SAURABH SANCHETI (PGP 2009)
YOUNG ALUMNI ACHIEVER’S AWARD – 2021
Saurabh Sancheti is a proud member of the Jio revolution, which has transformed life for all sections of society. He is currently Chief Financial Officer at Jio Platforms Limited, the digital services arm of Reliance Industries (RIL). Apart from this, he is also the RIL nominee director on boards of two of the largest cable companies in India – Den Networks Limited and Hathway Cable & Datacom Limited. Saurabh was part of the core deal team which closed an investment of $20 billion into Jio Platforms in less than nine months by 13 global investors including Google, Facebook and all marquee global PE funds. Saurabh is also credited with turning around the cable business post-acquisition. Saurabh believes in karma-yoga and tries to put his best efforts without worrying about the outcome. Saurabh’s mantra is that life is all about striving to be the best version of oneself – revising hypotheses, charting uncomfortable terrain, learning from and embracing failure and NOT quitting. Encouragement from his mentors, unwavering support of his family and blessings from elders have been key enablers in his journey. Saurabh came to WIMWI as a fresher straight from IIT Roorkee and graduated in 2009. He is blessed with a lovely wife (who he met on campus) and two super-energetic young kids.
What does the YAAA and recognition mean to you? I think this award is definitely a big milestone in my entire journey. I wish to thank three stakeholders in my life. First of all, obviously, IIMA, for not only the wonderful memories but the learnings here that shaped me. Second, the Reliance senior leadership team that personally mentored me during this entire journey. Thirdly, for my family for being so supportive and encouraging. This award really means a lot, but this is just a milestone in my life. It is about the journey further where I wish to accomplish much more and make them all proud of what we have collectively achieved.
How does it feel to be back to the alma mater? What are your fondest memories from the campus? Since 2009, there was a lot happening and I missed out on a chance to be on the campus, but the campus has many special memories if you look in terms of the time spent here -beyond friendships and learnings. In fact, I found my soulmate here, my wife who is also my batchmate. So, I am really happy to be back.
If I talk about the fondest memories, it is difficult to pick one. It is about the whole journey being so challenging when you are here, but when you look back, this entire period is full of fond memories. The time spent here was full of surprise quizzes, you are short of time, you struggle as a Fachha, but looking back, that turned out to be the ‘golden time’ where I pushed myself to the limit that really put me in a different orbit.
In a professional journey that is a little more than a decade old, you have spearheaded the top league of India’s corporate world. What has been your true success mantra? What do you attribute that success to? I began as the group CFO for Jio Platforms in 2020, which is 11 years after passing out and I believe that it is indeed a fabulous period to achieve a milestone. Honestly, I would like to quote something from the movie ‘3 Idiots’ that ‘Don’t run behind success. Run behind excellence. Success will follow.’
In my journey of 12 years so far, I was never chasing a particular title or position. I focused on trying to see what is the best that I can do. For example, I really believe in ‘daily incremental improvement’. So, if you improve 1% daily, then at the end of the year, you are 37 times better. This is the true power; you just have to be at it. The second attribute that is important to me is ‘persistence’. I will quote a beautiful saying here, “A river cuts through rock not because of its power but because of its persistence.” So, if you are able to persist longer than others, you will win. And the third thing is about the attitude and approach to life. A lot of times we are trapped into wishful thinking, but we don’t get what we want. We get who we are. So, if we are really always working on improving ourselves, we can truly achieve what we desire. These are the three key mantras that I believe in and they have served me well in the long run.
Recently, during the pandemic, you were part of the core team which closed an investment of $20 billion into Jio Platforms in less than nine months by 13 global investors including Google, Facebook and all marquee global PE funds. You are also credited with turning around the cable business post the acquisition. How was the experience and what are your key learnings? These deals are the high point of my career for sure. Also, there is a lot to learn from these deals because these deals happen only on the basis of the fundamental strength of the business. In this case, we were supported by senior leadership that is extremely passionate, dedicated and capable. I think, that really set us apart in creating what we have created.
With respect to the challenges associated with the pandemic, I will quote “When the tide goes away you discover who has been swimming naked”. The point here is that, especially in times of distress, these stronger and more fundamentally resilient businesses are the ones that will be in greater demand.
If I talk about the cable business, it was a very interesting situation we were in. So, the transaction was about to be completed. The businesses were perpetually losing cash, and there was enough cash infused, 5,000 crores, in the company and I had enough cash to continue at the current burn for more than eight years. Therefore, I had the more conventional choice which is to do some incremental changes, probably reduce the cash burn to last beyond 8 years to 12 years, or think of something truly transformational. This was again possible because of the mentorship where the senior leaders always reiterate ‘Don’t look at anything less than changing the world’. So, this is where I started thinking about turning the industry situation around to a cash-positive business. So, when we analyzed the impact, the annual cash flow swung to a positive 800 crores annually for both the companies.
This journey gave me a few key learnings based on situations. First, I had to take the entire team in the confidence that we have a chance to create history. In a business that is always losing cash, we had enough to last 8 years and that could have been ‘problem solved’ for most leaders. Instead, we all made a resolve to not use any of this cash and keep it locked away. Eventually, we realized that scarcity of resources brings the best in people. Second, we saw a problem in ‘collection’, in a business or industry that is already built on a few standard fundamentals. I proposed that we can turn the collection to prepaid, making the business cash positive. This idea saw a lot of resistance from the industry, but I focused on building confidence in team to go ahead with disruptive changes in the business that has been suffering loss for 25 critical years. I focused on giving a safety net to the team with, “If we fail, it was my decision. If we win, we have won this together as a team.” The entire idea worked and it changed the industry forever. My biggest learning here is that, if we wish to create history, we inevitably have to focus on changing the mindset of people and culture. And to change the culture you don’t need to change the people, as changing the culture is more about putting the right messages in people’s minds. In my view, culture is shaped by the way you ask a question. So, if I ask them a question “Have you tried something new?”, then they’ll try something new. If I ask them a question, “Why did this mistake happen?”, they will never ever try something new. It is as simple as that.
They are some things that you feel much more connected with. You have also been involved in many other key projects at Reliance. Please tell us about them. The key here lies in the way I have been mentored by the Reliance leadership here, and the fact that we were organized like a start-up. Probably, as the world’s largest start-up. There were no boundaries, everything was dynamic and nothing was out of reach. If there is a problem, you just have to get up and solve it.
With the journey here, I would particularly like to share three examples that helped me truly learn a lot and grow.
Way back in the early days, we were designing the network architecture. I remember, the Chairman Shri Mukesh Ambani asked, “Okay, how much is the global data traffic?” I gave him a number and he said, “Make a network so that in five years, we alone carry the whole traffic that the world is carrying.” It sounded very outlandish at that time, but today, we are getting more than seven exabytes a month. I think the biggest learning here was that the size of ambition determines your success.
Another good learning was setting up a bids team. Again, the brief was a one-liner, “I want the best bids team that anybody has ever seen in India, across any sector.” Here, what we realized is, in a competitive bids and options scenario, you need the fullest and the best perspectives in the room, which can happen on two things. A, you have diversity, and B, you need to have a culture where everybody can freely voice their opinion and there is psychological safety. That is what we did with this team. I personally worked with that team for eight months, setting it up, recruiting people and creating the right culture. Today, the team is winning 75% of the bids, all at positive NPV. This experience built in me a sense of building a good culture in a team.
Lastly, around the same time, we were setting up our digital marketing team. I had two choices. Typically, I could take the veterans of this industry or the young people who are not experienced but have the right attitude. I chose the latter, where we had a team that was questioning everything conventional. In this quest, if we look at outcome, we have the highest following amongst all the telecom operators in the world. This success has been delivered by a team whose average age, even after four good years, is 30.
I can go on and on, but in short, it’s always about challenging the conventional wisdom and thinking outside the box and then working hard on your belief. That’s the sense and I believe the best is yet to come.
Talking about closest to heart, it has to be the turnaround of the cable business. It is closest to my heart because it was unimaginable. I was advised by a lot of people that there was no reason to attempt doing the impossible turnaround. But, I always felt that if I fail, it is ok, but if I succeed, I have done something that nobody else has ever done. And even if I fail I would have learnt something big out of it. As an analogy, if we go by the Information Theory of Shannon, the event which has the lowest probability of happening, when it happens, that is the event that carries the maximum information and impact. Do the impossible and you will learn the maximum.
Your current professional engagement is with two full-time jobs, one as CFO at Jio Platforms and the second as a Nominee Director on the boards of Reliance’s cable businesses. What are your views on work-life balance? I truly believe in the concept of continuous learning. You have to balance the two when they are segregated. If you believe work is a part of your life and identity, then where is the need to talk separately for balance. Stress only comes when you do something you don’t love. I took all this opportunity to chase my goal of continuous learning so I had fun along the way. I took a resolve that in real-life, I will learn something and revise my hypothesis on it- akin to a case study we do in IIMA. So if I make a new case study out of my work each week, then in the past 10 years, I have gone through 2500 case studies- Imagine that power of learning. This has been possible all because of observing, being a curious learner and revisiting the hypotheses that I develop by communicating with people.
What pointers would you like to give the new batches at IIMA, based on your experience at the institute as a student? I’ll put it into four large buckets.
Attitude – It is all about how you approach things. If you approach it from the day of just being curious and trying to be better at things you will definitely make it.
Persistence – The common joke in probability is, if you put a monkey on a typewriter, there’s a finite probability that he will type out a Shakespeare. But looking deeply this reflects the power of persistence.
Focusing on the inputs to get the output – It is all about having patience, still being on the path and investing without worrying for instant gratification.
Living a fuller life and having multiple dimensions – I have picked this from Prof Sunil Maheshwari’s last lecture in HR. So, your life is like a stool and it has four legs. Your professional life is one, your personal life is another, your social life is third, and spiritual life is fourth. Like in the case of any stool, if the four are imbalanced, sooner or later, it will fall down. So, don’t ignore any of the legs – lead a fuller life.