“The net loser is not the bank and nor Chanda Kochhar herself. The net losers are the thousands of younger women who used to have an aspirational role model,” says Sonu Bhasin.

The latest communique from ICICI Bank says that Chanda Kochhar the current managing director, has decided to go on leave till the completion of the enquiry and that this is in line with the highest levels of governance and corporate standards. I am conflicted about the emotions that this sentence generates within me. There is a huge sense of sadness regarding Chanda Kochhar. There is also a sense of anger and outrage that I feel within.  Let me explain in detail these emotions.

As a woman professional and especially one in the financial services sector, I have looked up to Chanda Kochhar as a woman who broke the glass ceiling effectively. She proved that women could reach the corner office even after taking maternity breaks, maintaining a semblance of work-life balance, helping their children with homework (unapologetically) and most importantly – not being part of the ‘boys club’ with their cigar and whiskey evenings out.

Chanda Kochhar was the inheritor chosen by K V Kamath to take his legacy forward and she did it well. She was the face of the Indian banking sector as the head of the largest private sector bank. She was constantly on the list of most powerful women in the world. Each time she appeared in any media, and she did it with regularity, there were many women who went “Ah, she is the one we want to emulate”.  What saddens me is that there is hardly anyone who is saying this now.

Each time she appeared in any media, and she did it with regularity, there were many women who went “Ah, she is the one we want to emulate”.  What saddens me is that there is hardly anyone who is saying this now.

I am also angry and outraged. This is not how my role model was supposed to behave. Chanda Kochhar was brazenly going about her work at the Bank while the media was in a frenzy about her alleged misdemeanors. The questions that kept popping up in my head were more about her behaviour post the allegations rather than the allegations themselves. I kept asking myself – “why did she continue to go to work? Why did she not go on leave immediately?”  I remembered a similar allegation about another bank CEO some 16 years ago. In the early 2000s, Dr P J Nayak, the head of then UTI Bank (now Axis Bank) was accused of some financial misdemeanor. He used to go back to his home, across the road from his office, for lunch every day. Story has it that he saw the news about his alleged misdemeanor on television which was the first that he, and the world, heard of it. It is said that he did not go back to his office and sent word that he was proceeding on leave till the matter was investigated. The matter was investigated, a clean chit given to Dr Nayak, and he came back to work. I asked myself again and again – why did Chanda Kochhar not go on leave voluntarily and immediately?

The rumour and gossip mills in Bombay have it that Chanda Kochhar was advised by strong industrialists with political connections to brazen it out. It is whispered that she was told that every news has a limited shelf life and that the public chatter about the matter would die down. Further, that if she went on leave or resigned it would be tantamount to admitting that she was, indeed, guilty.  The sense of anger and outrage I have, centres around the fact that Chanda Kochhar chose to put her own reputation above the reputation of the institution she was heading. She chose to proclaim her innocence, based on the support she had from her Board, by continuing to head the bank in a Business-As-Usual manner. This was an institution that she had built over the last nine years. This was the institution that gave her the status of being among the most powerful women in the world. This was the institution whose image was linked with the image of the CEO. And it was the image of this very institution that she was choosing to ignore.

The sense of anger and outrage I have, centres around the fact that Chanda Kochhar chose to put her own reputation above the reputation of the institution she was heading.

The image of the institution took an instant hit not only in India but overseas. The institutional investors, domestic and foreign, moved the ratings of the bank down a couple of notches. The reputation of the bank nose-dived. Set in this context, there was another instance that came to mind. This was in mid-2000s when rumours started in Gujarat that ICICI Bank was going to go under after the Lehman Brothers crisis. There were reports of customers lining up at ATMs and branches to withdraw their money. The reputation of the bank was at risk. The entire senior management of the bank, led by K V Kamath, proactively reassured the public that the bank was safe. In interviews at that time Chanda Kochhar had said that “we all have to do what it takes” to “reassure all the stakeholders” and that it was important that the image of the bank did not suffer. However, this time around when there was a crisis brewing for the bank every effort seemed to be to safeguard the individual leaving the poor institution to fend for itself.

Chanda Kochhar has now gone on leave ‘voluntarily’ and will remain so till the enquiry is over. She is two months too late. These two months, when she chose to put her own image over the image of the institution, have actually ended up eroding own image as well.  Years and years of painstakingly hard work put in by her has ended up going up in smoke. These two months have also ensured that a career that was trumpeted as an example is likely to end in a whimper. The net loser is not the bank and nor Chanda Kochhar herself. The net losers are the thousands of younger women who used to have an aspirational role model.

Sonu Bhasin is the founder of Families And Business and the author of The Inheritors – Stories of Entrepreneurship and Success. Views expressed are the authors own.

Feature Image Credit: The Sunday Times UK

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