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Leadership Lessons from Deepak Satwalekar, Former MD & CEO, HDFC Standard Life Insurance Co. Ltd.

On 13th Oct 2022, Mr. Deepak Satwalekar visited Mantra4Change to interact with the leadership team during the ‘half-yearly stepback’. Mr. Deepak M. Satwalekar was the Managing Director of HDFC Ltd., India’s first and largest specialized provider of housing finance. He then became Managing Director and CEO of HDFC Standard Life Insurance Co. Ltd. (2000-2008), the first private-sector life insurance company registered in India after 1956.

“Teaching is the best form of learning”

Mr. Satwalekar, in the very beginning, said ‘I come to such places to learn. I absorb 100 things and retain 5-10 of them and deliver it to new groups I interact”. He also talked about how teaching is the best form of learning. I was suddenly reminded of the “learning pyramid” that shows teaching helps in retaining 90% of the things we learn. Albert Einstein sure got it right when he said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In order to teach others, you need to first learn for yourself. That was exactly what Mr. Satwaleker meant.

“Rather than throwing solutions, teach people ‘how’ to find solutions”

Mr. Satwalekar drew insights from his long leadership journey and shared that he never gave solutions to people who came with a problem. Rather, he guided them to find solutions. Model the problem-solving process rather than just giving the answer. As you work through the problem, consider how a novice might struggle with the concepts and make your thinking clear. He says that “ask directing questions or give helpful suggestions, but provide only minimal assistance and only when needed to overcome obstacles”.

“I don’t have answers! I ask questions”

Mr. Satwalekar strongly recommends that we don’t answer questions but ask more questions. Questions have the power to ignite or short-circuit deeper understanding. A thoughtfully constructed question might take a discussion to new heights, and think of different possibilities. This reminds me of the popular dialogue from the web series “Criminal Justice” - sometimes we don’t need the right answers, and even if we find the right question, we win.

“A leader is always under the lens, being closely watched”

You must have come across the popular quote - “Dance like no one is watching - lead like everyone is.” That was what Mr. Satwalekar wanted to convey when he said that the leader is always under the lens. The most watched part of a leader’s behavior is their day-to-day activities. How you conduct yourself in the office spaces and in your own activities will model the way you want your employees to behave – or more accurately, how they will behave because you’ve modeled it. People don’t hide very well when they are bored (look down), angry (arms folded), or excited (perk up). Body language is important – it makes up a significant part of communication. Drawing from his personal experience, he said that “be aware of what your body is saying and ensure it is the message you’re trying to get across”.

“The team that wasn’t told what to do was the team that took ownership”

As leaders, one always preassumes that they are bound to instruct their team on what to do and how to do it. Mr. Satwalekar is slightly against this idea of instructing teams, rather, he believes in ownership. Being an exceptional leader means having countless good qualities, but no leadership attribute is as outstanding and malleable to one’s values as ownership. Nowadays, taking ownership means more than being responsible and accountable. Ownership means being resolute, solving problems, withdrawing from liability, and owning the consequences of actions. Ownership can be the cornerstone of one’s sense of leadership. It is a strong sense of responsibility, unafraid to be accountable, and brave enough to say, “I take ownership of this.”

“Even when you are doing the same thing, try doing it differently”

On being asked, what drove Mr. Satwalekar to be part of HDFC for 30 years, he says, he never did the same thing again. As they say, to err is human. And, successful leaders are also human. They do make mistakes. But, the way in which they are different from others is in the way they tackle those mistakes. Rather than getting demotivated by their mistakes, they learn from them. As the famous quote by Edison goes - “I did not fail 1000 thousand times at making the bulb. I just found a thousand ways that don’t work.” It’s always about how we look at things.

“Keep looking out for team members. Keep talking to them”

Leading a team is not just for the team members in the formal structures within the organization but extends support beyond it. Mr. Satwalekar says that “When you really get down to it, being a good leader isn’t about your results and your targets — that’s all you-focused, Being a good leader means caring about the people you’re leading”. Of course, caring about your people seems so obvious. Every leader must communicate that they care about their people. But caring is about actions, not just words. The more salient point is that when people feel safe in their work environment when they feel that it’s safe for them to show up and fully be themselves, they’re more productive. They know it’s OK for them to bring their concerns, their strengths, their vulnerabilities, and their creativity to their job.

“Knowledge - Information”

Have you ever thought what the difference between knowledge and information? Mr. Satwalekar says that information denotes organized data about someone or something obtained from various sources such as newspapers, the internet, television, discussions, etc. Knowledge refers to the awareness or understanding of the subject acquired from the education or experience of a person. Information is nothing but the refined form of data, which is helpful to understand the meaning. On the other hand, knowledge is the relevant and objective information that helps in drawing conclusions. To sum up, we can say that, information is the building blocks, but knowledge is the building.

He shared stories about teamwork and how transparent culture enables trust that makes a team do extraordinary things. The one thing that Mr. Satwalekar insisted upon was that “Leadership is not ‘you’ acknowledging that you are a leader, leadership is when someone else acknowledges it ”. We wish he would come more often to Mantra4Change and keep inspiring the changemakers.



Program Communications Lead,


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