Can the Indian manager be even more successful abroad ?

29th October 2018 BUSINESS STANDARD The writer is a corporate advisor and Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. His new book, co-authored with Ranjan Banerjee, and titled “THE MADE-IN-INDIA MANAGER”, has been published by Hachette India in October, 2018.

29th October 2018 BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan*


The writer is a corporate advisor and Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. His new book, co-authored with Ranjan Banerjee, and titled “THE MADE-IN-INDIA MANAGER”, has been published by Hachette India in October, 2018.


PM Modi’s Make-in-India program never included managers, whose work may well become an influential Make-in-India product. Why?

View business from an anthropological perspective. From Indus Valley and Roman times until the industrial revolution, business meant trading–exploiting an asymmetry of market information, of possessing distinctive merchandise, of financial leverage or of having better logistics and transport.

The industrial revolution demanded efficiencies of scale. It mattered whether a factory made 1,000 widgets per day or 100 per day. The knowhow of ‘organizing’ led to profession management in the early 1900s. B-schools were born, principally in America. India got its first B-school in Kolkata in the early 1950s, perhaps first among emerging markets. Now India has over 4500 B-schools, churning out 120,000 diploma-holders, year after year.

Thus trading is the ancestor of professional management. As professional management turned bureaucratic, innovation slowed down just when technology exploded. Technology start-ups and entrepreneurship were born.

Thus both trading and management are ancestors of start-ups.

Biologists tell us that our looks and behavior are influenced by inherited DNA, but much more by upbringing. Applying this principle, India’s long trading practice, early adoption of management education and acceptance of management as a profession are all relevant to the business scenario that has emerged.

Many management academics are Made-in-India people: CK Prahalad, Nitin Nohria, Dipak Jain, Sumantra Ghoshal, Soumitra Dutta, Sunil Kumar, and the list goes on. Many top global practitioners are also Made-in-India people: Shantanu Narayen, Satya Nadella, Rakesh Kapur, Sundar Pichai, Indra Nooyi, Ajay Banga and this list too goes on. Apart from these visible names, there are other highly successful thought leaders and practitioners. (Made-in-India is defined as those who have received their foundational education and degrees in India till their late teens or later).

Can management thought and practice could emerge as India’s soft power that will influence the world? Ideas with strong roots in Indian philosophy and tradition have made a strong impression: conscious capitalism, bottom-of-the-pyramid, frugal innovation, wellness and mindfulness. This is a noteworthy and important trend crucial to the premise of our argument.

“India conquered and dominated China culturally for twenty centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her borders,” said Chinese philosopher, Hu Shih, in an adulatory speech at Harvard University in 1937. Romain Rolland was a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

Swami Vivekananda mesmerised the American public in the 1890s. Yoga has become a soft power for India in many countries abroad. Food is another soft power and over the last twenty years, Indian food has acquired a global currency.

Harvard academic Joseph Nye termed such influence ‘soft power’, and India has wielded considerable soft power for centuries.

Future managers

It does not, of course, stand to reason that the Made-in-India manager will automatically succeed in a global environment. For the future manager, there are a few simple suggestions.

Longevity matters : It has been said by many that the millennial manager has grown up in a culture of instant gratification and is far less patient. This impatience can be harnessed positively as a ‘bias for action’ and an ability to bring energy to a work environment.

Earning your right to balance : The entering manager has a notion and expectation of work-life balance which is often quite different to those of senior leaders in the organisation. Organisational rhetoric has changed and workplaces will evolve over time, but the entering manager cannot, and should not, demand balance in the workplace from day one.

Handling success : The trappings of managerial success are many. For someone who has been brought up in a middle class environment, there is transition to a high level of material comfort and status. There is often adulation, media visibility and a certain degree of sycophancy that surrounds people in top positions.

Staying connected to core values : The role of the family and the mentor are powerful. Indians overseas are quite diligent in keeping in touch with the family, and parental values of humility and respect help to keep the manager grounded.

Quiet confidence : This, is perhaps, the most important and final transition. One of the consequences of our colonial heritage (and to a certain extent, visible material contrast), is that we have come to view ideas and products created in the West as being intrinsically superior to anything created in India.

What is distinctive about India is that several of these factors occur in an ‘emergent fashion’. There is a simultaneity, a synergy in their occurrence and influence that is distinctive. 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.

It may well be that management thinking and practice could morph into an Indian soft power in the years ahead.