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Great leaders come from many walks of life. Some, like Rahul Merchant, Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Client Services & Technology at TIAA, come from modest backgrounds but have the grit, determination and guiding principles to carve their own paths. On this week’s episode, Gamiel chats with Rahul about his 30 years of public and private sector experience as a transformational leader, following his background in business, technology, operations and private equity.
Rahul was born and raised in Bombay, now Mumbai, where he got his degree in electrical engineering—but he was determined to continue his education in the United States with the goal of building a career there. He borrowed $10,000, got on a plane, and began his studies at Memphis State where he had received a scholarship—and subsequently a master’s in computer science.
He made Philadelphia his home and quickly got a job in tech, but after five years realized he needed to broaden his business knowledge and returned to school to complete his MBA at Temple University.
Rahul worked in the financial services industry in Philadelphia before moving to New York to work in a variety of roles for Wall Street firms. This led to a major career accomplishment—he joined Merrill Lynch in 2001 as CIO.
“It was the first time I became a true technology-only person,” Rahul says. “But I also became a very global person and traveled to Tokyo and Europe quite a bit as Merrill gained a global footprint.”
Despite his busy travel schedule, Rahul made a commitment to his family that he would be home on weekends to spend time with his wife and sons. He pledged that he would never miss a parent-teacher conference, a swim meet, or soccer and baseball games. But one Sunday, his son asked for help on his homework just as Rahul was on his way to the airport.
Rahul said, “‘Why don’t I call you from the car and help you?’ But I forgot to call him until I got to the airport. By then, my son had gotten help from a neighbor. I realized that I had missed the mark of being a good parent, a good husband and family man. That day I decided I would give up this wonderful job that had given me such a rich experience, quality reputation, and contacts in the tech world, including the Valley.”
Rahul left Merrill and joined Fannie Mae to lead technology and operations. After a few years, he was asked to join the board of Sun Microsystems.
‘You understand the business, you understand the technology and you understand what our investors are thinking,’ Rahul remembers Sun co-founders Jonathan Schwartz and Scott McNealy telling him. “It was my first foray into being on a board, and since then I’ve been on 18 and still sit on three boards today. It’s a fantastic experience for anybody in the technology arena—especially for CIOs and CTOs.”
Rahul worked for a private equity firm for a few years before being tapped by Michael Bloomberg to be the first city-wide Chief Information and Innovation Officer for New York City, an honor and a very enriching experience for him.
“I learned a lot. It changed me as a human being and changed my perspective of people who are in public service. They are the most dedicated and hardest working people in the world.”
After his city job, Rahul went back into private equity until Roger Ferguson, the President and CEO of TIAA, tapped him in 2015 for his current role as Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Client Services & Technology at TIAA.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m able to get paid for something that I am so honored to do—helping folks retire with security.”
“I believe that every person, whether it’s in their career life or their personal life, needs people who are rooting for them. I believe that it’s important to have some level of humility and not forget where you came from—those are our tailwinds. Whether it’s a coach on a soccer field, or a boss, or someone on your staff—learn from them and thank them for their contributions that make you a better human being. I learned my most valuable lessons from folks in the housing projects when I worked for the City of New York. They gave so much and did so selflessly.
When it comes to leadership, you need to be a good ‘player coach’—one that understands the issues that your staff and the people around you are facing. Appreciate these folks when they succeed—but appreciate them even more when they fail. It’s failure that teaches us the most—not just in business but in life. If you are always successful, you are not taking enough risks.”
“I’ve been in financial services most of my career. We are applied users of innovation. We take and apply newer innovative technologies. We do process innovation, which helps reduce the cost of doing business, and we try new ways of solving problems with financial product innovation. In the financial services industry, what’s most important is keeping the customer in front of us. We want to provide them with the best product, the best services, and meet them where they want us to meet them. That way, they can continue to trust us. The way I see innovation is that we can either do everything ourselves or we can count on professional innovators like Mayfield to show us a curated list of relevant technologies to consider. So we come to you and say ‘Here are the five or six big problems we’re trying to solve—help us out, either from your portfolio or from whatever else you see out there, and recommend some solutions.’
I’ve stayed relevant by being on the boards of companies in different industries. There is innovation in every industry—it’s the name of the game. Competition is everywhere. The only way to stay relevant is to be faster and better and to keep the customer at the center of everything you do.”
Coaching CEOs of Startups
The number one thing that startups need to figure out is whether they’re talking to somebody relevant. Rahul’s suggestion to CEOs is to get a curated list of what is relevant to their prospects, to make sure they are talking to somebody who needs what they are selling. When the CEO of a startup sits in Rahul’s office and asks what his pain point is, he says “‘Thank you very much, have a nice day.’ It’s so important that startups are looking for a relevant problem and are ready to explain their solution in a way that their customer can understand. Skip the jargon. Startups must tell their potential client how a solution is going to make them look like a hero. That’s the basic ingredient of customer acquisition.”
5 Key Life Lessons and Takeaways for the CXO of the Future
- You can’t be a different person in your professional life than you are in your personal life. Have a fundamental value system and practice your values religiously. Remember those values whether you are talking to family members, board members or homeless people on the street. “Be a good human being,” he says.
- Recognize that you can’t do everything yourself. “There are many examples of people who are average Joes (including me!) who succeeded because of the tailwinds of other people pushing them forward. Show them appreciation,” says Rahul.
- Leave your business cards at the door. Be a good family man. Help with homework, do the dishes and don’t miss soccer games.
- Appreciate success, but appreciate failure and taking risks even more.
- Keep an open mind and an eye for disruption. Continually network with people who are smarter than you.
About Rahul Merchant
Seasoned executive with a proven track record for managing businesses and organizations with public and private sectors enterprise and Private Equity across the globe. Professional director serving as a member of public and private company boards.
A commercial-minded visionary with record of creating and monetizing technology products to solve complex business problems. Transformation leader with experience managing and revamping businesses to deliver financial results for the shareholders