A class apart

January 28, 2019

What are the conversations that led to the topic of the book, The Made in India Manager?

The two of us noticed the appointment of a number of Indian-origin managers as global chief executives in both the technology and consumer sectors. We wondered whether there was anything larger to this. We followed this up with extended conversations with our contemporaries, many of whom were in senior positions in global corporations. Almost uniformly, people attributed significant aspects of their success to a set of qualities that had been built by the unique cauldron of experiences that growing up and competing in India entail. On discussions between us, the ideas that shaped this book came to the surface. Informally, we tested these ideas on both business school and corporate audiences, and the enthusiastic reception gave the impetus for this book.

A brief overview of the ‘emergent’ factors that prepare the made-in-India manager for achieving success on the global stage…

The concept of emergence has been derived from biology and botany. It refers to a distinctive confluence of factors, not the individual factors that cause a biological change to occur. When a bud blooms into a flower, a combination of factors occurs. Likewise, when a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. In our book, we have argued that there is a confluence of factors that make the Indian distinctly prepared for management challenges—hyper-competitive environment, resilience in the face of failure, diversity of languages, thinking and social structures, natural adaptability, a family structure that pushes ambition but also supports and, finally, the ability to think in English and act in Indian.

The beauty of the flower is not the sum of its constituent elements—it emerges from the way the elements are put together and is far greater than the beauty of the individual elements. Similarly, the made-in-India manager emerges from the unique qualities and experience described earlier, but is far more than the sum of
these qualities.

“…it leads us to wonder whether the colloidal nature of Indian society (and made-in-India managers) imparts a singular quality to their approach to problem-solving.” Could you explain the facets of the ‘colloidal’ society that India is and its impact?

In chemistry, a colloid is a dispersal of a solid in a liquid, which is neither a solution nor a precipitate. In a colloid, the solid is dispersed throughout the liquid, holding its own place and identity, yet being part of the whole. When, for example, wheat flour is dispersed in milk, it becomes a colloidal mass. It reflects light differently from the individual components; in this case, the colloid reflects a blue light even though wheat flour and milk are both white. In India, different religions co-exist, different languages, different castes, all stay side by side, yet having their own identity. No other society in the world is quite so colloidal. This distinctive feature makes Indian people quite different in their approach to problem-solving.

As “the first informal organization we are exposed to,” the family often serves as the foundation for management approaches and leadership attributes. How would you assess its impact, especially with respect to qualities like self-belief, adaptability, and inclusivity?

We cite many examples in the book of the foundational role of family in shaping values. Over 80 percent of Indian origin leaders will cite a family member as a significant role model.

The family provides a safe environment, and an environment, which fosters and encourages excellence, particularly in the academic domain. Values of humility, sacrifice, and hard work are nurtured in the family. Often, our parents believe in us before we believe in ourselves and this is the starting point for the cultivation of self-belief.

Whether it be in welcoming relatives into the home, or in adapting to electricity or resource shortage, we observe and practice adaptability in the home environment. This is learning through demonstration, and stays with us for time to come.

“When the vectors of thought and action are aligned, you get the best possible combination of efficiency and effectiveness.”  Does thinking in English, but acting in Indian—true of many a manager—then adversely affect efficiency and effectiveness?

Indians, perhaps 50 to 70 million out of the billion plus population, are able to think in English as evidenced by their fluency in responding to ideas and stimuli. Watch a TV debate, and you can see the evidences that they communicate and respond in English. Many Indian managers find it easier to deliver their ideas about the global economy or product marketing in English rather than the vernacular. While their thought process follows an Anglo-Saxon logic and language, when it comes to implementation, their actions have to traverse an Indian cultural ground. This apparent duality causes Indian managers to place effectiveness (what will work) at a higher action level than efficiency (what will be logical and better). At an intellectual level, Indian managers can accept merit-based promotions or retirement based on age. In the realities of execution, they note society’s weightage to age in promotions or ‘lost expertise’ through retirement. They adopt ad hoc solutions, which makes their action effective, not necessarily efficient.

How would you differentiate between the ‘managers of today’ and the ‘managers of tomorrow’ vis-à-vis the experiences that shape their views and skill sets?

Managers of tomorrow have been parented in a far less hierarchical way. They are therefore more used to dissent, and less hierarchical family relationships. They will extend this to the kind of relationships that they will expect and practice in the workplace. They will be less hierarchical and more open in their management styles.

Conversely, they will be less willing to be hierarchically led. They will expect more in terms of autonomy and content, and will be less patient with monotony.
Often, this may lead to a perception of a ‘sense of entitlement’ and ‘low attention spans’. If harnessed right, the energy of these managers can positively transform tomorrow’s organizations.

What constitutes the ‘quiet confidence’ of tomorrow’s managers?

Tomorrow’s managers have grown up in a different India. It is an India whose sports people are succeeding on a global stage in multiple sports; where our cricket team is no longer expected to ‘just compete’ when it travels outside. Indian companies are building global brands, and there are many visible success stories from India. This is also a generation that is far more aware, and hence, is less likely to be overawed when exposed to a global stage for the first time.

The manager entering the workforce today is far more diverse—geographically, the domination of the big cities has reduced. More women are entering the managerial workforce. Many have already overcome significant odds in the academic process, and are deeply driven to move their families to a higher economic status.

Experience of success, a different perception of India and Indians, a hunger to learn and grow, when combined with the value foundation of a good family upbringing, are at the root of ‘quiet confidence’.

Workplaces are being reshaped mainly by the invasion of technology, and a pattern of blurred boundaries is emerging. What does tomorrow’s manager need to do differently to prepare for the workplace of the future?

What is needed is a positive filter on disruption. Disruption has been largely projected as technologically led, and threatening to jobs and careers. History suggests that each disruption creates new opportunities, and people who are quick to embrace change often are at the forefront of new industries. If you are able to stay curious, willing to experiment, learn and fail, and retain a sense of curiosity and openness, then every disruption will offer the chance to ride a new curve of personal growth.

Having two strings to your bow: essentially, many people have multiple passions. If you look for opportunities to express more than one of those passions at work, it will create new opportunities for you and give the organization a less ‘one-dimensional’ view of you. Often, this practically means putting your hand up for interesting cross-functional projects and the willingness to socialize beyond silos. It also means keeping at least one passion alive outside the workplace.

A word of advice to the managers of tomorrow—how they can maintain a better balance between Indian and Western influences and emerge as India’s next ‘soft power’.

I think we need to dig deep into our own experience and recognize the strengths that lie within. The tendency to accept anything out of the West as better or superior needs to be avoided. Essentially, if we can combine the self-awareness, spiritual wisdom, and adaptability that comes from our Indian-ness, with the process discipline that comes from the West, and develop a situational awareness of how to keep these two in balance, we will be on the right track. One of the most common reactions that we have got from early readers is that the book helps them understand their strengths better, and that is a good sign.

We must be able to identify and exploit ‘second curves’. Originally derived from the world of technology and product development, Charles Handy has extended the concept of a second curve to careers. A skill, technology, or new product grows in importance and proficiency through individual effort and experience. The growth tapers off and the curve flattens as the skill peaks out. The way to stay relevant is to identify a ‘second curve’, which is valuable and work on it before the skill flattens out. The second curve could involve a new skill or an augmented skill; crucially, it involves the ability to experiment while one is still successful.

(As told to Anitha Moosath)