Can Indian millennial managers go global?

Dr Ranjan Banerjee on his latest book on the changing face of careers
December 31, 2018
What makes Indian managers hit worldwide, reveals new book
December 31, 2018

In their 2011 Global Leadership Survey, executive search firm Egon Zehnder published a study analysing the leaders of S&P 500 companies. Their study had found that Indians led more S&P 500 companies than people of any other nationality apart from Americans. The same year in August, a TIME magazine story titled India’s Leading Export: CEOs by Carla Power was published. Featuring Vindi Banga of Unilever and Ajay Banga of MasterCard, Powers asked a dramatic question: “What on earth did the Banga brothers’ mother feed them for breakfast?”

This is where we began the conversations that led to our recent book on The Made-in-India Manager. We went out and spoke to many of our contemporaries, who were in senior positions in global corporations, and wanted to know how (if at all) their foundational upbringing and education in India had impacted their success. Across the board , there was an emerging consensus that having one’s foundational parenting, educational and life experiences in India nurtured a set of strengths which, in conjunction, created a unique preparation to emerge as a managerial success on a global stage.

Unique preparation

Competitive intensity: To get to a managerial position in a top corporation, the prospective manager has faced and overcome competitive odds of close to 1 in 100. The top engineering and management schools in India have admit rations, which are harder than Stanford or Harvard. Competition ensures a high degree of focus, hard work, the ability to work on identified strengths and weaknesses in a systematic way, and inculcates the habit of intense goal-oriented practice.

Resilience and adaptability: Systems in India are frequently less than reliable, and this means that one frequently learns to compete with a ready-made plan B. It is not unusual to find students who reach the top, despite electricity at home being intermittent. Obstacles are not seen as a block to a goal, but as a trigger to put an alternative way of working in place. Often, taking the local train to work and getting to work on time, itself builds a certain resilience.

Family values: When asked to talk of role models, many Indian leaders spoke of the inspirational role played by a parent or relative. Indian families are close-knit, and values of hard work, respect for others, dedication and humility are learnt through demonstration. This connection acts as an anchor, and many Indians settled abroad maintain a deep bond with their family. The family is also the beginning of self-belief—our self- belief is built partially by external success and validation, but also by having people around us who believe deeply in us and our ability, and care unconditionally for us. Often, the combination of hunger to build and family values creates a unique hunger; the hunger born of a desire to lift the family to a different level of economic well-being.

It is not that these attributes and factors do not exist in other nations. Poverty and living in cramped spaces occurs in San Salvador and Egypt as well. Family values and the pursuit of a better standard of living is a recurrent theme in every society. What is distinctive about India is that several of these factors occur in what botanists call an “emergent fashion”. There is a simultaneity, a synergy in their occurrence and influence. That is distinctive.

Emergence, a term used in botany, the scientific study of the plant world, is the property of a system which comes out as a property of a combination of the elements. This property may not be exhibited by any of the constituent elements. For example, the beauty of a flower emerges from the arrangement of the petals within the flower—the beauty is not a property of the individual petal, but a property of the system of petals that makes the flower. Crucially, each petal is necessary and a missing petal may prevent the emergence of beauty.

The Indian manager, who enters leading corporations, is the product of a highly competitive system, often has the support of a strong, value-centric family upbringing and has a deep desire to upgrade himself. He has experienced diversity and ambiguity, both in terms of daily events, and in terms of significant discontinuities that he has had to overcome at points in his and his family’s lives. This, combined with fluency in English , and hence the ability to combine the process and discipline of the West with flexibility and adaptability that is almost second nature to him, leads to the emergence of the “made in India global manager”.

Changing tide

This is a trend that is likely to grow, as the manager of tomorrow will have a different level of self-confidence. The generation that we come from saw our cricket team lose regularly when it went outside the country, and experienced Western products as being significantly superior to anything made in India. The current generation has seen a far more diverse Indian team regularly win abroad, global success in sports like badminton and many Indian companies making their presence felt on a global stage .

Hence, managers of tomorrow are less likely to be diffident when interacting with a Western colleague for the first time and will have much less of a “colonial hangover”.

However, this is not meant as a definitive prediction. It is a possibility and a distinct one, and to make it happen, we offer some advice for the manager of tomorrow.

  • You can be based in India but be a global manager. Some experience of leading outside India will help, but a CEO of an Indian company with a global footprint can be a made-in-India manager.
  • Humility, learnability and the ability to deal with ambiguity are part of the foundational make-up of the made-in-India manager. If you combine that with discipline and process orientation (which any multinational will teach you), you will have the right blocks in place.
  • For the manager of tomorrow, staying power and the creation of a “quiet confidence” are suggested. We must have the self-belief to be successful while leveraging our formative influences. Mere imitation of the West is unlikely to lead to success on a global stage.

In the years ahead, made-in-India managers have to be enabled to strike a better balance between Indian and Western influences as they compete in different settings.

R. Gopalakrishnan and Ranjan Banerjee are co-authors of The Made-in-India Manager.