Narayan Saraf on Mastering Finance Leadership & Embracing Technology

Episode Description
Embark on a captivating exploration with Narayan Saraf, the finance maestro whose wisdom is drawn from an illustrious career with industry titans like CIPLA, Unilever, and PharmEasy. Today, he sheds light on how embracing challenges and nurturing curiosity have both been the cornerstones of his journey from a resolute youngster in Calcutta to a strategic leader in finance.

Narayan's story is a powerful narrative of transformative decisions, accentuated by a philosophy that champions automation of the mundane to liberate the creative and analytical prowess within finance professionals.

Strap in as we traverse the multifaceted landscape of finance and leadership through Narayan's eyes, revealing the evolving roles of CFOs amid India's flourishing entrepreneurship scene. He imparts priceless wisdom on the art of business partnering, the imperative of aligning company interests with personal values for effective leadership, and the nuanced balancing act of 'freedom within a framework' in corporate governance. These insights are punctuated with personal anecdotes on the human side of being a CFO, highlighting the importance of talent nurturing and team empowerment in driving organizational growth.

As we peer into the financial crystal ball, Narayan addresses the seismic shifts brought about by technological advancements, where finance roles are redefined in the age of artificial intelligence and data analytics. Witness a powerful discourse on the future of the profession, where adaptability and continuous skill enhancement are non-negotiable. Closing the loop, we delve into Narayan's approach to achieving harmony between the demands of work and the sanctity of personal well-being, sharing strategies that help him stay grounded amidst the whirlwind of corporate life.

Listen to an audio version of the podcast below:

Audio Transcript:

Narayan Saraf: 0:00

Anything which is repetitive for more than one hour in a week should be automated. That's my benchmark rule kind of thing.

Ankur Bhageria: 0:16

Welcome everyone. We have another episode of Inside Finance here at Cashflo today, and we have a very illustrious speaker here with us today, mr Narayan Saraf, who's a CFO at HRI. He's been a stalwart in the finance industry over these years, having been across multiple corporates across industries, companies like CIPLA, Unilever, PharmEasy and a few others, and we're super excited to learn about your journey and hear about the insights and the learnings you had over your career. So welcome here, Narayan.

Narayan Saraf: 1:04

Thanks for the invitation. Thank you very much. And guys, just let me tell he's just being too kind and generous to me. Nothing like that.

Ankur Bhageria: 1:14

No. So you know, would love to you know, start from the beginning on around. The idea here of this podcast is to really bring out the incredible stories of you know leaders in the financial domain. I feel there's a lot that you know finance professionals can learn from you know operators in various domains, and we felt that there wasn't enough conversation around how people have reached where they are and what were some of their decisions in life, how they took them, why they took them, and hopefully those can act as insights for you know fledgling professionals as well. So that's a broad context and, given that you know would love to start with understanding you know right from the beginning. Right, tell us a little bit about your background, about your childhood, and we can go from there.

Narayan Saraf: 2:10

Yeah, sure, why not? So I'm a typical Kal-Maru, CA so one and brought up in Calcutta, is a south part of Calcutta and had a great stay of 23 years in Calcutta and during that time. A brief background about my childhood. My dad he was into service for many years, then he got into business and then unfortunately passed away when I was pretty young. And then my mom she's a typical Marwari homemaker and who has been always confide to home, but she started doing business by borrowing some money from her friend. So I would just say that I've seen hard work from her. I've seen a lot of passion from her and her determination that I have to ensure that my son is ready for future. So that's what was my childhood Great memories, great learnings. There are few things which I would always. I always keep in mind. Doing those phase is one way, clearly, that we are not by chance, but we are who we are today by the choices that we make.

Ankur Bhageria: 3:35

Was getting into finance always a plan for you?

Narayan Saraf: 3:38

you didn't have that much of an internet, you just decided you're carried by observing people around you. I was not as good student to take science and arts was something which I knew how to do. So the choice left doing those days out of three was commerce. And then I think by the time I was in class 10, I was sure that I wanted to do CA. Around class 8-9, I started making up mind at time, commerce guy.

Ankur Bhageria: 4:04

Interesting. I think at that time there weren't too many career opportunities. Overall, I think CA was one of the most coveted opportunities.

Narayan Saraf: 4:17

Very much, very much. So in those days, if you had a CA in the lane, you would know that yes, there is a CA, because there were not too many professions and in commerce CA was the most coveted role, and those days it was tough.

Ankur Bhageria: 4:33

I think it was almost similar to how people look at IIT today. IITJEE, clearing IITJEE is like a badge of honor. I come from a family of CA's, by the way, so I remember my dad very proudly talk about how he was in the 46,000th range of CA's when the CA's came out.

Narayan Saraf: 4:55

It has always been, even today, if you ask me. I think CA's are equally good, but the opportunities are significantly high. But CA's still remain a very coveted role and something Though both of my sons they are into science. But yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 5:10

And I am an engineer and the only engineer in the family. Within a family of CA's, I'm literally the only engineer right now, so I can see what your son feels, I imagine. Since O&GC, of course, you don multiple hats across companies, private sector, across FMCG and even pharma. Talk us a little bit through your journey across these companies over these years. How did you reach ?

Narayan Saraf: 5:42

I have always . I will speak to you about five C's, but one of the C's is that I've always been very curious in my life, since childhood, because I learned by observing people what to do and what not to do. So I went in job when I got into ONGC and subsequently I've been very curious to do newer things, things which I don't know anything about. So most of the roles in my career, what I've done is the role I have to define, A to Z, I would say. When I've taken the role I would not have known. If the role has to be defined within the characters alphabets A to Z I'm very confident that at now the roles I knew more than B, if that is the end of the role.

Narayan Saraf: 6:22

So I got opportunity into ONGC and then I started my career over there. In three years I did very three different roles over there, which is not very common in government jobs. You stay and you then continue to do very big roles. Then Hindustan Unilever happened, one of the dream companies where I think most of the guys in India. So I was very fortunate. I went to factory. I did couple of years factory strength, one in Baddi and one in Nasik, and then I was given the branch role. So I was East India commercial financial asset, then I did an international strength which none of the guys in industry can imagine, a commodity hedging role and then I became a corporate. So if you see the whole value chain, starting from procurement till sales, from procurement till the consumers, consumer product, the whole value chain, then risk management, so every alternative I got opportunities to do something new and that has been my journey as we can speak about it.

Ankur Bhageria: 7:35

I think in my conversations with leaders across the board I think that's one trait that comes out consistently. There's just inherently curious about everything in life and it reflects in the kind of roles they take up. It reflects in the kind of challenges they take up. I think those who stop being curious effectively end up plateauing in life anyway. So it kind of correlates.

Narayan Saraf: 8:00

So I always say learning curve is the only earning curve. Till you're learning, you're actually earning, because that's something which is there and that's thanks. You brought the second challenge. It's a challenge which I've always excited me in my career to decide what next I want to do, because the moment I'm in my comfort zone, that makes me very uncomfortable and that's a very candid feedback I've got from my even managers Saying that it's a marathon. You're running a sprint in a marathon, slow down. But I keep on replyying, Let me run the sprint till I'm enjoying the marathon. The day I feel tired or burned out, I slow it on my pace. But the reason of not burning out is because still I do things which I've never done in my career. That keeps it interesting.

Ankur Bhageria: 9:00

What has been your most enjoyable sprint, you would say.

Narayan Saraf: 9:03

That would be very unfair. In the last 19 years I've done, like I mentioned, various faceted roles In ONGC, three different roles, Un ilever four roles. Then we became a CF of Indian pharma company, India business simple startup and then one of the biggest scientific companies for the India South Asia. So all the roles.

Narayan Saraf: 9:30

To be very candid, it's something like Mumbai is my 12 city and people ask me not 12, 9th city, sorry. People ask me which is your favorite city and I always say that it may sound as if I am being a bit diplomatic, but the matter of fact is that every city had their own charm and, if you ask me, every job, every role which I did, I was very excited when I took over that role Because, like I said, out of A to Z, I only need new D, and that my curiosity and my urge to take a challenge and solve it, or something which none of the roles, if you ask me, are any small than whatever I do. And the first day in ONGC till date, I continue to do new things, I continue to learn today. So the aspiration has always been how can I become a better person of myself every day, and that's what keeps me inspired, motivated and committed.

Ankur Bhageria: 10:28

So let me reframe the question then what is a role where you had the fastest learning curve or the greatest learning curve?

Narayan Saraf: 10:41

So if you ask me and it's again in Hindustan Unilever, whatever roles I did, I learned a lot from each of those roles because they made me a complete end-to-end finance professional. So you have done make finance, you have done self, your business partner factory, your business partner the sales and marketing team, you have done risk management and they have done FPnA Role, which is more about doing financial planning and analysis. So that stint of those levers days was something if you were to put gun on my head and you never transfer, I would say that that one was a role which I. Really that stint was something which not one particular, but the whole stint was something which I, which I had one of the most.

Ankur Bhageria: 11:37

And you also spend time in pharma right. You've been at CIPLA and you've also been at Pharm Easy. Talk to us a little bit about what that why, first of all, you transitioned from CIPLA to PharmEasy and how was the journey at PharmEasy like?

Narayan Saraf: 11:54

Very good journey, if you ask me. And again, why you can very well by now know is the curiosity and the urge to take challenge. Because what I had done in CIPLA over three and a half, four years I've, along with the help of my leaders and the board, at least for India, business here made a future finance ready, finance architectures. So I was looking for more challenges and PharmEasy Easy happened. So great experience where you go back to the basics, you build a rock solid foundation, you start working on how can you?

Narayan Saraf: 12:31

One thing which I would say that the entrepreneurship in India is unmatchable. So if and the kind of young talent and young entrepreneurs like you, you are sitting in front of me and you're saying by now so I don't know how you are, you may be coloring with the gray kind of look a more mature, but you don't seem to be like that. So the point is the, the entrepreneurial spirit and the young blood which is coming to entrepreneur. And I was stunned to see the kind of vision, the kind of ability to vision the future and actually execute it. We can all do the best of planning with. The real fun lies in execution of it. And I was stunned by the, by the quantum of wisdom and the quantum of motivation which they had to create. A difference was and the entrepreneurial mindset. It was very good and we we did some good work over there in those at the time when I was in Pharm Easy.

Ankur Bhageria: 13:42

But yeah, yeah, interesting. How important do you think is it for a finance leader to truly understand? You know, the business side of things right now. You have obviously changed industries and you gave the example of Unilever, where you spend time across different departments and different parts of the value chain, you know. One of the things that I'm very fascinated to think about is you know, should a finance leader, for instance, even drive a business for some time as an operator, perhaps come back to finance, you know? So what should be the ideal career path for a person? You know, if they eventually harbor the dreams of being a CFO, what do you think is the ideal career path?

Narayan Saraf: 14:29

So it depends. Everybody decides their own journey and they decide on their own path. So I can share what has been my journey, but, yeah, it's everybody's choice what they do. I am, whenever anybody asks me in a finance to become a CFO, what are the three, four important work, which experience, which is which one should have? So I would say one of the most critical is that you should understand the whole value chain of the organization. It's very important if you don't understand how factories operate, if you don't understand what's the mindset of a sales and marketing team and how they operate, and then, on top of that, you have to even understand the basic of the accounting taxation to. So the controllership part of it. Where you are the, you act as a custodian, you act as a controller, and then, while you've done all of that, then the other important aspect comes is your record to make. You're basically how you are able to do the analysis. The analysis, how you are able to help businesses or the boards to take decisions on the basis of your analysis and support them in driving business. So those are four very strong pillars according to my risk management whole value chain, controllership and then whole analytics part of it.

Narayan Saraf: 15:49

But in all of this I always say that one thing which I always keep on saying my team finance is the only function. Finance is the only function which has got the complete enterprise wide view. All the other functions are limited to their own. So finance as a as a finance professional, we have an opportunity to look beyond what is our own. Any young professionals role is. He has the opportunity to look much beyond that and hence to connect the dots and look beyond and try to find solution is what I think, and in that you have to do a business partner, I mean you become. You don't have to force yourself to become a business partner, you by default become a business partner, because a business partner, somebody who has to interact with the business leaders, understand their problems and then solve them by coordinating with all the multiple stakeholders and with data analytics and insights.

Ankur Bhageria: 16:52

So that's an interesting one, and I, you know, I try to sort of drive that in our own org as well. How do you keep the company interest in mind over your own interest or your team's interest, your functional interest? It's a tough behavior to drive right. How do you achieve that? What's the how behind?

Narayan Saraf: 17:11

Whether it's by design or not, by design you have you call every function as divisions or department. You buy nature in the organization. You're dividing the organization into departments. So that moment, which also somewhere I think should be changing. So it's it's always understanding the other's perspective.

Narayan Saraf: 17:33

So whenever I moved into a new role, my first three to six months I spend is on understanding what are my stakeholders challenges, what are my internal team's challenges, prepare a list of them and then I try to find out which is how critical they are and how long they have been waiting to get solved.

Narayan Saraf: 17:52

And then that becomes our priority list. And once you start solving problems for your teams, for your colleagues within department, within the organization, beyond your department, trust me, you start building that relationship. You don't have to work hard, ms, and that how part it depends a lot on the authenticity of what you say, because people see you through your eyes and through your body language, what you are and who you are. And if you try to farce with your oratory skills, people will see you, because we all have a tendency to move towards the mean. Again, we may try to fast for a short time, but not so the more authentic you are, the more transparent you are, the more you're looking and finding solutions for your teams. You build trust and your how will be taken care of. I say how much you have to always keep on crediting in your bank of trust rather than pull them off.

Ankur Bhageria: 19:00

Yeah, that's a fair point, and I think that's the hardest part as well. Right Banking has lost.

Narayan Saraf: 19:06

So the point which is very important to know is that if you are able to empathize with the person, you're treating him well, and if he or she is behaving in a manner, if, as an individual, I have the maturity to understand that how and why is he coming from their context? Yes, what's their context? Then you won't react to them. You will then respond to them, and the challenge with most of us is that we give the remote control of our happiness in the hands of your reactions.

Ankur Bhageria: 19:42

We already have a pre-decided response and, without really listening in, you end up reacting.

Narayan Saraf: 19:49

So that comes with maturity, that comes with your, and that's something which has seen, since I used to go to deposit checks in bank even before my height reached till the teller, so I knew how to speak. That's, the life has taught me that. Okay, this is how you speak and this is how you respect people and this is how you empathize, and once you start doing that, then the whole world is standing behind you. Yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 20:23

The point of authenticity is very powerful. I think one of the best pieces of advice I received was from a colleague at BCG earlier in my consulting days was if you can bring your true self every day to the company, you will do your best work in life. Because often what happens is your behaviors are shaped by what you think your boss will think of you or say, or what your peers will think and say. But the moment you start just becoming who you truly are, it's hard to break out of that shell, but that's when you start doing your best work.

Narayan Saraf: 21:07

I don't recall in my last 19, 20 years God has been kind on me again and I never had managers who didn't let me move ahead, and just one another. Out of my almost 20 plus years of experience, I think not more than 2 plus 2, 4. 4 years, not more than 4 years my manager has been sitting in my closed vicinity. For the 16 years of my career they've been sitting some distance away from me, not in the same building, at least. So that has also given me that freedom, that has given me that sense of responsibility and purpose, because I'm not working because somebody is watching me to work. I'm working because I've got a task to finish.

Narayan Saraf: 21:51

So another thing which I can tell you I have a habit of waking up very early in the morning. I wake up around 4. 30-5 am in the morning and I used to finish a lot of my work before I reached office. So that whole day I had time to engage with my team and external and other stakeholders. So if I'm working for my manager, then he won't even know that I started working at 5 and finished all of my work by 8. And then in office and spending time with teams to understand their problems, all for them. Since I was working for myself and since I was working for the organization and I had that sense of purpose and responsibility towards my organization, I continued it.

Ankur Bhageria: 22:30

That's interesting. I think that's a good way to articulate looking out for the organization's interest instead of KPIs, necessarily. The shifting gears a little bit. You know you spend time at CIPLA and then at PharmEasy as well. Talk a little bit about both of the pharma companies in their own way, in terms of your own experience and in terms of how fundamentally the companies were different. What were your biggest learnings when you contrast and compare the two organizations Obviously different stages of their lives, but let's say, from a perspective of culture, from a perspective of how decisions were taken, could you shed some light?

Narayan Saraf: 23:22

So again, most of those are in part of the life cycle of the organization. So if you see, in any big organization which is there for some time, they have got more processes set. They are not people driven. But in startup, I am pretty sure in your case, as in your organization, it would be mainly people driven, where people just call that okay, let's do it like this, it seems, and then the bias for action Immediately somebody tells us to it, then everybody will come to and solve it immediately.

Narayan Saraf: 23:55

Where in big organizations you follow the process, you ensure that you're not digressing from some of the things it's called freedom within framework. You define the framework or you define the Lakshman Rekha and within that you have got the freedom to operate. Beyond that you have to get into permission. But here it's more about defining the framework and you're defining the framework. So till you don't know what's your Lakshman Rekha, you can go, keep pushing, you keep pushing and you keep doing things. So that was one very big difference.

Narayan Saraf: 24:29

And as you become more matured, organizations start defining the framework. So you define a lot of work on finance, future finance. So in big, established organizations these functions are moving towards future of finance. So here you're setting up the finance function, you're setting up the bricks and motors, you're making it rock solid foundation, so you're ensuring that there's no leakages happening. Or you're more a controller side of the road rather than a business partner, because that's the foundation. You have to ensure that your foundation is strong. Then you can build a home on top of it. So there foundations mostly are there. You're building home here, you're building a foundation or that somebody else can build the home.

Ankur Bhageria: 25:20

Yeah, one of the things that I always wonder is startups, small or large, are known for how fast they tend to move. Bias for action, like you said, is what prevents larger organizations from moving fast, or do you feel let me frame it differently do you feel large organizations also move sufficiently fast, or do you feel these frameworks or do they end up tying people down in some ways? And I know it's necessary, but-.

Narayan Saraf: 25:51

No, I don't think. I don't think there has to be some. It's something like driving in a street you can't say that a startup can cross red lights and it will create more chaos. It will create more chaos, rather. I remember as a kid there was a joke. So there was a fire and there were two groups of people who were given two gates to get out of it. So one day we were fighting with each other and trying to get Nobody got out of that fire. Rather, they created a line and went. Everybody cleared it. So I always say that a break doesn't mean that you have to drive slow. Break gives you the freedom to drive fast.

Ankur Bhageria: 26:38

That's a great way to put it. It's a great way to put it and it's very apt actually, in the current environment where, unfortunately, we see corporate governance issues coming up in companies from time to time, and it's not that they're always ill-intentioned, it's just that they maybe moved so fast, they didn't put the necessary processes in place, did not give enough attention to governance, but, like you said, some of these frameworks and processes actually allow you to run faster. That's a great way to articulate.

Narayan Saraf: 27:11

And the other way is that what you don't know, you don't know, so it may be also ignorance. It may be also they didn't knew about it, so that's the other piece. There are many things that you don't know.

Ankur Bhageria: 27:24

Yeah, and I also feel sometimes the fact that there are these unknown, unknowns, that also makes a case for creating some of these underlying processes and frameworks, so that you avoid the risk of.

Narayan Saraf: 27:38

Falling on the wrong side. Falling on the wrong side? Yeah, and that's why that framework is important. I mean freedom within the framework, that framework you define, and that you do whatever you want to do. But yes, it's a journey. My room was not built in a day. Similarly, all the startups go through that journey. They have their own, et cetera. So there are only two ways you can learn, and they will learn from others. We say you do it by yourself and learn it Fantastic.

Ankur Bhageria: 28:04

Brakes allow you to run faster or accelerate faster. Narayan, I wanted to ask you what do you feel is your proudest moment of your career? Obviously, I'm sure there are many, but if you had to pick, what would you say is your proudest moment?

Narayan Saraf: 28:21

Sir, if you ask me my biggest achievement kind of thing and something which I'm very proud in my career till date, it would be the way my teams have responded, the way I work with the teams, the people management part of it, the talent management part of it.

Narayan Saraf: 28:38

That has been something which gives me immense proud. I've been told that many of my direct reports today are either CFOs or business or functional heads in many other organizations across sectors. So, very clearly, what comes in my mind is that how can I act as a catalyst in a solution where you become the part of the solution and you propel that solution to perform better without changing the solution itself? So and I look myself like that how can I help my colleagues, the whole team around me, to start dreaming and delivering more than they would ever ever thought of? How can I give them a more broad perspective, the way people, my leaders, have invested in me? How can I pave it back to people who are coming and working with me in giving them the whole broad spectrum of experience of finance function? And that always helps the whole organization as well and the individual finance leader as well, because then the organization also it helps, because you have got a backup. You have got support of….

Ankur Bhageria: 29:58

But is there something that you… and this is a very powerful notion, right, and how can you enable others to succeed? Can you give some examples of daily practices or things that you instituted in your life that allow you to enable others to succeed?

Narayan Saraf: 30:16

So let me give you whatever comes in my mind immediately. One, I don't want to name the organization. In one of my roles I actually changed the role of out of eight, seven my director ports at one go, Because many of them were doing the same role for last five, six, seven years and I remember my line manager calling me up saying that Narayanan is a very big risk.

Ankur Bhageria: 30:42

And… Having seven of them report you directly.

Narayan Saraf: 30:45

Eight were reporting to me directly Out of the eight. I changed the roles of seven. We changed the roles of seven At one go.

Ankur Bhageria: 30:53

Ah, okay, interesting.

Narayan Saraf: 30:55

And I recall my manager calling me up and saying that Narayanan is a risky proposition. So I said who is going to suffer the most if I am training roles as seven people? It's me. Who is putting the neck on the block? It's me, but I trust those seven people. That's the full move. Yeah, so 8th one also, I wanted to move, but I realized that he--

Ankur Bhageria: 31:19

What prompted you to take that step?

Narayan Saraf: 31:22

Very clearly. See, at the end of the day I am a product of having different experience and I know in the internet which everybody has is that they want to do different roles and it's usually the inability of the manager to take risks is where the organization suffers and that director putty suffers.

Ankur Bhageria: 31:52

And how do you? But this is a great point you make, because there is a very clear trade-off here, you know, giving exposures and enabling growth for the individuals versus taking a risk which can, which may pay off, which may not pay off for the organization. How do you make that trade-off?

Narayan Saraf: 32:08

Yes, so that's a very, very good question. So let me tell you. So I always look at teams as pillars If I've got eight say, pillars and I always ask Kamjore Karee kaun which group of teams is the weakest? Weakest link, Not weakest link, weakest in itself Because of lack of resources, because, sure, I'm a firm believer that no resource is bad, and this is not a philosophical, this is my firm belief that no resource is bad.

Narayan Saraf: 32:47

At the end of the day, that resource may be in the wrong bus, that is wrong organization, or in the wrong seat, that is a wrong role, or at a wrong time. No individual comes to office with the thing he asks to me screw up karke jaunga. True, nobody comes like that. Correct, I'm saying that I want to do something for the organization. So, with that belief in the system, you find out which are the teams which are weak link and then, from the base, you start strengthening those three. So, every opportunity to refill a position, you hire a good talent and then you strengthen them. Once your base is strengthened, once the foundation is solid, then you can change the leaders.

Ankur Bhageria: 33:42

So that's how you de-risk in a way.

Narayan Saraf: 33:45

In first year I spent time in creating the foundation. If every team has got one strong base, then when the leader moves there are two things which happen. One is the leader gets a better exposure. Organization benefits because now there are two people who can do the job?

Narayan Saraf: 34:05

And third is the incumbent, the good resource. He gets opportunity to line line come to the line, line come to the front, rather than working behind the, where the new manager will take some time to stabilize. Till that time that person can come and perform and then he can be ready after two years for his promotion.

Narayan Saraf: 34:31

And if you don't put people on front till that time, many times you won't be able to know out of 10 people who you have put in front. You think those are 10 best. But you can identify, you can differentiate between, like I say, boys and men. The whole organization in hierarchy changes completely, not in terms of designation and then you find new leaders. Yeah, yeah, yeah, great discovery process. It's a great discovery process. You find new leaders. You find people who are ready to go beyond the job description, like we spoke, and who are ready to create their own job descriptions.

Ankur Bhageria: 35:14

And in all of this I'm sure you would have, of all the people that you worked with, there would have been those who are truly great, like great at what they do. So what, according to you, has sort of differentiated the great ones from the good ones?

Narayan Saraf: 35:32

Again, it's the what and how. I always I'm familiar that you can train people on what In a shorter time. Then you can train people on how, because how is your aggregation of like? We spoke earlier, your past experience, and so how do we react and how do we respond? So for me, the greatest difference between great and good ones is mainly on the how aspect that they can see better, how they are able to adapt and how they are able to respond to a crisis, a change, a chaos or an opportunity.

Ankur Bhageria: 36:16

Yeah, that's a great way to put it, just ability to adapt.

Narayan Saraf: 36:20

Yeah, and ability to adapt. Once somebody told me that the true character of a leader or individual comes in the times of crisis, because then you are not able to fast or be in control. Then you, your natural self, come and in a stint, in any stint every year, you will come across at least two, three those situations and observe you and you guide and then, the end of the day, again Making average to go to good is more satisfying sustaining great talent. So you always need a mix of talent Because, like I said, nobody comes to office with the intent of I'll go to the office and I'll go to the school. You train them.

Narayan Saraf: 37:12

I remember a few years ago there was a very young very ab candidate who joined my team and he was into something where I realized within two months of joining that he is not doing to the best of his ability. So one day I called him and I gave him some advice. I won't say peace of my mind, but I gave him some advice and showed him the mirror and today, in whichever organization he is, he's doing very well over there and even in my organization for the next two, three years he was one of the best performers. So it's a that gives you more satisfying.

Narayan Saraf: 37:50

There have been times when people come in. There's a very candid. There have been a couple of times when, before resigning, they've come to and said that we are thinking of joining this organization. What's your opinion you share with them, that's the trust that on his conversation, when your team realizes that you don't have any ill for them, you are on their side within the ambit of organization, greatness you are at the first is the enterprise. So within that ambit, within that framework, you always think well for people. So there have been times when a few of my two levels on my indirect repose have come and we are looking in there and I know the CFO of that company. Then I'll tell him I'm exporting my talent to your company, please take care of him.

Ankur Bhageria: 38:43

Yeah, that's, that's it. It's a tough thing to establish, I think, being you know, establishing that trust, but I think, like you said the earlier point around authenticity, right, if you are authentic, I think people also open up to you a lot more. They know that you're not even hidden agendas. I think that's important. Narayan, tell me, you've spent now all this time in in finance, right? How have you seen the finance function evolve over these years? You know, let's say, 10 years ago versus today, right? What is different for the finance function?

Narayan Saraf: 39:19

So finance function as it is and that's I wouldn't say 10 years ago. Even 20 years ago would be more earlier on 20-30 years. It was more about controlling, it was more about being custodian and all those part of it accounting, tax, treasury and all those stuff. MIS is manual. But if you see over last I won't say 10 years, over last 20 years, there's a continuous evolution where finance is becoming active part of the decision making tree, I won't say with data, but with actionable insights of data, because data in itself is nothing. Information is also nothing. Finance is able to convert data into insights and insights into actionable insights. Like I mentioned earlier, the finance has got the whole enterprise.

Ankur Bhageria: 40:16

Why did this happen? Why was this not possible earlier?

Narayan Saraf: 40:20

So obviously evolution of technology is one of the key enablers. That is one and second. I would say that still, this journey is continuing. So let me put it across the controller ship, the custodian part. With the evolution of technology a lot of it is starting to get automated. The processes are being taken care by the solutions which are being developed and now finance has got more time to focus on the more value adding. And I don't see very far off, I know that even now. But you will suddenly see that many of the CFOs will become CEOs. Even now there are many, but the quantum will keep on increasing where CFOs start taking lead in the business, because a finance colleague from a very young part of his career is getting exposed not only to the custodian or controller ship of the role but along with that he is taking active participation in understanding the business and creating value for the business.

Ankur Bhageria: 41:31

That's a great way to think about it. And then what does that mean for the skill sets that will be relevant, let's say, five years from now, because you talked about how technology is taking away the basic.

Narayan Saraf: 41:45

So I am also preparing for that. I have enrolled myself for a Python course oh interesting. And SQL, so I am also trying to learn from that. Keeping that aside, the skill sets will change. Again. Technology can come and solve the mundane or the repetitive tasks, but technology I don't think can today or even in future can do the influencing part. The man to man connect, the colleague to colleague connect, the woman to woman connect. That will always continue to remain.

Ankur Bhageria: 42:25

So the roles that require higher EQ potentially.

Narayan Saraf: 42:28

Not only EQ, even IQ, for that matter. If I have to come and influence you to take some decisions, only EQ will not help me. I need strong data sets, I need strong understanding.

Ankur Bhageria: 42:40

And there, just to play devils advocate. How do you think artificial intelligence will play out, because AI is now beginning to predict, basis large data sets, able to infer things that previously we didn't think it could do?

Narayan Saraf: 42:57

But all those predictions are based on some logics. Sure, they are based on logics of paths, logics or even patterns, right, patterns of paths? Yeah, and to a limited extent they can. On the basis of paths, they can focus, future Correct. But it's then you get, from different models, different sets of projections. Now, which is the most likely projections? What are the kind of inputs you are going to planning to put into to make those projections more stronger, more robust? And that requires discussion with your if, for a moment, we are talking about revenue, that requires your discussion with the channel marketing team. That requires iscussionithhea s t w d les a requiresdiscussionwith d salesteam, discussion withthesalesteam, w with he t your discussion with the marketing team. team. i w discussion with the supply chain team.

Ankur Bhageria: 43:47


Narayan Saraf: 43:48

And that's where, in the table, you come, bring all of these things together and you come out more than data. Data is, at the end of the day, representation of past with a projection for future, with some flexibility to maneuver. Basis that yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 44:07

Yeah, yeah, you're right. I think it's a great co-pilot, so to speak, right where it can allow. We will learn. Yeah, it's not a replacement. It's not a replacement. It just allows you to take decisions faster. Something that would have taken a lot longer Can enable you to do that faster, perhaps.

Narayan Saraf: 44:26

I always say my team sorry to interrupt I always say my team that anything which is repetitive for more than one hour in a week should be automated. That's my benchmark rule, kind of thing to be Whereas anything which is repetitive, non-judgmental, should be automated.

Ankur Bhageria: 44:45


Narayan Saraf: 44:45

And where the human will come is on taking judgmental decisions and making and enabling and bringing all stakeholders together and influence to take the right decision for the organization.

Ankur Bhageria: 44:59

You know, in this context, what would be your message to finance leaders, who then worry about automation taking away jobs, and you know, like you know their teams worrying about their own future. How do you sort of address that concern?

Narayan Saraf: 45:15

I've been part of many automation projects and, to be very candid and transparent, I don't think anywhere we have lost shops. The perspective of the role changes. So say, for example, theoretically and this with practical example there's a big MIC which is preparing Excel's or reports and all this things. You automate it in one of the BI tools BIT, power BI, clay, tableau or any other and then the team starts thinking what am I required to do? Am I going to lose job? And so it's a big no. You are what gory work or what a lot of manual work you're doing. Now you're translated and transferred it to technology. Now you've got more time to pull out insights on that.

Ankur Bhageria: 46:11

But then that becomes a question of capability also. Right Like, are they capable to do that?

Narayan Saraf: 46:18

According to me again, capability is an outcome of the intent, and I have not seen people where they don't have intent or where they are not. I would say human is the most agile, or that's why you've survived the maximum, because you are able to adapt to the change in the environment.

Ankur Bhageria: 46:41

Which also goes back to your point around. The great ones end up adapting.

Narayan Saraf: 46:47

No, and it's a survival. I mean great ones adapt because they want to become bigger, but here they adapt because they want to survive.

Ankur Bhageria: 46:55

That's a fair point.

Narayan Saraf: 46:57

It may sound harsh, but that's the reality.

Ankur Bhageria: 47:02

In terms of the kind of, if you had to talk about two or three key skills or traits that you know a finance professional should imbibe over the coming years. Given all of what technology is doing right, anything specific that you would recommend?

Narayan Saraf: 47:27

See again. I would try to generalize it, which was always there and with the technology being an enabler it should t s Is, look beyond obvious, connect the dots. Now, these things have technology have enabled it, and these are things things.

Ankur Bhageria: 47:43

Is that something you check for, like even when you're interviewing people? Like what is it that you look for today when you are hiring people?

Narayan Saraf: 47:52

So again, when I'm hiring people, first and foremost thing I look into their cultural fit into the organization and give them the best role and they may be capable to outdoing it. But usually people feel frustrated that when they don't find the culturally working well. So that's one thing very important for me. One is obviously given and understood that they are and the respect concerned experience to do that role. But again, I have in few cases I've taken you in point where I've moved a taxation head to a business partnering role and he has done wonders. So again, one is.

Narayan Saraf: 48:40

So there are two things which we studied in economics in first chapter willingness and ability. So is he having the willingness to change and learn and adapt and is he able to do that? So ability is something about his skill sets, his technical part of it, and then willingness is his soft part of it, whether he can maneuver around it. So usually in my interviews first 15 minutes would be on hardcore technical skills and balance 25, 30 minutes would be more on how part of it, how they have managed the challenges, what is their stresses, what are their strengths and weaknesses. None of us are perfect, so everybody has got their strengths and weaknesses. So identifying whether the strengths meet the requirement of the role and the organization and those weaknesses whether they hamper the organization. Because at the end of the day, it's like a marriage. It may not be a lifetime marriage, but it's like a marriage where both sides have to see value in it. True, and that's very important.

Ankur Bhageria: 49:52

Do you have a favorite interview question you like to ask when you're hiring people?

Narayan Saraf: 49:59

So for me, if you ask me, one thing which I always check is on the integrity score. Integrity, yes, that's something which is non-negotiable to we check for that. So there are a few questions. I don't want to say if people listening, they will come to have one. No, but on a serious note, they are. You build up scenarios and then you ask them and you build up a scenario where they can fall to it. So, till you are not high on integrity, you will so these are not obvious answers.

Ankur Bhageria: 50:31

No, no, not obviously require ethical trade-off.

Narayan Saraf: 50:34

Yeah, it requires ethical trade-off, it will. You put the value of gains versus the cost of expense, you differentiate significantly and then that cost of expense seems insignificant to the gain. And if we catch it on this last, that means he's ready to compromise on his principles. It's a nice one.

Ankur Bhageria: 50:55

It's a good way to think about it.

Narayan Saraf: 50:57

So that's, there and yeah, should we.

Ankur Bhageria: 51:01

This is one segment that I really enjoy doing, which is rapid fire perhaps. And I can introduce you in some rapid fire questions.

Narayan Saraf: 51:09

Do we have some current job kind of Hamper?

Ankur Bhageria: 51:13

You have a hamper waiting for you. Don't worry about that. Thank you, Okay, so let's start with this right. You have a stressful job, I'm sure. What do you do to unwind on a weekend or after work?

Narayan Saraf: 51:29

To be very candid, my unwindings since very young, or actually after I started working, has been my family. They are my key strength of pillar my mom, my wife and my two boys. So it's a small family, five of us and the ones I'm at home. By God's grace I've got the switch off, switch on button. I can switch off myself and again, and they help me to switch off because their faces help me a lot of unwindings. Second is watching news. I is my second love and third is my cricket. These are the three things which help me unwind, but yeah, if you ask me, the core is the family. So weekends I'm very busy with the family and there was a time when, for my elders and my other chauffeur, from on Saturdays and Sundays, from 6am in the morning till 2pm in the afternoon.

Ankur Bhageria: 52:30

The fact that you're able to compartmentalize. I think that's one of the key things, right? I think as you sort of also grow in a career, it becomes all the more important for you to be able to switch off.

Narayan Saraf: 52:42

You know, switch on at the right times because and at the end of the day, I remember somebody used to tell me, ask me question work-life balance. What is work-life balance? I say giving priority to work when it needs it, giving priority to family when it needs it yeah. You can't differentiate. Saying that this is my work time, this is my personal, that's a great way to put it so, over the last 10 days I had some important meetings.

Narayan Saraf: 53:12

We were working almost 12-14 hours a day, you know Saturday, sunday, but now I'm on a Friday evening, I'm sitting here with you. You can very clearly manage the peaks and trails and see how and plan for it.

Ankur Bhageria: 53:29

Yeah, I love it. I think, giving priority to work when it needs it, giving priority to family when it needs it, yeah, I think if you can strike that, then that's balance right. I think so.

Narayan Saraf: 53:38

I always tell my both the sons saying that during exam days you take two hours break to play. So why during vacations you can't take one hour break from play and study?

Ankur Bhageria: 53:57

What answer do you get? They do that, they do. That is it.

Narayan Saraf: 54:01

That's fantastic, it's a power of habit.

Ankur Bhageria: 54:03

Yeah, yeah. What is the last book you read?

Narayan Saraf: 54:09

So now, to be very candid, after audibles, I'm more into audible listening because that gives me Audiobooks, audibles I don't want to promote anyone. Basically reading rather than reading, I'm more into hearing books. So I'm reading a book on elements of coaching.

Ankur Bhageria: 54:29

If you could have dinner with any leader in the world, who would it be?

Narayan Saraf: 54:34

Many. I wish, I wish, I wish. But in finance fraternity, somebody whom most of us across globe admire would be Warren Buffett, and if any day in life I get opportunity to be there. But only time will tell.

Ankur Bhageria: 54:52

What is the one code or mantra that keeps you driven in life?

Narayan Saraf: 55:00

Becoming better every day, then what I was. Don't try to compare yourself with others. Either it will make you feel that you're God's gift to mankind, or it will make you feel as if I'm good for nothing. The most important thing is that how can I become a better person, both as a human being and as a professional, every day, and keep on looking for new challenges and solving further.?

Ankur Bhageria: 55:35

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Narayan Saraf: 55:43

What you are today? You're not by chance, but today, the choices you make For tomorrow. You have to make choices today and, like I'm sitting here, I've got five choices. Sure, I chose this. It's by the choice, and if we make the right choice, then there will be a chance which will help us, because on that day we'll be prepared for it. Then we will say you're lucky. Understand that it's before that chance, a month, two months, a year back, or a week back, or three years back, you made some choice.

Ankur Bhageria: 56:19

You know, is it basically deliberate living right You've got to .

Narayan Saraf: 56:25

And today I'm 43, 44, almost 15 years, 16 years. I have reverse my diabetes. Six months back I said, wow, Now enough is enough. That's amazing 20 years according to the tongue, according to the body, that's amazing.

Ankur Bhageria: 56:44

That's incredible. I mean that's not easy to do. I can imagine.

Narayan Saraf: 56:48

And for a Madoo it's even more difficult.

Ankur Bhageria: 56:50

Yes, if you weren't in finance, what profession would you be in?

Narayan Saraf: 56:57

If I weren't in finance, I would be very clearly an entrepreneur.

Ankur Bhageria: 57:06

That's something which Is that the Marwadi genes.

Narayan Saraf: 57:10

I don't know what genes it is Is it the Marwadi or what genes but it's something which I always wanted to do and I was very clear with the kind of responsibilities that I have and the kind of financial system I had, I didn't have that risk appetite Since I'm free. But time will tell whether I take that plunge or not. But yes, it has something which I am probably not.

Ankur Bhageria: 57:39

That's fantastic. Finally, what is the one piece of advice you would want to give to, let's say, a new CFO?

Narayan Saraf: 57:52

Any new CFO, I would say that first is very clearly, build a strong team, because that's very important. Build a team which trusts you and which home you trust. Then I always tell, find those pot of bowls and the inefficiency. But while doing that, you have to always not forget your fundamentals, which is your control, shape and custodian of the assets, the liabilities, the reserves and everything. But, yes, make it future finance. How can you partner with the business in the competitive, responsible, sustainable and profitable growth?

Ankur Bhageria: 58:39

Fantastic, great Narayan. Thank you so much, and with that, I think we'll wrap it up for today. This has been an incredibly insightful conversation, so I really appreciate you taking out time to do this with us.

Narayan Saraf: 58:52

I would like to thank you very much for inviting me. This podcast. my first podcast. I know I hope it's another last it's t t sure, but thanks for giving me this opportunity and thanks for giving me opportunity to share my experiences. I hope even if one person hears it, it would be helpful. Even if I can make a difference to one person, it would be great work, which I would have done to?

Ankur Bhageria: 59:17

No, I'm sure it will be and I'm sure we'll have more such conversations. No for sure.

Narayan Saraf: 59:20

Looking forward to it. .. Perfect. Thank you very much. Thank you, thanks, thank you.

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Published on:
Mar 22, 2024
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