This Former GE India CFO and Genpat Business Leader Reveals his Journey and the Lessons Learnt on the Way

  • Hi, I am Shantanu Ghosh, a Chartered Accountant from India and CEO of  Social Finance India.
  • During a thirty-year career, I have been a CFO and a business leader with organizations like Genpact, GE, Unilever and PwC in reverse chronological order
  • In late 2018 (after the age of 50), I realized that my core motivation had been progressively shifting beyond career progression in large corporations!
  • And I made a sudden decision to leave the corporate world and switched to the social sector. 
  • Here is my journey from a Manager to a CFO to a business leader. 

Follow your gut: Choosing CA even after qualifying for the IIT’s

I come from a very typical middle-class Bengali family with a strong bias towards higher education...and almost everyone in my close family being professionally qualified!

A couple of my uncles were qualified Chartered Accountants, as a young boy I admired them for their smartness...and while still in senior school I made up my mind to become a CA! 

My father insisted I study science and maths and give the engineering competitive exams (I think he was hoping that if I get through I will change my mind!!).

I knew in my heart that I was not inclined to be a technologist...I didn’t want to do engineering just as a stepping stone to do MBA and pursue a non-technical career!

So what next? I followed my dad's suggestion and prepared for the engineering competitive exams.

And guess what, I even got through to the IITs (very prestigious engineering college in India)...but later switched over to commerce!

I am really thankful he made me do that as it honed by logical and analytical skills and built the confidence to compete with the best!

Finally, in 1988, I enrolled for the CA course from ICAI (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India) and here started an amazing journey!

Forging my own path in the corporate world

After qualifying as a CA (in 1991) (with All India ranks in all 3 exams), I started my career at Unilever India in the elite management training program.

It was like joining the best business school possible...the quality of talent in Unilever was exceptional, it inspired and motivated me to focus on working hard and giving my best everyday!

As a CA, I had the natural ambition is to be a CFO. However given the then career model in Unilever India, becoming a CFO was realistically going to be a long journey!

So, 9 years and multiple roles later, after being part of the project team entrusted to design the millennium strategy for Unilever India...I decided it was time to move on!

What Next?

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Making the transition from a Senior Manager to a 'First Time' CFO

In 2000, I got an opportunity to be the 'CFO for GE India’s consumer finance business'; I grabbed it for a few reasons:

  • I was fascinated by GE. In those days it had a corporate ethos very different from Unilever and while I loved Unilever, I thought my basic approach resonated with the GE philosophy more.
  • The business was in a restructure mode. The business was struggling due to some bad business and financial decisions and also, the whole leadership team changed during my tenure! And while that meant more risk, it also provided equally more opportunities to make a difference.
  • Consumer Finance was a new sunrise business and at that time was poised for take-off in India and was an exciting new area to learn.

This move was like jumping into the deep end of the pool while barely knowing how to float...I played a very crucial role in helping first stabilize and then implement a turnaround!

Needless to say, it was an incredible journey!

After two years I became the 'CFO for GE India'. This stint that allowed me to get a strategic, portfolio and risk management view of all GE businesses in India and also the opportunity to lead and mentor and develop future leaders!

Also, I never confined my role to just financials...I considered myself as a CEO Partner! 

In 2005, I took the opportunity to be a part of Genpact’s core leadership team who came together to morph the erstwhile General Electric captive to a market-facing global services company!

Over a decade and a half, I built the Finance transformation services business as an intrapreneur from grounds up to the current status of market-leading global business.

I led multiple service lines (including supply chain, enterprise risk, procurement) and functions globally and was leading a portfolio of USD 1.5 Bln plus...before deciding to completely change tracks in my journey!

Sudden decision to leave a corporate career

In late 2018, I realized that my core motivation had been progressively shifting beyond career progression in large corporations!

I also felt incredibly privileged for the life chances I had and was itching to contribute to the Indian ecosystem of social and commercial startup enterprises and find a new “purpose” for myself!

And that led me to explore the social and development sector in India, doing a program organized by the India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) and deciding to spend most of my energy in doing something relevant in that sector.

I have just started as the CEO of Social Finance India, a not for profit financial intermediary startup with the objective of bringing catalytic finance and outcome focus to developmental initiatives.

"Lessons that I have learnt in my career."

  • You only compete with yourself …. Not others. For example, Unilever India had a bias for MBAs and marketing ruled the roost. Instead of worrying about that; I just focused on performing everyday and it paid rich dividends! At the same time, I learnt from some of my MBA friends what they are better at – framing concepts, communicating etc.
  • Take risks, do not do jobs that are the safest. It started from my first stint where I chose to be with a new small business versus a safer established businesses role -being in the small team allowed me to do 3 jobs at the same time – supply chain, commercial contracting and finance – I got 5 years worth of learning in 2 years.
  • Commercial progress is a combination of effort, attitude, and luck. You need good breaks to shine. Acknowledging luck keeps one grounded but you never obsess about it – you will have good and bad breaks – that's life. Focus on effort and attitude – that’s totally in your control and then as one famous golfer said - 'The harder you try, the luckier you will get.'
  • The best professional opportunities happen due to your brand with key people; not through your resume. The best way to do that is to work with and for outstanding professionals. I was very fortunate to have that chance throughout my career and I made career choices focused firmly on with whom and on what I work far more than compensation or designations… that will inevitably follow if you perform.
  • Be “illogically curious and irrationally passionate”. The best reward I have got is some of my team members describing me as above. We are in such a fast-evolving world where the ability to learn and the passion to execute is way more relevant than what you have already learnt and what you have already done.

“A CFO job is a different ball game”

A good CFO is more of a business leader than a functional leader.

I always considered myself as a CEO Partner…not just a CFO! And was lucky to work with CEOs who gave me that latitude.

I don’t think you can learn the job without doing it.

My only advice to new CFOs is that think of yourself as the 'co-owner' of the agenda of all your peers – marketing, sales, HR, technology, etc. That doesn’t mean that you double guess their technical expertise, but it means you think of their objectives and yours as synergistic and consistent and not conflicting.

This is easy to say and much harder to implement which is why developing a well-integrated model of performance management is one of the most important jobs for the CFO…because that coherence can really drive or inhibit business growth.

Unilever taught me to be 'a good manager' - how to think about and do business a structured way –metrics, processes, integrity, diligent approach and the fact that means matter as much as the end.

GE taught me to be 'a leader' - the ability to dream big, be entrepreneurial, have a bias for action, inspire teams, drive meritocracy and culture building.

"Things I would have changed in my journey?"

I feel privileged about the opportunities and people I got to work with.

And I am a firm believer in never looking back...so I will want to change NOTHING of my journey; the good or the bad.

However, there are two things I would like to change in the way I deal with things:

  1. Communication in times of change. I have learnt that you cannot overcommunicate especially when there is a huge change and I may have erred sometime on being enough as opposed to doing more. In Genpact, we went through many large change initiatives and the most common reason differentiating successful versus unsuccessful change management was level and quality of communication.
  2. Never underestimate the benefit of wide professional networks. As a CFO I was too focused on my role and stakeholders and did not engage in large ecosystem network building. When I started leading businesses, one progressively realized the value of investing time in a broader professional network. Why investment – because the payoff in many cases is not immediate but long term.

"My mindset in challenges."

I have been in multiple challenging situations.

As a CFO of GE Consumer Finance and a business leader at Genpact, we went through multiple tough business cycles including the financial crisis of 2008/09.

My mindset with challenges is to do 3 things:

  • Acknowledge reality. Understand the different scenarios including worst-case ones and not be ignorantly optimistic.
  • Consider challenges to be an opportunity to make a huge difference. If you succeed in adversity, more often than not you will get an outstanding opportunity – it happened to me multiple times in my career.
  • Get ready for some real hard effort and steel your mind for disappointments and personal life sacrifices and leverage all networks like crazy.

Shantanu Ghosh has been a CFO and a business leader with organizations like Genpact, GE, Unilever and PwC in reverse chronological order

In 2018 he moved to the social sector and has helped Indian social sector enterprises to scale in areas spanning rural livelihood, school education, gender equality etc and has mentored some commercial startups.

He is also an active angel investor in technology-driven disruptive businesses!

Now It's Your Turn...

Be curious, be passionate, seek out the opportunities to be with the best and try and be the best you can be everyday!

Wish you all the very based on your unique journey.

Have any questions for me? Comment below...would love to answer them.

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