Inspirational leaders — Episode 1

I love reading and hearing about inspirational leaders because they give me food for thought and influence my capacity to ameliorate myself. However, I am unable to totally identify myself with them because I don’t know them. So I decided to go and meet those leaders myself, and ask my own questions.

This article is a kickstart to what I hope will become a regular series of inspirational interviews. A big thank you to Nikhil Srinivasan, Chief Investment Officer and member of the management committee of Generali Group, who took out time from his very busy schedule for an hour long interview.

Nikhil Srinivasan, CIO of Generali Group

Nikhil is 47 years old, of Indian origin, and heads investments worth 500bn€ at Generali, after having managed assets for the same amount at Allianz, another well-known European insurance company…no other Indian, or even Asian, can boast of such an achievement in continental Europe.

1/ You are the CIO of one of the biggest insurance groups in Europe, and among the few who lost no money during the 2008 crisis. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 you were the best amongst peers with an 11.5% annual return. What do you believe you owe your success to?

Nikhil Srinivasan (NS): On paper, I was cut out for success — I left for the United States of America when I was 17, I graduated from Cambridge and Harvard’s Kennedy School, and became the CEO of an asset management company in Hong Kong at 30 years of age. But then I decided to launch my own startup in Thailand, in 2001, and failed miserably. That failure taught me a lot more that any amount of success. Most importantly, failure taught me humility and that the only way forward was hard work and perseverance! It took me a good 3–4 years after that episode to get my confidence back and return to the path of success, but the humility never went away. I also realised that nothing can scar me, barring health and family, and once you get rid of the fear of failing, you are better prepared for success. So I must say that I owe my success to failure!

Once you get rid of the fear of failing, you are better prepared for success — Nikhil Srinivasan

2/ How did you bounce back after your start-up failed?

NS: I joined Allianz through the back door, thanks to a Thai family that I knew well. When I arrived in Munich with Allianz, I was lucky to have a far-sighted boss who saw my potential and gave me my chance. It is often a question of good timing and some luck, however, though luck can help you get your chance, it’s up to you to transform the opportunity. I firmly believe that the only way to success is hard work. 10 years after I joined Allianz and was managing assets worth half a trillion euros, Mario Greco who had just arrived at Generali asked me to become a part of his core team and steer Generali’s assets in a context of internationalisation.

3/ Today you manage over a 1 000 people. I’m not sure you actually know each and every one of them, so how do you communicate and lead?

NS: I have several good managers in my team whose job is to manage people on a daily basis and solve everyday problems. My role as a leader is to motivate people and I do so by working harder than them; I lead by example. While continuing to work hard, I now perceive my role as a mentor and I try to use my experience to guide people, within my firm and outside as well.

4/ How do you ensure that you continue to grow as a leader?

NS: I work in a big group but I try to keep my entrepreneurial spirit. I am open-minded and curious, which keeps me from being cynical and pushes me to keep looking for new ideas and helping people grow. It’s easier because I enjoy people and I aspire to give them the same chance that my mentors gave me. As a minority who managed to make a mark in the European financial scene, I encourage my teams to give bright students from minority populations their chance as interns — some of these interns now have permanent positions at Generali and I am very proud of that.

5/ Who do you look up to most?

NS: There are two people that I have always looked up to. Firstly, the Dalai Lama, who has been fighting for years for a reason, without ever giving up. Secondly, Nelson Mandela, who knew how to forgive and he really forgave. These are such essential life lessons, I worship these guys. I also have a lot of admiration for Jeff Bezos, who gave me my first job at a hedge fund in New York. I am not surprised to see the heights at which he has reached today, he has always been such a forward-thinking person.

I worship the Dalai Lama, who has been fighting for years for a reason, without ever giving up, and Nelson Mandela, who knew how to forgive and he really forgave.

6/ What do you like to do outside of work?

NS: I love travelling and meeting new people. I also read a lot. Have you read the book Wait by Frank Partnoy? It’s the best book I have ever read. I am also a foodie and big on chocolates, so I took some time off in Paris this time to go to Alain Ducasse’s chocolate shop. It is so important to enjoy the moment.

7/ One last piece of advice?

NS: Never take yourself too seriously. Never be afraid to ask a question or say you don’t know, so that you can keep learning new things.

On that note Nikhil headed off to his next meeting and I left Intercontinental’s coffee shop in Paris, thoroughly INSPIRED!

I hope you enjoy this article as much as I enjoyed interviewing Nikhil. Please do give me feedback and if you like the article, recommend it to others.