CXO-Series

CXO Series: In conversation with Amitesh Sinha

Over the years, corporate finance leadership has witnessed a shift towards higher roles and responsibilities. This wave is because of the merging of world markets and the globalisation of the economy in the past couple of decades. As such, the role of a CFO has evolved with time.

One such person who has achieved path-breaking growth with his calculated strategies is Amitesh Sinha, Head of Finance, India, of one of the largest networking platforms in the world, and in the previous stint, he has served as CFO and COO of one of the largest solar manufacturing and distribution company in off-grid space.

Amitesh, a seasoned professional, has an experience of more than 15 years in the finance and operations domains. He has made ground-breaking changes in his professional life and has provided valuable insights through his journey.

KredX: How do you define your journey as a professional?

Amitesh: Initially, I thought of pursuing engineering. It was the first time that IIT-JEE had introduced a screening test followed by the mains. That was the first time that IIT-JEE had introduced negative marking of which I wasn’t aware of until I came out of the examination hall. Although the question paper had the instructions, sometimes we don’t read the instructions properly as we are in a pre-vetted mind to go and solve the paper. I didn’t do well enough to get my desired stream of computer science, and I started looking out for alternatives.

The same year AIEEE came into the picture, and there too, I wasn’t able to get Computer Science. Post that I came to know about CA, and started pursuing it. I completed it and went on to join KPMG. I got comfortable as an auditor and thought I wanted to be this all my life. During my tenure at KPMG, I was auditing one of the largest manufacturing companies, General Electric (GE) and tech giants, Infosys Limited. Over the years of working as an auditor for them, I got connected with the finance team at GE. Towards the end of the third year of my KPMG days, I was contacted by a controller in GE for a role that might interest me. I joined GE as a finance controller. After joining GE, I started getting insights about the business because as a finance controller, my role also involved taking decisions for the business. The role not only required accounting and compliance, but it needed to do a lot more on decision making for the business, thus increasing my business sense. I was fortunate enough to work directly with Dhaval Radia, who was then the CFO at GE (Intelligent Platforms). Coming from an audit background – a chartered accountant, who was only engrossed in accounting and controllership, he helped in understanding the nitty-gritty of the business.

Then I went on to join Greenlight Planet, initially as a global controller and then stepped up as the CFO where my responsibilities also involved supply chain and operations. Once I became the CFO, it helped me understand the business and assisted me in structuring my team and the processes, which supported the business. Greenlight Planet played a significant role in providing an opportunity for young leaders. They followed a unique approach to learn everything together. Young entrepreneurs ran the company from the U.S., who believed in empowering young leaders.

My professional journey has gone with the flow. I always wanted to work and understand the business, be it finance or otherwise, and I have been fortunate enough to get roles like that. In my current role at LinkedIn, there are many tasks which aren’t expected from me, but I tend to learn how things are happening. For instance, I love learning about the product.

KredX: What are the most important experiences in your life that have brought you here today from a career perspective?

Amitesh: One of the most important lessons that I learned at the beginning of my career at GE  was having open and honest communication which helps in working more efficiently and effectively. Building a strong network with not just the leaders but the team as well helps in bridging the gap between the leadership and other executives.

Although GE was a global company, they had given us a sense of independence by creating a framework within which the local leaders were required to navigate, consequently empowering local leadership. Hence, I have tried to inculcate these in my day to day activities where one can work, create ideas and implement them as well.

Another experience that I would like to share with you when I was working as a controller at Greenlight Planet. The term CFO was just surfacing at that time, and this role required you to step up from your current responsibilities and help in the growth of the business. Once I was offered the role of the CFO there, I was hesitant at first, but after talking to Mr Dhaval, I learnt a very important lesson in my life. There are two approaches to how you do things, either you prepare it well and execute, or you just grab the opportunity and go with the flow and learn. The second one needed you to be agile and face every challenge that comes your way. I went with the second way of doing things and took the role of the CFO. This was a huge step for me as I had to take care of the FP&A along with multiple other things apart from just doing controllership. This experience made me learn that being a CFO is much more than just finance – it was a role which involved running a business.

KredX: With the changing time, there has been a shift in the trends and responsibilities of a CFO. Being in finance for so long, I am sure you might have also noticed some shifts from the conventional financing methods. What are your views on that?

Amitesh: Today, a CFO’s job is significant and complex than ever, and the role of a CFO is changing dramatically. CFOs are now expected to play a diverse and challenging role. They have to be a strategist and a catalyst while driving the growth of the business together with other business leaders. The finance team must handle various approvals prior to implementing anything for the company; hence the team acts as a catalyst. It began with the role of Chief Accounting Officer, later transforming into the role of CFO where a person shares a similar kind of responsibility as a partner. 

I would like to mention about Amazon, India CFO, Raghava who has an engineering background. His engineering perspective added to the current role and made him successful not only at Amazon but also when he was working at HUL. He loves playing around with data and strategies according to what the current data trends portray. At present, he is doing wonders at in his current role.

Performing duties in this manners have come as a radical shift because the CFO fraternity is expected to become a catalyst, strategist, and maintaining the right balance.

KredX: For finance, timely and accurate intelligence is imperative. How have you implemented it in your daily decision making? Could you give an instance for the same?

Amitesh: I would link it with technology, which is a methodology that every leader has adopted at some point. There are two ways of doing anything, either you make something perfect and then adopt it, or you take up something and then work on making it perfect. Either you perfect preparations or you can perfect your execution. Hence, I believe timely execution is critical.

Being slow in taking decision can lead to a lot of things, and I have witnessed the adverse effects of delayed decision making in my previous organisations. Making slow decisions can lead to substantial losses for any organisation rather than gaining from coming up with a perfect solution in a lot of time.

Hence, CFOs are required to be technologically savvy. Today, I think automation is becoming extremely common among organisations, but how you implement and integrate them is very important. And this very implementation is something that we can see in the current startup wave, where startups are emerging on a daily basis, but are just trying to sell their technology without researching about the needs of the consumers.

What they need to understand is that It is essential to implement technology to products and services which are fulfilling the needs of the people or solving some problem for them. If any successful startup is thriving in the market, it is doing so as it understands and caters to the requirement of the society. After that, it’s all about upgrading the technology and thinking of ways to make the existing product and service better.

Again, I would like to go back to my statement, CFOs need to be business-centric, and it can only be attained by understanding the business. Without this, even if you have a brilliant idea, you will not be able to implement it properly, ultimately failing in what you had planned for. Something as simple as automating the journal entries requires the CFO to understand the business, only then can that person decide which journal entries need manual work and which can be done automatically.

KredX: For a smooth relationship, a clear understanding of each other’s challenges is essential. What are the challenges that you have to overcome while being in this role?

Amitesh: Understanding each other’s challenges serves as a growth opportunity; hence, it is essential to do that. Like the engineering team, finance doesn’t have a direct role to play with the product team, but understanding what each team is doing becomes very important. Therefore, it is essential to have a regular cadence, even if you don’t have any transaction to talk about at that time. A CFO needs to understand the vision and mission of the company.

At LinkedIn and even in the previous organisation, we made sure that all the data and research collected, we pass to the respective teams. By doing this, we were able to collaborate it all and come up with a solution that catered to the market needs. It is vital to communicate within your team and cross-functional teams to get a sense of where the market is moving and get new ideas for the organisation.

Formal cadences are also a part of this communication where every month we discuss what’s happening in other locations. It is not necessary to have these discussions in closed doors, in a very formal manner. At LinkedIn, we get many informal opportunities to talk to people and understand their thought process. One should also take steps to communicate themselves. For instance, I’ll just invite someone from the other teams to go for a coffee, where we can talk about any topic.

KredX: Since your role is very diversified and involves interaction with almost every team. Which particular skills do you think has helped you the most apart from influencing? Also, if you can give an example from your life where this particular skill has helped you out.

Amitesh: One quality that has helped me a lot is having open and honest communication with all the teams. This helps in creating a bond with your peers. Back in GE, we conducted cross-functional projects. Doing so helped us in identifying various issues, and later together, we use to come up with a solution to that problem. This enabled a lot of leaning and increased the growth of an individual. Thus, keeping a connection with every team is critical for any organisation of an individual.

KredX: What is leadership like when finance aligns with other sectors in the market? How is leadership in finance different from other domains?

Amitesh: The general notion is that people in finance are boring, and they tend to stick to what they have. This notion exists because that’s how you traditionally it has been. But today, we are witnessing a radical shift where people in finance take equal part in the growth of a company and come up with their ideas. With their ideas, they are building processes around the business. I try learning as much as I can from my juniors as they are aware of what is happening around the world. I give them opportunities to present their ideas and then learn from them. This massively increases my learning and gives me the chance to be more adaptive toward other sectors.

Working in the pure energy sector, to the noble energy sector and now at a professional networking platform, I have learnt that metrics will differ from one industry to another. What is important is that as a CFO, you create specific metrics which are beneficial for the organisation which you can use in case anything goes as not planned, you can think fast and work accordingly. For instance, there are times when you are not performing well with the dollar metrics, but you are performing well on your consumer metrics. This indicates that you are missing on monetization. 

I remember there was an interview by Jeff Bezos published in 1999 where he was questioned about growing aggressively while the company was suffering massive losses. At that time, Jeff talked about creating a pool of consumer on his platform who would find everything in one place. He not only created a one-stop e-commerce platform, but he also went on to add services like Amazon Music, Prime Videos, among others.

Something similar happened to me when I was working at Greenlight Planet, where we were selling solar lamps, and our product range was increasing. There was a time when we use to sell products for $40, and by the time I left the company, we had products ranging from $300 to $500 indicating similar products could be sold more than once in the same household. Hence, you need to create a customer base, which is only dedicated to you. Every company will have its methodology, but how each company deals with and strategy to monetise it is critical.

KredX: Over the years, a number of start-ups have come up, which startup or startups according to you have the potential to bring a change in the market when it comes to financing or technology and why?

Amitesh: Today, there are various startups, which are making the transfer of money easier.  But what would be interesting for the Indian market is the money penetration deep within the country? While I was working at Greenlight Planet, I was closely working with operations in Kenya. I was surprised to know that money penetration in Kenya is around 89%. This implies 89% of the people of Kenya own mobiles and is using mobiles to transact. They hardly carry cash there, and some don’t even carry plastic money, they all rely on mobile for monetary transaction.

India still has a long way to go, but we can see the government making efforts to achieve this by launching UPI and all. India needs to strategize on feature phones, and once we achieve credit penetration, it will be a win for many industries. Hence, all the startups which are working in this domain have a lot of potentials. 

Another company that I really like is BrowserStack, and it is for hardcore technology people. It provides a testing platform to developers, enabling them to test their mobile applications and websites on operating systems, real mobile devices, and browsers without the need of installing on maintaining an internal lab of virtual machines, devices, or emulators. They are the largest company in their domain to do what they are doing, and I am really impressed with it. 

KredX: Coming to the company, what is it that makes you extremely proud?

Amitesh: LinkedIn’s culture and its member-first strategy is something that makes me feel extremely proud. Speaking of the culture that we have inculcated here, we collaborate with all the teams and support each other. At my previous company, although we had a vision and a mission to have an open culture, we were not able to implement it enough at that time. I believe that a healthy culture nurtures the employees and make them more productive. I mean, we can all shout and get our things done, but it will not have the same outcome as what we get when we understand and get things done.

The company member-first strategy correlates with Alibaba, where they say that the customer’s needs should be supported well. Hence, we also have a strategy we can support the members at all times. The platform caters to everyone and tries helping everyone who can benefit from the platform. This is the reason we call everyone a member, even though all of us don’t add to our revenue. 

KredX: What is your definition of success?

Amitesh: For me, success is knowing that my team is happy, sleeping properly at night, a refreshing play-time with my daughter, and getting quality family time on weekends. It is simple, but then this is my definition of success. I believe, if my team is happy and I can mould them into leaders for tomorrow, I have been successful. It is providing others with the opportunity of becoming a leader and moulding them into one just the way I was made while I was working at GE and Greenlight Planet. And I have been successful in doing this in my previous company, where we picked someone from our own team to perform my duties in my absence.

KredX: Was there a mentor, guide or somebody you looked up to or inspired you through the length of your journey, both professionally or personally?

Amitesh: One person who has inspired me in my professional journey is Dhaval Radia. He was the CFO at GE when I was working as a controller there, and he was the first person to teach me about the business. And this was back in 2012, and CFO role was not as diverse as what it is right now, but he still realised the role CFOs would be playing in the future. Even today, I ask him for his guidance and help me in the professional and personal aspects of my life. He has been a mentor to me for almost a decade now.

Another person that I admire is M.S. Dhoni. We have studied in the same school (DAV Shyamli, Ranchi), and it surprises me to see that person as humble as he was back then. And it is a big achievement to be as humble as ever even after getting all the fame. He teaches that anyone can be humble, irrespective of their position, wealth, or social status.

Last but not least, I would like to mention my wife, Priyanka, who is a banker and has pushed me to limits on many occasions to achieve my academic and professional goals. I would have never completed my CPA or CS without her support, and she has been the real force for me taking bold decisions in my career.

KredX: If there is one advice you could give your younger self, what would it be?

Amitesh: Never operate out of fear and believe in yourself when you are right. And this is coming from my own experience, where I have operated out of fear of my seniors, and the result wasn’t very good. Today, I think the leaders are also learning that one cannot enforce leadership on anyone as it can backfire.

KredX: Which is your all-time favourite quote?

Amitesh: I learnt this quote in 2006 while pursuing my CA, and I had no idea that a few years later, it will correlate with my work at Greenlight Planet. The quote was ‘Kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.’

KredX: How would you describe your typical day?

Amitesh: My typical day starts with doing morning chores, getting my daughter ready for school. Then I drive to work, which I love. This is the time when I listen to podcasts and catch on with things. There are days when I talk to myself, prepare for speeches or guest lectures. After work, I try to go to the gym. Now we have started playing badminton three to four times a week. After coming back home, I either watch something or try listening to something. Before going to bed, I have made a habit of reading something or the other, and I try not missing it at all.

KredX: Everybody does something or the other on a personal level to increase their productivity. What is that something when it comes to you? What do you do to increase your productivity? What is that thing that motivates you?

Amitesh: I think reading and listening to various podcasts helps me increase my productivity massively. I have always loved reading, but I never did it in the manner that I do now. When I say reading, I am speaking about all forms of reading available today, be it newspaper, magazines, books, and articles. Today we have the tools to read like kindle, laptops, or even hard copies. Reading adds to your knowledge base and makes it more diversified.

KredX: Which is your favourite movie?

Amitesh: My all-time favourite movie is ‘The Pursuit Of Happiness.’ Whenever I feel low, I just watch this movie, and it inspires me every time.

KredX: Which sport do you prefer? 

Amitesh: I love to play badminton. Apart from that, I love watching and playing cricket as it is very close to my heart.

KredX:  How do you like to keep yourself updated with what is happening around the globe?

Amitesh: I try to keep myself updated via various channels. Apart from that, I go to various B-schools and forums which keep me updated about the latest trends. I like to read and listen to podcasts. And then LinkedIn, is an amazing platform to have a professional network, be aware of the various things happening around the world through its news sections.

KredX: Coming to the end of the interview, Any advice you would like to give the future CFOs?

Amitesh: Never stop learning, be it peers, juniors, seniors, or industry leaders. The world is moving at a remarkable pace, and new things are coming up one after the other. As such, it is vital to be updated about it.

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