Leading From The C-Suite: Saurabh Mukherjea

Saurabh Mukherjea of Marcellus Investment Managers On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive.

An Interview With Doug Noll, Published in Authority Magazine.

“Look after your health because that is your most precious asset. As a result of Ana’s inputs, from 400 flights a year I have managed to gradually bring my travel schedule down to around 100 flights a year. I have had a yoga trainer for the past couple of years. Besides three days of yoga and breathing exercises every week, I go to the gym twice a week. I have lost 4 kg in the past four years as I have cut down on my sugar, fat and red meat intake.”

As part of our series called “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive” we had the pleasure of interviewing Saurabh Mukherjea. Saurabh Mukherjea works for Marcellus Investment Managers and is the bestselling author of The Unusual Billionaires, Coffee Can Investing: The Low-Risk Road to Stupendous Wealth and Diamonds in the Dust: Consistent Compounding for Extraordinary Wealth Creation. A London School of Economics alumnus, Saurabh is also a founder director of the Association of Portfolio Managers in India, a CFA charterholder and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Saurabh’s latest book Unfiltered: The CEO and the Coach was published by Penguin Random House recently.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My family migrated from India to the UK when I was 15. Seeing the relative prosperity of the UK got me thinking about why some countries get rich without evident natural resource endowments whilst others, such as India (in the early 1990s), struggle to climb the prosperity ladder. That in turn prompted me to pursue a degree in economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). Four years after graduating from the LSE I co-founded an investment advisory firm in London based on what I had learnt at the LSE. The firm became profitable and was highly regarded in investment circles. It was subsequently acquired by a large British investment bank. Using what I got from those sale proceeds, my wife and I migrated to Mumbai, India, in May 2008. After a nine year stint as CEO of an Indian brokerage-cum-wealth management firm, in 2018 I founded Marcellus Investment Managers where we now look after the equity market investments of around 10,000 Indian families.


Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In the closing months of 2016, I requested my erstwhile employer to let me run the entire firm rather than just the brokerage-cum-wealth management subsidiary. They appointed an executive search firm to assess me. To my chagrin, the executive search firm suggested that I hire a coach to address the deficits in my skillets. Amongst the coaches that I met Ana Lueneburger came across as the most easygoing coach — I hired her thinking that she would give me the least homework. A month into the coaching relationship, I realised that I was wrong — Ana is highly perceptive, focused and driven and she made me work hard on becoming a better leader. As I explain in Chapter 3 of ‘Unfiltered’, hiring Ana was the best mistake I have made in my career.


Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I grew up in difficult financial circumstances in the United Kingdom. As result, from age 16 I had to combine work and study to make ends meet. This in turn meant that through my teenage years I went through several rough days and some extended periods of significant adversity involving financial and emotional challenges. Around that time, Dire Straits launched released an album called ‘On Every Street’. In that album there is a song called ‘The Bug’ which I used to listen to everyday whilst cleaning the bathroom fittings store where I used to work in 1992. And that’s how I learnt to hum:

  • Sometimes you’re the windshield
  • Sometimes you’re the bug
  • Sometimes it all comes together baby
  • Sometimes you’re a fool in love
  • Sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger baby
  • Sometimes you’re the ball
  • Sometimes it all comes together
  • Sometimes you’re going to lose it all.


Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

As Ana coached me, she gave me a wide variety of material to read including the Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s biography ‘Let My People Go Surfing’. I was struck by the depth of Chouinard’s conviction that Patagonia has to do the right thing not just for the customer but also for the environment. This means that, amongst other things, that Patagonia’s apparel lasts for decades (rather than depreciating in a couple of years and then being dumped) even though that might that Patagonia’s revenues might suffer in the short run. The result is strikingly attractive, highly functional, long lasting apparel which no one else is able to match.


What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Marcellus Investment Managers is only five years old. So I think it is a little premature for me to say that Marcellus stands out amidst the frenzied economic growth India is undergoing. Around a dozen or so of us who have known each other for 15 years pooled our finances and our skills to build Marcellus. From what I can see, no other asset management business in India has achieved as much in its first five years as we have done. From a standing start in 2018, we now look after $1.5 billion of assets for Indian families and British & American endowments.


You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Courtesy my parents, I learnt to read voraciously from a young age. That in turn made me a very curious child and an inquisitive investment professional. In my line of work, this ends up being particularly advantageous since as investor needs to constantly turn over new pebbles and see what lies beneath.

Thanks to Ana’s coaching, I have learnt to empathize with my colleagues, my clients and the broader ecosystem of suppliers which supports Marcellus. I used to think that in order to be successful I have to push everybody, including myself, all the time. I have learnt from Ana that less is more when it comes to building successful long lasting relationships. Ana’s interventions over the years have taught me that whilst occasionally I might have to sound the alarm bell if the Titanic is going down, on a day to day basis, a level headed, calm approach to doing things results in more getting done with less heartburn.
My wife, Sarbani, has kept me grounded through the tumult of the past twenty years as I have built three businesses one after another whilst we have raised two teenagers. Sarbani’s influence on my life has helped me understand that regardless of what happens in the office, my life is defined by my relationships with the people I love and those who love me. Keeping that front and centre of my mind helped me navigate some really tough decisions over the past few years, especially at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.


Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?

Until a decade ago, I used to maintain my distance from my colleagues fearing that if I got close to them, I would not be able to make rational decisions. Ana picked up on this six years ago and told me to reflect on whether I was doing the right thing.

It took me more than a year to fully comprehend the feedback that Ana had given me. In the early months of building Marcellus, when our financial resources were scarce and the small team was working long hours to build the business, I realized where I had been going wrong.

As Marcellus’s business gathered momentum, I knew that I needed to flip this paradigm, i.e., I needed to invest emotionally in my professional relationships, especially with my colleagues who were putting in everything they had towards creating Marcellus.

As a result, in Marcellus, now my colleagues and I regularly head out in the evening to play cricket matches under floodlights on Friday evenings (followed by pizza and other indulgent snacks).

The entire firm heads to the countryside or to a resort for a weekend outing every six months. There are monthly lunches for the whole firm and there is a birthday cake-cutting day every month (to celebrate that month’s birthday girls and boys).

And then one day came a rude awakening. In 2019, a young, hard-working employee did something that was unethical. Marcellus’s operations team spotted this and reported the matter to me. I requested HR to look into the matter. The recommendation from HR was that the youngster should be asked to leave. I acted upon the same recommendation immediately.


Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

Let me try to use the trajectory of my own career to answer this question. In my early twenties I was busy learning functional skills such as how to analyse a set of accounts or how to make an effective presentation. In my late twenties, I was trying to manage small groups of people — usually 3–4 analysts who were in their early twenties. In my thirties I was managing departments which had dozens of people in it. Now, in my forties, I manage a firm in its entirety.

Therefore, as one becomes more senior and eventually becomes a C-Level executive, ones job description changes in two fundamental ways. Firstly, you focus more on asking insightful questions rather than on giving answers. Secondly, you focus heavily on developing and helping other talented people in the firm rather than on focusing your specific task done.


What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a C-Suite executive? Can you explain what you mean?

In my teens and twenties I read a lot of business biographies which position the CEO as sort of omniscient, omnipotent hero. For example, there are plenty of books on legendary leaders like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Lee Iacocca which are in this vein i.e. he came, he saw, he conquered. As I grew older and learnt to lead, I realised that most of this hero worship is utterly misplaced. The leader’s job is to help talented, hardworking to come together and combine effectively. Contrary to what is narrated in popular business biographies, the leader’s job is not to bark orders and exercise his charisma and create a reality distortion.


What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

As I narrate in Chapter 3 of ‘Unfiltered’, in my early thirties as I was put in charge of large teams, I had technical skills (eg. valuing companies, understanding the economy, etc) but not knowledge of how to manage a large group of people. So I used to go to work everyday thinking that I needed to have all the answers for all my direct reports. As I got older I realised that an effective leader seeks to ask the right questions rather than seeking to provide answers. In my case, asking the right questions is a skill I needed to cultivate with Ana’s guidance. I wish this was a skill I had mastered in my twenties rather than my forties.


In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Leading a company entails helping other people first become managers and then leaders. This is an aspect of running a company that I still trying to come to terms with. Ana and I discuss this subject of the ‘leader as a coach’ regularly and it is a skill that I trying to master. I think it would be understatement to say that people underestimate how hard this is because most people I meet have no idea that leading a business effectively entails coaching the next generation of leaders.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Look after your health because that is your most precious asset. As a result of Ana’s inputs, from 400 flights a year I have managed to gradually bring my travel schedule down to around 100 flights a year. I have had a yoga trainer for the past couple of years. Besides three days of yoga and breathing exercises every week, I go to the gym twice a week. I have lost 4 kg in the past four years as I have cut down on my sugar, fat and red meat intake.

2 . Aim for an environment of 0 per cent politics, 0 per cent friction and 100 per cent collaboration. Teams and companies are usually focused on one collective goal. The notion that for 364 days in the year, a company can make its employees focus on a collective goal and then on the 365th day conduct performance appraisals that measure employees relative to each other (and then go on to reward them relative to each other) seems foolish, as it undermines collaboration and camaraderie within the team. Rather than making the team more than a sum of its parts, talented professionals are made to feel like virtuoso performers rather than members of a high-quality orchestra.

3 . Give yourself and your colleagues time and space (rather than pushing yourself or them more). Like much of the rest of the world, from late March 2020 onwards, we were locked down at home. In fact, March 2020 had been doubly difficult for us. Not only were we forced to shut our office and work from home, but our performance fees too, which at that time accounted for the bulk of our revenues, were almost entirely wiped out by the COVID-induced stock market crash of March 2020. There we were in April and May 2020, sitting at home with Marcellus’s financial reserves going down, with the office shut, and therefore with little or no ability to sign up new business. It was easy to make out on the Zoom calls that morale among the Marcellus team was running low. I remember writing to Ana in early June 2020 saying that this was a fight or flight scenario and that I felt that I needed to rally the troops as the pandemic swept across the world. That was when Ana offered to do a collective Zoom call with the Marcellus leadership. I spoke to my colleagues about her offer, and we decided then that getting Ana to moderate a discussion among ourselves would be extremely helpful.

On that Zoom call, Ana asked each of us to do a couple of seemingly simple exercises, such as each one talking about a difficult time in our lives. She also asked us to say what we admired most in our colleagues (Ana did not allow us to waffle; we had to be specific. For example, we had to say something like, ‘What I really admire about XYZ is that he is considerate and takes on more than his fair share of calls with difficult clients’). I could literally see the pressure levels abating on that Zoom call as my colleagues, scattered across different parts of India in the third month of the COVID-19 lockdown, felt and expressed greater empathy for each other than they had ever before.

4 . Seek to hire exceptionally curious people. As highlighted earlier in this interview, Ana and the headhunting firm gave me feedback in autumn 2017 on my areas for development, I noticed a pattern in their feedback. While issues around self-neglect and anger management were areas I needed to rectify, I noticed in the feedback that I scored highly on ‘curiosity’. As I dwelled further on this point, I realized that the underlying trait I needed to look for in people — both team members and the CEOs of the companies that we invested in — is exceptional levels of curiosity. So, why is ’curiosity’ so powerful? In fast-growing and rapidly changing economies like India, the core trait that helps professionals attain enduring success is the hunger to understand: (a) how the world is changing, (b) what is driving the specific changes in the industry they work in, and © how they can help their business capitalize on these changes.

Curious professionals not only ask such questions more often than less curious people (who might be more qualified from an academic perspective), curious professionals also push themselves harder to find answers to such questions. And because such professionals have behaved like this for extended periods of time, their mental fortitude and intellectual stamina tend to be greater. That, in turn, allows them to keep working hard to solve difficult problems long after others have given up. This explains why many of the builders of India’s greatest companies do not have prestigious qualifications but are exceptionally good at solving difficult business problems.

5 . Learn to communicate as clearly as possible to both internal and external audiences. Early on in my career I learnt to communicate very clearly with clients. However, as I became more senior and as my management responsibilities in my previous job grew, I didn’t realize that I needed to find an equally compelling way to communicate internally with my colleagues. As I neglected to communicate clearly and frequently with the 100+ analysts, salespeople, traders, accountants and operations staff in the business, a messaging vacuum was created. Some of my colleagues filled up this vacuum with messages they wanted to communicate (which were not necessarily the messages I wanted to communicate). So, while laying the foundations of Marcellus, I was determined not to let this happen again. From the week that Marcellus received its license to manage money, I created a cycle of meetings that has served us well so far, namely:

  • Every Monday at 8.30 a.m., the whole firm meets via a video-call to agree upon execution priorities for the week ahead.
  • Every month, the entire leadership of the firm meets for half a day to discuss strategic and operational issues facing the firm or opportunities that are shaping up and that might warrant decisive action on our part.
  • Once every quarter, we discuss Marcellus’s financial progress with the firm as a whole. Our finance team presents the numbers. The leadership highlights both areas in which we are progressing well and areas that need additional work.


In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Watching CEOs more experienced than me I have realised that the best leaders are there at every meaningful life event of their colleagues. This includes joyous landmarks like birthdays and weddings but also the tougher, more difficult days when a colleague is having an operation perhaps or has lost a loved one. Every CEO comes to the office everyday. Only the best ones are there for their colleagues when the colleagues most need them. That’s something I aspire to do.


You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Social media, publishing companies and the internet has made it easy for us to share knowledge at very low cost. I would love to start a movement where those with knowledge share it with those who need that knowledge without expecting a financial payoff.


How can our readers further follow you online?

My LinkedIn handle is ‘Saurabh Mukherjea, FRSA’. In case you don’t like being on social media, everything I write gets posted on www.marcellus.in


Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.