Narayanan joined the State Bank of India as an officer. He served in State Bank of India's branches in Trichi and Madras (city now renamed as Chennai) before moving to Bombay (city now renamed as Mumbai) in the 1960s.
Narayanan Vaghul resigned from the State Bank of India and took up a teaching position at the National Institute of Bank Management (NIBM). Within two years, he became its director.
In 1978, he became the executive director at Central Bank of India and served for two years there. Appointed as chairman and managing director of the Bank of India in 1981, he became one of India's youngest chairman of a nationalised bank at the age of 44. He was the chairman of the Bank of India till 1984.
In 1985, he was appointed as chairman and managing director of the then Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), the financial institution now known as ICICI Bank. He transformed ICICI from public financial institution to India's largest private bank. After relinquishing executive powers in 1996, he was its non-executive chairman till 2009.
Narayan was awarded as the Business Man of the Year Award in 1991 by 'Business India’, The lifetime achievement award by the Times publications, The Economic Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Narayanan had also served as a director in many major companies of India including Wipro (since June, 1997), Mahindra & Mahindra, Apollo Hospitals and Mittal steel. Narayan is also the Chairman of Give_India, one of India's NGOs.
Narayan received the award of Corporate Catalyst — Forbes Philanthropy award in 2012 for his active involvement and assisting philanthropy causes.
- "Press Information Bureau English Releases". Pib.nic.in. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- "Narayanan Vaghul — Forbes". People.forbes.com. 18 April 2012. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- "Narayanan Vaghul". Bloomberg. Retrieved 19 December 2014.
- "Narayanan Vaghul: The Corporate Philanthropy Catalyst". Forbes. Retrieved 19 December 2014.