WHY INDIAN MANAGERS SUCCEED OVERSEAS

7th June 2010, ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort.

7th June 2010, ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort. A simple idea, supported by a simple story, could be a positive format for learning and reflection and practising managers could find that useful.

(Four circumstances conspire to produce an unintended consequence: a small percentage of highly competitive, creative and competent students from a large number! Followed by a career in the relatively orderly work environment with much process-orientation of the west, the Indian manager goes Boom, Boom. He or she becomes super-productive because of lower frictional losses and obstacles.)

Some famous person said that the measure of a society is how it converts its pain and suffering into something meaningful and useful. India has done that through the remarkable success of its overseas managers.

Indians are rightly jubilant with the overseas success of their compatriots, for example, when Nitin Nohria was appointed Dean of Harvard Business School; or earlier when Subra Suresh became Dean of MIT or when Arun Sarin and Vikram Pandit rose to the top of their companies. The positive emotion often has a trace of ‘India Rising’.

The achievers are humble about their success. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen nonchalantly says, “It is not a big deal, because America is an egalitarian and meritocratic environment.” HBS’s Nitin Nohria gives credit to IIT. Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi modestly says, “I am a mother first and then a CEO.”

Do India-born managers possess something distinctive? Do they achieve more success abroad than other immigrants? It is tempting to think so and indeed there are many views. One view is that Indian managers are no different from similarly educated managers from elsewhere. Another is that Indians have always done well overseas, but media coverage has brought visibility and celebration. A third view is reflected in the recent book, The India Way: how India’s business leaders are revolutionalizing management thinking, Wharton professors Peter Capelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Michael Useem identify four distinctive Indian practices: holistic engagement with employees, improvisation and adaptability, creative value propositions and broad mission and purpose.

Whichever may be correct, the upbringing of India-born managers quite unintentionally prepares them for a good chance of success overseas. As author Sanjaya Baru wrote in March this year in Careers 360, “Stories of extreme hardship, braving impossible odds and innumerable sacrifices, abound in the lives of nearly 90 per cent of the students in the country. But among them, some perform exceptionally well. Their academic laurels are so brilliant, that at times their CV looks intimidating. And each one acknowledges that it’s the right education that made them what they are today.”

India-born managers are products of four unique circumstances.

Competitive education: IIT/IIM effect

Thanks to subsidies, higher education is accessible to middle class people. When viewed with the cultural propensity to acquire degrees, this fact results in an avalanche of several thousand applying for every college seat. Higher education is crushingly competitive. Bright Indian children who do not get into IIT effortlessly secure admission into an Ivy League College! In the US, this has repositioned IIT as a genius factory, and IIT alumni promote this assiduously!

In reality the graduates of India’s top institutions have been psychologically autoclaved through high pressure competition. They emerge as people with insatiate ambition, which vastly exceeds their intellectual or financial resources. This stretch between resource and unreasonable ambition is significant: recall the late Prof CK Prahalad, “It is essential for top management to set out an aspiration that creates, by design, a chasm between ambition and resources.”

The Indian system creates in many graduates a chasm between aspiration and resource but quite unintentionally.

Accelerated learning

Life for the student is a struggle in India compared to elsewhere: commuting in chaotic cities, inadequate privacy and lebensraum to study at home, facilities for sports and libraries, and a crushing burden of exams. Almost every student has faced early setbacks: inadequate marks in exams, a lost college admission or a limited job choice. Chance plays too important a role in the Indian student’s life, making it quite stressful, hence youngsters just have to learn to face setbacks early on. They learn to be persistent and to fight with a never-say-die attitude.

Leadership research indicates that extraordinary setbacks accelerate personal learning. Duke Corporate Education board member Judy Rosenblum wrote in 2009 in the Financial Times, “In order for people to develop as professionals, they need to be immersed in problems. A problem provides the opportunity to grapple with and test one’s ability to adapt.”

Although family and peer pressure are high, they also provide the required support to the youngster to handle the stress. Fortunately the influence of parents is prolonged and significant compared to other societies. Sir Winston Churchill told the English people, “Never give in, never, never” for the war years.

The Indian student practises this all through life. Success is not just about being ambitious, it is about overcoming adversity.

Hard work plus creativity

It is not that other nationalities are lazy. It is just that overcoming shortcomings of infrastructure requires Indians to expend energy which could otherwise have been productively deployed. The educated youngster is forced to develop the traits of hard work like East Asians who naturally derive it from their Confucian ethos. But there is a difference: unlike the East Asian, the Indian has a low aptitude for repetitive tasks. The Indian will try to do he repetitive task differently and creatively: in short, he works hard and creatively, a brilliant combination. The serious student works and sweats as if on an academic treadmill and business executives do the same in their workplace.

Indians’ propensity for hard work was grudgingly acknowledged by Abraham Pinkusewitz while explaining how the Gujaratis managed to capture 70 percent of the diamond trade in the Antwerp market, “Indians succeed because business is all they have in their lives. If needed, they will work 24 hours per day.”

Apart from the tough demands of education and life, young Indians have to adapt to challenges arising from diversity, which is quite different from, for example, the Chinese: learning several Indian languages, adapting to school systems while transferring with parents, and coping with variable teaching quality. Howard Gardner, Harvard academic on Cognition and Education, poins out, “The only reliable way to determining whether understanding has truly been achieved is to pose a new question or puzzle—one in which individuals have not been coached and to see how they fare.”

Indian students are wired to work very hard, with passion and creatively.

Thinking in English

Where else in the world would a temple be constructed for “Goddess English”? On 25th October 2010, the birthday of Babington Macaulay, such a temple will be inaugurated in Uttar Pradesh. English is being installed as a deity in the temple so that those who pray to her can be blessed with progress.

Uniquely Indian managers think in English, the test being that they use English to express fine points. Many don’t comprehend the nuances of a vernacular paper. The manager’s professional education has almost certainly been in English, case studies have been Anglo American, language proficiency has played an important role in success and socialization, and the language of business is English. As a result of these influences, the Indian manager abroad is quite analytical, linear-thinking, and articulate in his intellectual skills. He or she hits the ground running in any overseas employment.

Unintended consequence

These four circumstances produce a sufficient number of highly competitive, creative and competent students! Followed by a career in a relatively orderly work environment with much process-orientation in the west, the career manager goes Boom, Boom. He or she becomes productive very early on because of lower frictional losses and obstacles.

Many, many Indians are successful abroad, not just the few that the media write about. I know from my Unilever experience that Indians are prized as much in India as in Peru, Poland and Philippines.

These facts about the Indian manager ignore the harsh reality that many do not make it through the obstacle race. This has unfortunate social consequences. But for those that do, the probability of success abroad improves a lot.

A concurrent trend is that foreign business leaders are joining Indian companies: Carl-Peter Forster in Tata Motors, Marten Pieters at Vodafone Essar, Wolfgang Prauck-Schauer at Jet and Raymond Bickson at Indian Hotels.

In short, Indian managers are rapidly globalizing and that must be a good thing for the future.

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