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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 2 · Episode 3

Building the Best Bank for a Better World with CEO of DBS Group

Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, shares how he has led DBS to be named one of the top 10 global companies leading strategic transformations in the last decade. He gives advice on how to create a culture of change and underlines the importance of managing what you measure.

Published March 30th, 2021  |  22:19 Runtime

Episode Guest

Piyush Gupta

Piyush Gupta

CEO at DBS Group

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest growing startups, hosted by DataStax chairman and CEO, Chet Kapoor. Each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.

Narrator: Piyush Gupta is the CEO of DBS Group, a bank at the forefront of leveraging digital technology to shape the future of the financial services industry. In this episode, you’ll learn why Harvard Business Review called DBS one of the top 10 global companies leading strategic transformations in the last decade. Piyush gives advice on how to create a culture by design, starting with his belief that everyone is capable of adapting to change. He discusses Simon Sinek's concept of the Infinite Mindset and underlines the importance of managing what you measure.

Chet Kapoor: Piyush, thank you very much for joining us. We really appreciate you making the time.

Piyush Gupta: Very happy to do this with you, Chet. Looking forward to it.

Chet Kapoor: So, you've been at DBS for 12 years. And during your 27 years at Citi, you did 22 jobs in multiple countries, including a one-year stint as a tech entrepreneur, leading your own startup. Tell us a little bit about your journey.

Piyush Gupta: Well, one of the nicest things about Citi, it used to be, perhaps still is, they took a chance on you when you were relatively young. The training system at Citi, I used to say, was they threw you off into the deep end of the pool and you learned to swim. That certainly worked in my case. And so, I had a very broad career. Unlike a lot of other bankers, I started off with operations and technology and core product management. So, I cut my teeth on knowing the innards of how a bank really works, including the technology systems. I helped to automate the bank first in India. I helped to create the first data centers, move technology into Singapore. And then over the years, since my range of assignments was quite broad, I got to dabble with the first internet and intranet applications in the mid '90s, including e-commerce applications and so on.

Piyush Gupta: And so, you're right. I did a stint as an entrepreneur. I tried to set up my own dot-com with Bomb. So, I came back to banking in 2000. That breadth of experience I had all those years turned out to be really helpful. So when, in 2009, DBS approached me to be CEO of this bank, I thought I was fairly well-positioned to help DBS chart a new course. DBS has a great pedigree. It's owned 30% by the Singapore government effectively. It was set up to help in the development of Singapore. So, it was a great parentage, a great heritage, but somehow lost its way in the early part of the 2000s. We'd been losing market share, had been taking some big negative hits, both credit hits and other hits in the mid 2000s. Therefore, there was some work to be done.

Piyush Gupta: The DBS journey itself, Chet, as I think about it, I think about it in three parts. I, in fact, sometimes, call them three waves. The first of those was, I guess, between '09 and '12, or '13, three, four years. That was really one about just committing to a strategy. We chose to focus on Asia. It's a big part of the world, is growing nicely. We know the culture. We know the place. And we sort of benefited from China's opening up. But more than the strategy, what that first wave really defined for us was what I call getting the plumbing right. DBS needed to get a lot of stuff done in very fundamental terms: technology platforms, credit policies, MIS and measurement systems. They had none. We were flying blind.

Piyush Gupta: Our vision in phase two, it was quite audacious for us. We decided to set about trying to be named the best bank in the world. In fact, I had my management team and we strung together a masthead of the New York Times dated 2020 with the headline saying, "DBS Voted Best Bank in the World." So, phase two was a real commitment to change. Frankly, that's been one of our most defining features– I think one of the first banks in the world, which is able to orchestrate a program of change that works. If you remember, this is the time, Chet, when people said legacy companies are like dinosaurs. We can't change. We'll always lose to the kids in a startup or in a garage.

Piyush Gupta: So, I look back. This is one of the most satisfying parts of the journey, the change we were able to make. By 2018, we were already being called the best bank in the world. In fact, now, we've been named that three years in a row by different publications and magazines. So in 2018, we decided it was time to think a little bit further along and we launched what I call the third wave. I call it the sustainability wave, but it was actually informed by Simon Sinek's idea of infinite thinking and infinite companies. It's really born of the idea that it's not just good enough to be the best in the world or beat the competition. How do we do things that make a bigger impact?

Piyush Gupta: And so, the new vision we set for ourselves was a shift from being the best bank in the world to what we now call "the best bank for a better world." And the last three years, we have been singularly engaged in that. On top of everything that we do, how do we continue to make impact in bigger and more profound ways? So, it's been a long answer. But to just give you a sense, it's been a rewarding journey and it's been a lot of fun.

Chet Kapoor: We'll dig into the waves in a bit. But if I look at your illustrious career, what came easy and what was hard?

Piyush Gupta: Well the hard thing, Chet, is I think always the same. It's about people. So along the way, I said we've been trying to change culture and changing culture is very, very hard. In the first phase, I told you, we tried to make DBS a more meritocratic culture. Sometimes, I like to say we're trying to make DBS more like a Western multinational, like a General Electric, or one of the iconic US multinational companies. And then in 2014, we turned, pivoted a bit and said forget all that. We're going to start all over again. We want to really behave and look and feel like a startup, a Silicon Valley startup. Now, all of these are not easy to do. But I have to say that I am now, from experience, convinced that you can make cultures. Culture by design–that's my mantra. I think you can create culture by design.

Piyush Gupta: And so, it took us a lot of work. It continues to be a lot of work, but we've been constantly orchestrating programs of change and programs of culture change. But that continues to be the hardest part of what we do. Interestingly, the easier part of what we needed to do really turned out to be the actual business imperatives. We more than tripled the bank in the last decade. I believe if you identify the right mega trends and you build a strategy and you focus on execution around those mega trends, the tide carries you along. And so, in the first wave, we benefited from China's opening up and that's been fantastic. In the second phase, our relentless focus on digitalization in a world where digital consumption was already on us, especially in Asia. Indonesia, Philippines, India, they're all young people. Everybody's digital natives. And so, you try to build a strategy on the back of an existing mega trend and wave. That's always obviously helpful.

Chet Kapoor: That is for sure. On a personal level, what came easy and what was hard?

Piyush Gupta: The idea of leading a team of people was relatively straightforward. Let me at least say, it's something I had done before. My last at Citi, I was the head CEO for the region. And so, organizing, strategizing, leading a team of people, setting an agenda– it's stuff I had some experience with. What I did not have experience with is the rest of the paraphernalia, accoutrements and the requirements that come from being the CEO of a listed company. That includes shareholder management, investor relations, investor management, and perhaps most of all, working with the board.

Piyush Gupta: It's quite easy to figure you run the company. But in a public listed company, frankly, the board runs the company. Therefore, how do you work and make sure you organize and synergize your own actions with a board, a well-meaning board. But how to get alignment with them is something I'd not had experience with. So, that was something I had to work on. But, I have seen obviously many circumstances and situations where the biggest challenge the company has is the lack of alignment between the board and the management.

Chet Kapoor: Let's talk a little bit about culture by design, right? Let's talk about your mantra. When you're making a shift, right, you go from a GE model to a startup model, there are many aspects to it. But, there are a couple of key parts. It is people and metrics, right? Because you have to have the goalpost well-defined and you have to make sure people understand the journey, the path it takes to get to the goalpost. Right? But, you also have to have the right people in the right jobs and not everybody is going to make it. How did you deal with the re-skilling part and making sure that people really attached to the new mission?

Piyush Gupta: I guess there are two or three different questions in there, Chet, but let me address one where I'm a little contrarian, unorthodox even. That is, can everybody make it? By and large, can people change and re-skill? In fact, I tell this story often.

Piyush Gupta: I just studied my father, who was back in India in his mid-80s, and I reflected one evening that he changed the way he lived. He was using his mobile phone to do banking. He was doing his taxes online and ordered something online on e-commerce. I figured, this guy is in his mid-80s and he's changing his personal life. In fact, it struck me that every one of us has changed the way we live personally. You take any of our smartphones and look at the apps there. We're all hailing taxis and we are booking rides very differently from the way we did. So it struck me, if we can all make changes in our personal life, what makes us think that we cannot change our way of thinking in our professional life?

Piyush Gupta: The extension of that was really a second intuition, which came to me from my experience at Citi. If you don't involve everybody, you wind up creating a we versus they system. The people who are driving change feel privileged and the rest of the people feel left behind. That creates too many silos in the company. So, I was wedded to this idea of taking everybody along. In fact, I coined this moniker called, creating a 20,000-people startup. I wanted everybody to be on the journey. I figured the main thing you need to do is change the inside of the company in two important ways. One, you've got to recognize that adults learn by doing. So, you have to create an environment where it's okay to experiment. You teach people. You show them how to and give every opportunity for people to learn by participating and doing stuff themselves.

Piyush Gupta: The second: you've got to create an environment where it's okay to take some risks, it's okay to experiment. You do not have to be worried that you're going to lose your bonus or lose your job because something got screwed up. So, we worked very hard on trying to create that environment where you could do these things. We created accelerators. We created hackathons. A thousand experiments was my KPI for the company in 2016. We also embraced journey thinking at scale. Because I figured the best way to get what we want is to create a rubric, which is quite clear that if it's good for the customer, you go ahead and do it. And so, this idea of customer obsession, again, we really focused relentlessly on it.

Piyush Gupta: On the back of that, I'm now convinced, it's been seven, eight years, that by and large, most people want to change, most people are capable of changing. You don't need to make everybody a coder and you don't need to make everybody a data scientist. But, you do need to change people's mindsets to understanding how do you use technology and how do you get more entrepreneurial. So today, as a company, we don't have 100%, but I think 70%, 80% of the people that we have are on the bandwagon. And so over time, it's a trickle down. We've been able to get a lot of change. But, you have to have belief in people. You've got to create the opportunity for them to do things. Like I said, you've got to trust people and give them a chance to experiment.

Piyush Gupta: By the way, the second hardest thing, other than culture that I've seen in the last decade, is the whole issue around data. Because if you have the right data, then you can create the right measurement metrics. I'm a big believer in managing what you measure. So we've always had measurement. But if you don't have the right instrumentation, you just don't know what you can measure correctly. So in the last five years, we've worked really hard on instrumentation and trying to make sure that we can instrument everything we have. Therefore, we start trying to get the right sorts of data and the right sorts of measurement metrics. And then, we had to change our scorecards. We actually redefined a whole section in our scorecard, which defined the chain metrics that we wanted to see. We just cascaded it down the whole company. So, there's a lot of alignment from the teller in the branch and the coalface right to the top on what are the chain metrics that we're all trying to drive towards.

Chet Kapoor: By the way, it is a contrarian view. Right? Everybody I talk to will always have the people that make it and people who don't. They have different ways of looking at it. Age is one of them. Experience is the other. Right? If there's a fundamental platform shift, it changes. In the tech world, if you come from a COBOL world, will you be able to make it to a JavaScript world, as an example? Orthogonal question that may be related to this is how did you deal with time, right, because you want to be impatient through a change but yet create enough space and have enough patience for the change to happen. Do you find yourself speeding up, slowing down, or you just said, this is going to take three years and that's how it's going to happen.

Piyush Gupta: The truth is that you've got to be willing to invest in things that you know are going to have paybacks over three, four, five years. But at the same time, as a public company in particular, you've got to keep demonstrating short-term progress. Otherwise, you won't be around for the long term. I think that's an art. It's not a science. Trying to figure how you allocate resources, whether it's capital or time, in a clever way that you get enough progress in the short term. You keep the lights on and you keep doing that not just to satisfy shareholders, investors, but you need to also do that to build momentum and confidence in your own team. If people don't see progress and low-hanging fruits, they're willing to give up themselves. So, you have to do enough things and enough, like I said, low-hanging fruit to create that. But at the same time, you need to have a vision for the things that are going to pay off in three, four, five years.

Piyush Gupta: So for all of our platforms, we really run three horizons: horizon one, which is the short-term stuff, and horizon three, which is the three, five-year stuff. When we are allocating time, resources, budgets, we make sure that we get the blend right for what we're doing for the longer term, but what are we doing to make sure that our bread-and-butter comes in in the short term as well? By and large, it's been successful. One of the things we were surprised with is how quickly we got traction in some areas we did not realize. So, the results started coming in quicker than we thought. We started working on changing our technology stack. We used to have the old-fashioned stack, the IBM mainframes, the big data centers, the Oracle databases. We decided to go cloud native, cloud-enabled, open source, et cetera.

Piyush Gupta: One of the things that happens when you do that and you do it in a thoughtful way is your cost of technology plummets. And so, you actually start seeing, within the first year or two, a significant improvement in your short-term financials, even as you're architecting your technology for what is going to be long-term payoff and long-term benefits. So sometimes, you surprise yourself. These two things are not necessarily contradictory. They actually feed off each other as well.

Chet Kapoor: Shifting gears, you're very, very passionate in your focus on childhood cancer. What fuels your passion?

Piyush Gupta: Well, very personal. The one year when I took off from banking to do my entrepreneurship, at the tail end of that year, I was figuring what to do with my life. My sister, a couple of years younger than me, developed cancer of the colon. She was based in Eastern Europe at that time. So, I put life on hold for a few months to see her through it. She recovered. But after that experience, she decided to devote her life to cancer and cancer cure, and particularly focused on kids. Now, that resonated with me because I'm a big one for kids. I'm convinced if you get the children equation right, whether it's education or values or even physical health, that is the best long-term return for any country or any system. And so, since she'd had a personal experience, she wanted to do this, it resonated with me. And so, I started dedicating a little bit of my time to being an ambassador for her causes, shall we say.

Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. The most inspiring leader that you have worked for.

Piyush Gupta: Chet, that's kind of difficult. Frankly, I don't have any one. You learn different things from different leaders. Some of my best understanding of banking but also people management came from my very first boss, actually. I worked for him for five years. He just helped me hone my management skills and people skills. Along the way, I worked for a guy called Aditya Puri, who just retired recently. He's one of the best banking CEOs I know, of HDFC Bank in India. He really honed my business instincts. I remember he told me once you never get into a relationship you can't control, and that stayed with me, for example. And then, I mentioned earlier, the chairman of the board for DBS, Peter Seah, seasoned banker. But his instincts and gut instincts on taking risks and where it's okay to push harder than not has also been quite enlightening for me.

Piyush Gupta: So, I do think over time, you learn different things from different people. Frankly, I learned a lot from people younger than me as well– reverse mentoring, I called it. But if I had to choose a leader I admire, not somebody I worked with, it would have to be Lee Kuan Yew, the ex-prime minister, senior mentor, minister mentor of Singapore. For me, what he did in this country in a 30-odd-year period, took a 400-square-kilometer barren island with nothing–no water notice sources, no energy, no nothing–and made it a world-class country purely through some broad strategic frame but execution. That's just a remarkable story. So, I have a lot of time for him and what he was able to create.

Chet Kapoor: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

Piyush Gupta: I’ve always been an analytical, right brain kind of person, so strategy, execution, getting it right has always been my forte. Over the years, I've come to believe that... you know, what somebody said once, culture beats strategy, culture eats strategy for breakfast. That's probably true. I think to get outsized performance, it's mostly about people and teams, and the culture that you can create, which is a winning culture. And so, over the years, I've started devoting more and more time to issues of engagement, of transformational leadership, of culture change. My advice to my younger self would really be that. It's really the... We come out of business schools figuring the computer science courses and the hardcore marketing and finance courses, are the ones which will stand us in good stead. In life, actually, it's always the OB courses, organizational behavior courses, and the social psychology courses which you often wish you'd paid more attention to. That's the one piece of advice I would give myself.

Chet Kapoor: Yeah, I know. I think we all would. Right? The hard skills are really awesome, but make sure you focus on the soft skills as well. Right?

Piyush Gupta: Yes. I think that's very important.

Chet Kapoor: So Piyush, I feel like we could talk for another hour, right, and hopefully, we'll have another one of these and then we'll continue the conversation. Actually, double click on a few things that we chatted about. Deeply appreciate your time. Thank you.

Piyush Gupta: Thank you. Thanks very much. Enjoyed it, Chet.

Narrator: We all have the ability to adapt to change. So as a leader, make sure you take everyone along on the journey of transformation. Create an environment where it's okay to experiment and take risks. Piyush also reminds us of the importance of balancing long and short-term goals. You need to stay true to your vision, but also celebrate the small wins along the way. Beyond just being the best at what you do, you should aim to make a positive impact on the world.

Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple Podcasts listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at