A pair of intense animal eyes greet me as I walk into an office in Mumbai’s Nariman Point financial district. I’m looking at a close-up photographic portrait of a crouching leopard. Further up the wall is a similar sized portrait of a tigress and her cub. The images dominate the compact, conventional C-suite, which has a large (and hurriedly tidied) presidential desk, a bookshelf and a sofa and armchairs.
This is the office of Aditi Kothari Desai, 46, the vice chairperson of DSP Investment Managers, a 25-year-old asset management firm. She’s the fifth generation in a family working in capital markets, the 160-year-old DSP group. Passionate about wildlife, Desai is a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, a non-profit started by her father Hemendra Kothari, the chair of DSP, and other family members, in collaboration with wildlife experts.
“The photos reflect what we love (as a family) and part of what I do, which is wildlife conservation. I chose the leopard’s images because of the eyes, it’s quite unusual. And I liked the image of the baby cub being possessive of his mamma,” says Desai.
She divides her time between the office and home, where she likes to work “with a laptop on my legs, with my legs up. I feel I work better that way. I don’t like to sit at a desk in general,” she says, highlighting the need for a well-lit and comfortable home office, where one can take calls and do concentrated solo work. Offices themselves are important, especially to build social capital.
“Coming to the office is a good thing. Because I feel during covid relationships became transactional, we realised the importance of actually being physically present.” While the corporate headquarters take up two floors in the Mafatlal centre in Nariman Point, there is a bigger office in Andheri and offices across India as well. Partitioned workstations, private offices and lots of wildlife photographs convey an elegant, traditional corporate atmosphere.
A Wharton and Harvard Business School graduate, Desai has spent nearly 25 years working in finance, in the US and India, in a variety of roles. Now, she heads strategic investments (reporting to CEO Kalpen Parekh), is a director on the board and is also working on an “exciting new fintech venture”.
As we dissect her leadership style, I spot several parallels between wildlife safari (a favourite preoccupation) and her approach to leadership, management and finance.
First, patience. As anyone who has gone on safari knows, one has to be prepared to wait a long time for a sighting.
Similarly, being a patient investor is a fundamental principle for Desai, who likes investing in STPs (systematic transfer plans) in chosen funds on a weekly basis. “If you can just be patient rather than chasing returns, you will eventually make money. Sometimes it takes longer,” she says, citing anecdotes of sectors such as healthcare, technology and energy, when investors pulled out too early, losing out on gains, at different points over the past two decades.
Patience also implies being willing to look different, Desai says. “I like reading Howard Marks, who said that you have to dare to be different, but you have to dare to look wrong. And you have to have the patience, and the confidence to take the risk of looking wrong for a period of time. If you can risk that, that’s part of being a good investor,” she says, describing instances where investors sent hate mail when they thought the company was taking the wrong financial decision, only later to see significant returns. There were also times when she felt “stupid”, “foolish” and “nervous” taking certain decisions, but stuck with them.
Second, being meticulous. A successful sighting on safari is often the result of good luck, but it also usually requires a lot of attention to detail, such as listening to animal cries or tracking pugmark. Similarly, one of Desai’s long-time colleagues, who prefers to remain anonymous, confirms that she follows high standards, with great attention to detail in her work.
“I know that if I don’t bring that extra something, I’m not going to be okay with putting the work in front of her. It makes me produce better work,” he says.
Third, the ability to be silent and quiet, both of which are necessary on a safari. Desai has always come across as a quiet person, and acknowledges that she is “introverted. I like my me-time, for reading, I realise that more and more I love being by myself. Sometimes I do get exhausted looking at my calendar. At the same time, I’m pretty social, and when I’m in a meeting, I’m fully connected and enjoying my time in the meeting. I’m better one on one; I’m not very good, in a group, at being loud, at getting my voice heard in a group of people that I haven’t met before,” she explains.
This could be a conundrum, I probe, especially in roles where she has had to manage a large salesteam of 200 generally outgoing people. Desai said she chose to lead by building processes, creating a digital mindset, even setting up book clubs for her salesteam to encourage them to expand their knowledge, as well as relying on her colleagues for the more gregarious aspects of the role.
It is a different approach to sales. DSP is one of the largest asset management companies in the country, but it is not the biggest and Desai is clear that she and her team are not “chasing AUM (assets under management) by cutting corners,” but pursuing sustainable growth. “You grow robustly and correctly, so that it can be passed on to the next generations. I don’t believe in the crash and burn stuff. I’m aggressive about further growth. Do I want to grow more? Yes. Do I want to go faster? Yes, but not at the expense of crashing,” she says.
Patience intertwined with risk-taking, being meticulous and being quiet, Desai presents a template for leadership that might resonate with many readers who prefer a more low-decibel workstyle. What’s interesting to note is that it doesn’t prevent her from being articulate, decisive, passionate and most importantly, authentic. And that is perhaps the rarest sighting.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.