IN A COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE, the country’s third-largest lender Axis Bank led by Amitabh Chaudhry has been acing the charts with standalone profit compounding at 47% ever since the 57-year-old took on the top job from Shikha Sharma in 2019. The performance of the former CEO of HDFC Standard Life Insurance Company fetched him in 2021 a three-year extension till 2024. Given the bank’s strong performance thus far (9MFY24 profit up 16% to ₹17,732 crore and consolidated return on equity or RoE expanding 82 bps to 18.86%), it’s quite likely that an encore is in the offing for Chaudhry. Interestingly, the last fiscal marked a milestone in the bank’s journey following the successful merger of Citibank’s consumer businesses which Axis had acquired for $1.6 billion (₹11,603 crore) in 2022, giving it access to Citi’s 2.4 million customers and ₹39,900 crore of deposits.

While Chaudhry got what he wanted — an immediate bump-up in the bank’s market share with a 150-bps hike in low-cost deposits from 44.50% to 46% and a significant expansion in credit card market share from 11.4% to 16.2% — managing the expectations of anxious 3,200 Citi staffers was no less a deal, considering that they were moving into a powerhouse of 1 lakh-plus employees.

Reflecting on the remarkably “silent” integration of Citi’s retail business, Rajkamal Vempati, president and head of human resources, says, “It was quieter than anticipated, with lower attrition rates. Despite the differences in corporate culture, we managed to find common ground as, at the end of the day, we’re all humans.”

Ensuring the smooth transition, however, did involve extensive communication efforts — speaking with employees, addressing their concerns, and facilitating their integration into the bank’s culture. “When the time came to extend offers, the acceptance rate was overwhelming at 97%, the highest across the Citi network. We conveyed a message of similarity and inclusion. Our approach was to integrate, not segregate — avoiding a ‘bank within a bank’ situation. We provided clear paths and roles within Axis for 70% of the transitioning staff,” explains Vempati.

The incoming Citi employees were familiarised with Axis Bank’s developmental programmes, reinforcing a sense of belonging. “We made sure they felt at home by granting them access to all our organisational programmes,” says Vempati. “Many were surprised by our adoption of flexible work arrangements, something they had not experienced at Citi. This, along with our efforts in diversity and inclusion, positioned Axis as a more progressive workplace than they had initially imagined.”

The successful transition of Citi’s retail business, spread across 34 branches in metropolitan areas, is in some sense a testament of Axis Bank’s HR culture that complements its three-vector strategy of Growth, Profitability and Sustainability (GPS).

Walking the Talk

If change is a constant, the pandemic only hastened the process. But for Axis Bank it was the perfect storm to reinforce the bank’s sails.

As the world grappled with Covid, Axis Bank saw an opportunity not just to adapt, but pioneer as well. “Covid struck with the leadership change. One of the things we’re doing differently is thinking about how to sustain human performance,” says Vempati. The agility was manifested in the bank’s rapid transition to remote work, a shift made practically overnight.

At the forefront of this transformation was the launch of GIG-A-Opportunities, a programme designed to embrace the gig economy and offer roles ranging from digital banking to audit and credit policy. “We received 56,000-60,000 (applications). The big insight was if you’re not part of a changing thinking, you will lose talent,” says Vempati. The shift to incorporate gig workers and remote roles did not impede productivity. “Productivity numbers are high. Performance ratings are rising organically. It’s the third year running, and I’ll be doing the fourth. Why do I need to stop something that’s working?” says Vempati.

Beyond gig, the bank has also been proactive in fostering an inclusive culture, widening the definition beyond women empowerment, given that today’s generation is more inclusive, talk more about diversity and seek equitable practices. “If we say we believe in women empowerment, the reaction would be ‘what are they talking about in 2024?’ They might not even apply in such companies. Hence, sustainability needs to be omnipresent as people are seeking purpose. They are seeking alignment with their own values,” explains Vempati.

The bank, indeed, walks the talk as is evident in the hiring of equal rights activist, Harish Iyer, as head of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “Our diversity percentage is 25%, and we are looking at 30% by 2027... We changed the policies on dress code. If you identify yourself as a man for the day, you have to dress accordingly. If you identify yourself as a woman, dress accordingly,” says Vempati.

Interestingly, the bank’s approach to diversity and inclusion took a unique turn under the guidance of Iyer, focusing not just on internal policies but also on how diversity is integrated into customer experience. This shift towards a customer-centric view of diversity acknowledges the needs and backgrounds of the bank’s clientele, aiming to create an inclusive environment for all, including traditionally marginalised groups such as the transgender community. “We realised the community’s inclusion percentage is very limited. So, we got the transgender community on the consumer side,” says Vempati.

Another initiative, Axis Women in Motion, represents an effort to inspire and support women’s education and career aspirations. The bank reaches out to campuses, engaging directly with 25,000-35,000 people annually. The programme’s core mission is not direct employment but to present relatable role models and encourage young women to “stay in motion”, emphasising the importance of momentum in personal and professional growth led through interactions with the bank’s women leaders. Similarly, the bank’s HouseWorkIsWork initiative, launched in 2022, represents a significant step towards recognising and leveraging the potential of women who have taken career breaks and are looking to re-enter the professional world. The programme is designed to provide such women a platform to utilise their skills in various roles within the bank. “The underlying goal is to instil confidence in these women, affirming that their time away from the professional space does not diminish their employability or the value they can bring to the workplace,” says Vempati. There’s also a strategic push towards empowering women in sales and lending roles in the context of Axis Bank’s expansion through its Bharat Bank initiative, focused on deepening the bank’s reach in rural areas.

Talent Scouting

To curb attrition, which is on the rise, 34.8% in FY23 against 19.1% in FY21, the bank is looking at alternatives to retain and promote talent. “The internal mobility of employees is often perceived as more difficult compared to the external job market. It is 80 times harder to get a job inside than externally,” says Vempati. The bank has laid down the concept of an “internal talent marketplace”, a system where every available job within the organisation is posted internally, allowing employees to apply and move across roles more fluidly than traditional promotion processes might permit. The initiative increases the probability of promotions for talented employees. “Last year, 10-12% of overall annual promotions came through this process,” reveals Vempati.

The platform is also part of the bank’s broader strategy to harness AI for HR and talent management processes. “We’ve transitioned from predictive AI to cognitive AI. However, it’s crucial that we remain focused on the business rationale behind employing these technologies. The goal is to streamline operations, akin to creating a ‘silent HR’ system,” says Vempati.

The bank also recognises the intricate balance between offering flexibility and guiding employees through their career paths. “We believe flexibility breeds opportunity, but we understand that choices can overwhelm. It’s essential, hence, to act as talent scouts, actively engaging and guiding employees through their potential career paths, especially after they’ve spent 16 months in a role, recognising their need for growth and change,” says Vempati.

Instead of solely focusing on the traditional approach of cyclically hiring from the same industry, the bank has broadened its recruitment strategy to include visits to educational institutions. The expansion has significantly increased its outreach in Tier-II and III campuses across the country. “We’ve expanded our recruitment efforts, reaching out to 800 campuses annually. The approach allows us to tap into the fresh, innovative potential from a wider geographic pool,” explains Vempati.

The efforts are bearing fruit in terms of productivity. Axis Bank, with a significantly lower employee base, has made its mark with business per employee of ₹19.5 crore in FY23, against ₹19.7 crore for HDFC Bank whose staff strength, post-merger, stood at 173,000 in FY23.

Through initiatives such as GIG-A-Opportunities and a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, the bank is not just navigating the challenges of the present but also shaping a future-ready tomorrow. Vempati though candidly admits, “While one can never be sure of how future ready an organisation can indeed be, at Axis Bank the journey is about sustaining culture and being human.”

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