the global industry, he returned to the domestic market. "I realised then that it was important to move around in a large company like Tata Steel, lest you start feeling you know everything," he says.

His role on his return was not too structured. He did bits of many things: market development, business planning and supply-chain restructuring, among others. To bystanders it may well have seemed that Mr Narendran was, during this period, floating around and not doing much of significance. But Mr Narendran made the most of this ostensibly fallow phase and absorbed all aspects of Tata Steel's business. He also made it a point to keep seeking new opportunities, and these were never lacking at the company.

Mr Narendran moved on to become the managing director's principal executive officer. Working in close proximity to B. Muthuraman, at what are momentous times for the company, has added great value to Mr Narendran's capabilities. "The two years I have spent on this job have been a complete eye-opener," he says. "I have learned, by proxy, how a company is run."

All the insight he has gained has shaped Mr Narendran for the weighty task now in his hands. As he goes about fine-tuning the integration of newly acquired NatSteel with Tata Steel, Mr Narendran will be a fine ambassador of all the Tata values that have been inculcated in him, not through dictates but by experience and example.

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