The Telecom Titan: Sandip Das
His story is the perfect example of how success smiles upon those who work hard. Sandip Das, a 1978 graduate of REC, Rourkela has made a name for himself in the telecom realm. A former Director of Reliance Jio Infocom, he has led companies and people to success with his charismatic leadership skills and admirable principles. Team MM caught up with Sandip Das for a tete-a-tete. Read on to find excerpts from our conversation with him.
Monday Morning: A man of your stature can be easily searched online and researched upon. Keeping your every available online description aside, how would you describe yourself?
Sandip Das: Well, the hardest thing is to describe oneself! I think I would consider myself to be a very simple man. I have varied interests in various subjects. Apart from engineering, I'm into history and psychology. I love meeting people; I enjoy talking to people much older than me or somebody who is very young. I constantly try to evolve as a person and try and be contemporary at all points of time. I'm a family person; I usually end up spending a lot of time at home. In my work, I have always considered all my jobs to be as if I own the company myself as opposed to somebody who works for the company. I have always cared for my people. Mission statements of all the companies talk about treating shareholders well, looking after employees and "Customer is king". But I have always believed that the difference between good companies and great companies is where the mission statement is written in the hearts of the people as opposed to hanging in the remote corner of the boardroom. I have always been a very people's person and some of my successes have really come because of my team rather than me.
MM: Going back to your beginnings, tell us something about your life before NIT Rourkela (the then REC). Any childhood memories that you will always cherish?
SD: Oh, plenty of childhood memories! I belong to Odisha; I was born in Cuttack. We have a family hospital; my father, me and my son, we were all born in the same room. My father was in the Government service, so he was posted all over the country. I did my schooling in Lucknow. My father was a very, very strict man. He believed in the adage, "spare the rod and spoil the child". He was very tough with me because I was his eldest son; he always wanted me to be the perfect boy. There were situations where my friends would get 80% in mathematics and their parents would celebrate and I would get scolding because I got 95% and not 100. Nonetheless, my father was a wonderful man. We lived a very simple life. Our only insurance in life was academics. I had lovely friends, played a lot of sport and I did very well in school. So I have very rich childhood memories.
MM: Share with us your experiences at your Alma Mater. How has NIT Rourkela contributed to your accomplishments?
SD: I was very young when I joined Rourkela; I was only about 15. I did five years of engineering and I graduated when I was twenty. After living in a very protective environment, I suddenly came to college and got a lot of freedom. One of the examples is that I was never allowed to watch Hindi movies by my father; he used to take me to special children's English movies on Sundays. When I came to Rourkela, the first thing I did was I started watching all the movies. I started drinking tea, something that I never did before and worked for long hours. But I must say that I grew up a lot; from a boy, I turned into a man. I'm still in touch with my entire group of friends; you can imagine these are forty-five-year-old friendships. Recently in 2012 when I got the Distinguished Alumnus award, I went back to Rourkela and I found that the campus and everything else has improved. In our times the only little snack place was Backpost. But we all grew to be very tough, that was the best thing. And Rourkela made us all solid engineers.
MM: From being the Managing Director of Reliance Jio and having led many more companies in and abroad the nation, what is your corporate success mantra?
SD: One of the first things is that it's very important for CEOs to not get ahead of themselves. It is essential to understand that you are a leader of the people and leadership has to be earned rather than commanded. One of my modern definitions of leadership is not to be an obstacle. Two, it's very important to know your technology and your job thoroughly. Thirdly it's vital to have extremely high integrity since you are a role model for your people. Communication skills are also important because it's one thing to have an idea and another thing to implement it. I think I had a strong combination of creative thinking and execution skills. You find people who are either good strategic thinkers or good implementers; I think there was a bit of both. I always used to come up with new ideas on how to break through walls or barriers. Though I was strict with people, I was extremely fair. I always learnt from my people rather than giving them directions all the time.
MM: How essential was your MBA degree from FMS, University of Delhi, to your corporate career?
SD: Mechanical engineering makes you a subject matter expert; you understand a particular stream of education but an MBA is more of a life force because it teaches you things which normally have nothing to do with your undergrad. For example, leadership, negotiations, organisation structure, understanding finance, business, consumer behaviour; all these are qualities that if you study hard and get to understand the issues, make you wholesome! I joined FMS after some years of experience. So I absorbed a lot more from my MBA degree than I'd have if I were a fresh graduate. There have been many successful CEOs who have not been to business school. But I must say that the business education is very critical and it somehow complements engineering very well.
MM: There is a common perception among students nowadays that they need a management degree simply to increase their job packages, but what according to you is the actual need for an MBA?
SD: When I joined my first job after engineering; I joined as a management trainee at the very famous ECM group. And these management trainee programs were quite prized because of the fact that they rotated you through various departments and you got a working MBA in a sense after two years. I think yes, the MBA degree broadens the scope for your opportunities. But if you are going to acquire a degree just for the sake of a job, then it becomes a national pastime. Even after working as a CEO for 24 odd years, I went to Harvard to study again. I didn't go there because I had to do it; I went there because I wanted to do it. I would urge all students to have an interest in their subjects. Getting a degree will only get you that far. Not everybody in the world is a Harvard educated CEO or studied engineering from MIT. These are people who have deeply engrossed themselves in the subject and studied it in depth, practised it and asked questions. I think I'd urge people that while they do the MBA, they must also immerse themselves in the program to understand and get as much pragmatic knowledge as possible. If you are not a learner all your life and only attach degrees to yourself, you won't be successful.
MM: What prompted the decision to join Analysys Mason?
SD: I wanted to retire at one point of time. But I realised that I had a lot of mental fervour to keep on working. Actually, I did not join Analysys Mason as much as Analysys Mason asked me to join them! Fortunately for me in the last 25-30 years, I never had to seek a job but people have sought me out, so it has been easy. I do a number of other things apart from Analysys Mason and I do it because I am at a stage in my life where I want to impact society. In an interview which was done for me ten years ago, I'd said that I'd be very proud if I was able to produce half a dozen CEOs who are working for me. And I'm very happy to report that a number of people who worked for or under me are today CEOs of large companies like Tata Sky, Vodafone, etc. They are brilliant guys and I'm glad that I had some role in mentoring them. I was a telecom man for a long time and it was hard to extricate myself from telecom and Analysys Mason was a great way to stay in touch with that world. I also sit on the advisory boards of health-care companies and start-ups and all this is because I'm very curious to see how I can impact and help people grow. I have mentored a lot of people and I think that the job of a teacher is not to teach, but to ask the right questions. I do that in Analysys Mason; I mentor their CEOs and partners.
MM: What advice would you offer youngsters who want to join professional services after graduation?
SD: I know that a lot of us work because we need to work. People often compare salaries and if somebody gets a higher salary he seems to have a better job. I think what's important is trying to be placed where you can learn a lot more. Money is not that essential to grow as a person and a professional. Yes, money is required to sustain oneself but you don't need an obscene amount of money to start with. People must also think about what makes them happy. Because if you are happy doing something then it's never work; it's always fun. A lot of people have a herd mentality; everybody will want to join great companies. There are smaller companies that can teach you a lot more and give you responsibilities. So I would advise people to sincerely think about what they want to do in future. Sometimes you aren't lucky enough to get it, but that doesn't matter; you continue to learn. And secondly, remember that it doesn't mean you'll do it all your life. I was a mechanical engineer; I started off in a consumer-durable company. From there I moved on and eventually I got stuck in telecom. You never know where you will find your heart and your will to do something which will extract your potential.
MM: You also serve as a member of the Advisory Board at Sterlite Telecom. How do you manage your hectic schedule to accommodate the workload of your multiple positions?
SD: Actually I'm not so stretched; I can still do more! They say that you can even expand your brain power and that nothing dims with age, you can keep on doing more and more. But routine and schedule are very important. Sometimes it's important to not get greedy about work. One of the qualities that I have learnt is to say "No". It helps me keep myself agile. The amount of advisory work I do right now fits in very nicely in my calendar and gives me extremely good balance of life. I do many things that I want to do on my personal front along with my work. So I could say that at this point of time, I am not stretched.
MM: After a hard days' work, what is it that you always look forward to when you return home? Do you pursue any hobbies actively, even today, that you might have taken up during your college days?
SD: I'm interested in too many things. But when I come back from a hard day's work, my two little puppies come and greet me at the door. What is wonderful about the dogs is that irrespective of what you've said or what you've done, their love for you is unconditional. I also love spending time with my family. It's very relaxing. I collect old maps of India, love reading, meeting people and music. Sometimes I sing karaoke songs with my daughter. I'm a big sports buff and I don't miss a single cricket, badminton or tennis match. I used to play three-four games for Rourkela; I used to be in the cricket, football and badminton team; I was the badminton captain for REC. Plus on weekends, I socialise and meet new people. I'm trying to learn how to play the keyboard. I also write articles and blogs.
MM: Awards and recognitions add the icing to your cake. Please share with us the story(s) behind the accolades you were named with.
SD: It was an extremely proud moment to be listed among the hundred most powerful people in telecom around the globe, for four years. I ran a company called Maxis in Malaysia which, at one point of time was considered to be among the top five best-run companies around the world. With Maxis, I had the opportunity to raise one of the largest telecom IPOs ever, where we raised 3.5 billion dollars. It was a big achievement for me. Because of that whole episode, I was voted the best CEO in Malaysia. That was a wonderful moment. But I think one of my sweetest moments was last year in December when the entire telecom industry gave me the lifetime achievement award and in the 24-year history of Indian Telecom only four people have got it including Dr Sam Pitroda and Dr N Mittal, so I was very happy to be in that august company.
MM: How recently have you visited the institute and what did you feel about your visit?
SD: Well I went back in 2012 and the university was very kind enough to bestow on me the distinguished alumnus award, so I was very grateful for that. And to be rewarded in front of your own college is the biggest accolade that you can get. I was extremely impressed with the fact that the year when I went, the topper was a girl. And I was very happy to see that there was so much of gender diversity. When I was in college there was only one girl in all the five batches and they didn't have a hostel for her, so they gave her one of the professors' quarters to live in. I was very happy to see how the campus has evolved; there were lots of new departments in place. The best thing that happened was that I spoke to the then director and I asked him whether there was any way in which he wished me to contribute to the college in terms of donations or money, and he said to me that we don't need your money; we need your time. It's another matter of great pride that the young boys and girls are going for private jobs, investment companies and start-up whereas in our times most of the people used to go for government sector jobs only.
MM: How important is alumni relations to an institute like ours? Please comment on the current scenario.
SD: As an alumnus myself, I think the student-alumni relationship has been becoming better since the past decade and I must congratulate all the youngsters who are putting efforts. We definitely owe to our college and hence it's extremely important to give back something in return. I'm glad that these ‘Annual Alumni Events’ are taking place and though I couldn't make it to Hyderabad for the meet, I'm certainly looking forward to the Pune one. I'd also like to congratulate people like Venkat Peri who are a standing example of how outstanding our alumni can get. Moreover, NITRAA is doing really great work and it's amazing because the more we do, the more recognition the college gets, the more it shall attract higher level students and most importantly, it will motivate the current students that they are no less than anybody else! Undoubtedly, this college has the potential to become a global institute.
MM: What does it take to be Sandip Das? Please enlighten our readers with a few lines of inspiration.
SD: I think it would be too pompous for me to say "what it takes to be Sandip Das". I still consider myself as that young boy standing on the shore of the ocean to discover its vastness. All I want to say to the youngsters is to always stay curious and humble and have high integrity. Though I have trusted people and have been betrayed, I didn't lose my values and principles because the amount of warmth I have received is much more than the betrayals! We all must understand that values are really important. These days, people want to take shortcuts and become rich quickly. But from my experience,
I can assure you all that it is not the right way to live life. Moreover, it's vital for all of us to be all-rounded; just being academically good is not enough. And we should always stick to our family and moral values. I do owe a lot to my wife. I couldn't do whatever I managed to do without her!