PERSPECTIVE: In a chapter of a new book, CEO of DBS Group Piyush Gupta shares his personal struggles with mental wellness after he left a senior position at Citibank to start a business, only to have it fail in a year when the dot-com bubble burst.
After struggling with anxiety, he turned to meditation, rejoined his former company, and found "a different agenda and mindset" instead of being "only driven by career success" like he was before.
The book, "Lessons For My Younger Self" was written by Gabriel Chen, who works at an investment firm, and published by Landmark Books. Chen's royalties from book sales will be donated to the Singapore Cancer Society.
The year 2009 was a special one for Piyush Gupta. In September that year, the India-born banker was announced as the new CEO of DBS Group Holdings. Shortly after, Gupta obtained his Singapore citizenship, making him the first Singaporean CEO in over a decade as all his predecessors were foreigners.
The CEO seat had been left vacant after Gupta's predecessor, Richard Stanley, died on Apr. 11, 2009, from an infection resulting from leukaemia.
Then came comments in 2010 from the former DBS Chairman, the late Ngiam Tong Dow, who said when he was at DBS, he and his colleagues believed in growing their own timber. "Foreign talent are like infant trees — they collapse at the first sight of a storm. We've to grow our own timber even though it may take longer," Ngiam was quoted.
I have known Gupta since 2009, when I was covering financial news for The Straits Times and he was running Citigroup's business for Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand before joining DBS.
Gupta does not seem to have changed much in the intervening years, though his greying hair as part of the natural ageing process is more noticeable.
I put it to Gupta whether those remarks by Ngiam placed any pressure on his subsequent hiring decisions. "No, never," he says, unfazed.
"I agree with Ngiam Tong Dow. I'm a big believer in trying to grow your own timber. This is what you want to do because you build longevity. You build aspiration."
Gupta lets on: "I could hire Singaporeans, or I could hire other nationalised Singaporeans. It doesn't matter what nationality they come from.
"I often say the fact I'm Singaporean makes me as local as anybody else. I made a choice. I could have gone anywhere in the world. I made a choice in my head and my heart that this is the country I want to belong to."
Gupta does not shy away from inconvenient questions. In fact, there are no inconvenient questions as that would mean "you've something to hide," he says. If he has an answer and can articulate it, he will do so.
At public events, Gupta exudes confidence. Equally, he has been open to the press about his vulnerabilities, that is, his struggles with mental wellness after his start-up Go4i.com failed in 2001.
It was at the height of the dotcom bubble when he left Citigroup in 2000 to set up an Internet portal called Go4i.com, in a tie-up with the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest newspapers. Five weeks later, the dot-com bubble burst and funding dried up. As the business folded, Gupta rejoined Citigroup in 2001.
"I shut the whole thing down. I spent the next two months trying to find jobs for the 100 people I'd hired," says Gupta, calling back those painful and unsettling emotions.
"After shutting Go4i.com, I went through two months of a shake-up in my self-confidence — having anxiety around what I wanted to do, what was going to happen in the future.
I was 40. It wasn't clear whether I wanted to go back to banking, whether I wanted to go back overseas, whether I wanted to stay in India. That created massive anxiety for me. I had sleepless nights. I thought I was going through depression. I went to consult doctors and they told me it wasn't depression. It was anxiety more than depression.
I had to start learning to deal with it."
Left in a limbo, Gupta embraced meditation. It took him nearly a year to return to his "normal self." He was a different person after he rejoined Citigroup, as he encouraged himself to "come back with a different agenda and mindset." His capacity and willingness to take risks at his job increased.
He was also more focused on how to make an impact in whatever he did.
"My main goal had shifted in my head. I asked myself what was I really trying to achieve and why I was in the job that I was? The fact my career kept progressing was incidental to my main goal," he says.
Life lesson: Stay grounded
At Go4i.com, Gupta would attend meetings and introduce himself as the former CEO of Citibank in Indonesia, a position he held when he was posted to Indonesia in 1998.
"My sense of self-worth came from the fact I was CEO of Citibank in Indonesia. Then you realise how much of yourself is wound up and caught up with that job title and that achievement," he says.
"Till I was 40, I was doing very well at Citi. But I was only driven by career success. I was asking myself how do I get to be one of the youngest managing directors? How do I get to be in the top 100 people in the company?"
Different stakeholders point to the impact that Gupta's leadership has had on DBS, which is ranked as Southeast Asia's largest bank in terms of assets and profitability. Take DBS customers whose lives have been transformed by DBS PayLah!. The personal mobile wallet launched in 2014 has made fund transfers and bill payments so much easier.
DBS employees acknowledge how internal operations have been overhauled to harness virtual private cloud infrastructure, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things aka IOT (interrelated computing devices operating without human interaction). The migration of applications from physical servers to the virtual private cloud has reduced the number of physical servers maintained by DBS. The use of Artificial Intelligence has enabled DBS to provide customised insights to its customers to manage their finances and investments. Meanwhile, the Internet of Things technology has given DBS new ways to engage customers through wearable devices such as smart watches.
DBS has also left its mark on the wider community. Technologists, for example, lick their lips over the bank's hackathons which allow for talented developers and data scientists to devise solutions for digitally savvy customers. People from all over the world can participate in the contest, with jobs at DBS dangled for the best performing teams.
DBS looks to be in an enviable position, having been well-primed to capitalise on the sharp increase in demand for digital banking services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2019, Harvard Business Review ranked DBS among the decade's ten most transformative organisations, also honouring Gupta as one of the world's 100 best-performing CEOs. In 2020, DBS was recognized as World's Best Bank by Global Finance; and in 2021, DBS was the global winner for Most Innovative in Digital Banking by Financial Times publication The Banker, as well as World's Best Bank by Euromoney.
As Gupta takes in the accolades, he reminds himself to stay grounded. He treasures time with his family who has his "complete unquestioned love and support."
Gupta and his wife, Ruchira, have a son and a daughter. He has called Ruchira, a physiotherapist, his "wind beneath my wings."
Having welcomed their first grandchild into their lives in 2020, he lets slip his hope of having many more grandchildren.
Gupta also stays connected with his school friends. He had attended St Columba's High School before doing his bachelor's degree in economics at St Stephen's College in Delhi, India. After graduating, he enrolled at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, for his postgraduate diploma in management.
"If you're successful like I am, it's very easy to get caught up with the lifestyle," he says. "The best way to stay grounded is go back and spend time with the friends you had in school. They know you for what you were. Within 20 minutes of meeting you, they bring you back to the kind of person you used to be."
"What I do believe is that at the end of the day, one of the biggest differences you can make is on people,” he states with a slow smile. "When it's all done and dusted, people will remember you for how you made them feel and what you did for them."
"It has been enough for me. I've people from the last 25 years who stay in touch with me. Every time they want to make a career change, they still reach out to me and say, 'I'm contemplating this. What do you think?'
Keep yourself constantly grounded. Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Remember your true self. Don't get caught up with the trappings."
Life lesson: Think like an owner
When Gupta is approached by younger people for advice, he encourages them to consider entrepreneurship. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly — and entrepreneurship may not be for everyone — but he sees plenty of positives being an entrepreneur have on one's professional growth. For one thing, it may help catalyse an ownership mindset.
Having an ownership mindset is about taking personal responsibility for the quality and success of the outcome of your work, explains Gupta. It also means you view the company you work for more than just a source of your income. Instead, it becomes part of your identity, and you are deeply committed to its success.
"I tell people working for a company it's easy to say my job is X, Y, Z. I'm HR, I'm finance, and I'm something," he says.
"But if you're an owner, entrepreneur, everything is your job because your life depends on it. You do the marketing. You do the production. You do the finance. I think that's a big learning for me over the years. The best people and the best leaders are the people who have the ownership mindset. The ownership of accountability."
Gupta cheerily informs me he wants to flip the topic around so that his younger self should now advise his older self.
"I'm big into the environment. I used to be so involved with bird watching and nature all through my middle school. My younger self used to do all these," he reflects.
"Then I got caught up in the world of finance and I stopped thinking about the green agenda, the conservation agenda. About 10 years ago, I re-found my love. I started getting more involved with nature, and bird watching, and so on."
Since rediscovering his love for nature, Gupta has travelled to Tanzania to watch gorillas in the wild and to Iceland to do bird watching.
Gupta has also become co-chairman of the advisory group of BirdLife International, a conservation organisation working to protect birds and habitats. As Gupta contemplates the type of planet his 1-year-old granddaughter will inherit, he remains hopeful the next piece of advice will resonate with her as she grows older.
“Frankly, the advice I’d give to my older self is to make sure my older self does not forget my younger self along the way,” says Gupta, chuckling at this realisation.
Top image via DBS on Facebook and Piyush Gupta on LinkedIn