Last August, Time magazine did a cover story on India’s biggest export: it wasn’t about IT, or textiles or even illegally mined iron ore. It was CEOs.
The roll-call of India-minted CEOs (or COOs) is the best for any emerging market: from Vikram Pandit at Citicorp to Anshu Jain at Deutsche Bank to Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Ajay Banga at Mastercard and Harish Manwani at Unilever, the management story of the last decade can, arguably, be labelled as the story of the Indian manager breaking through the glass ceiling at global companies. An Indian, Ajit Jain, may yet end up as successor to the legendary investor Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. Jain is already CEO of Berkshire’s reinsurance business.
Wrote Time, quoting executive search firm Egon Zehnder: "The data suggest Indians are scaling corporate heights. In a study of S&P 500 companies, Egon Zehnder found more Indian CEOs than any other nationality except American. Indians lead seven companies; Canadians, four. Among the C-suite executives in the 2009 Fortune 500 were two mainland Chinese, two North American Chinese and 13 Indians, according to a study by two professors from Wharton and China Europe International Business School.”
Can the rise and rise of the India CEO in global corporations be taken for granted in the future? The answer is largely “‘yes”, but with a few caveats, if one were to go by the consensus at a debate organised at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Monday at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt.
The participants included Vineet Agarwal, Joint Managing Director, Transport Corporation of India TCI), Alok Kshirsagar, Director, McKinsey & Co, India, Joseph Massey, Managing Director and CEO, MCX Stock Exchange, Phanindra Sama, CEO, Pilani Soft Labs, Venkatesh Valluri, Chairman and President, Ingersoll Rand (India), and Harpreet Duggal, Senior Vice-President, Genpact.
The discussions, moderated by Shaili Chopra of ET Now, threw up at least five critical reasons why Indian CEOs are doing so well in global companies. Here they are:
# 1. Indian CEOs are comfortable with diversity and difference. Indians grow up in an atmosphere where cultural diversity – of language, faith, and caste, among other things – is a given. Global companies, which operate in a multi-cultural environment in their quest for talent, markets and resources, find Indian managers more willing to adapt and lead.
Handling diversity needs high EQ – emotional quotient – and an understanding of cultural differences in various work environments. Quips Agarwal of TCI: “After Catholic nuns and monks, Indian CEOs have the best EQ. We are more sensitive to cultural differences. We are brought up that way.”
Sama of Pilani Soft Labs agrees that diversity is part of the Indian DNA. For example, when “we built a website for our company, we knew it had to be in many languages.” In south-east Asia, they often build websites in one language, thanks to their monoculturalism.
Talking about his experience of working with Texas Instruments, Sama says the company wanted uniformity: the same designs for tables in all offices, and even parking lots. At Pilani, which is in 14 states, each office operates quite differently – with its own style.
# 2. Indian CEOs are hard-boiled in the harsh crucible of the Indian environment. “The government is no help”, says Agarwal. What is achieved is “inspite” of government, agrees Sama. As Indian CEOs operate in a negative business environment with lots of red tape at home, when they move to a global environment they find it a breeze.
Harpreet Duggal of Genpact recounts his company’s experience in the IT-enabled services sector. The sole driver of the business initially was cost arbitrage – Indian call centre workers were much, much cheaper than those in the west.
But converting this into a business model took a lot of doing – there was simply no environment to encourage it. Says Duggal: “There was no infrastructure, or policies in place. There was no ready market (for talent) or a supply chain. In the first seven years, business schools would not give us time on the first two days of placements.” The department of telecom had to be convinced that call centres should have the right to terminate calls at their end.
In short, Indian CEOs have to build almost everything from scratch in a semi-hostile environment. Joseph Massey, CEO of MCX Stock Exchange, which is fighting to be allowed in as a new stock exchange, says Indian CEO’s time is spent 80 percent in managing the environment, and only 20 percent doing his real job. Little wonder, when this 80 percent is freed up substantially, they take off like a rocket globally.
According to Venkatesh Valluri of Ingersoll Rand, Indian CEOs handle companies where the internal processes are far less stable that in the west. This means running a global company is far easier. “If a leader in India can successfully run a $100 million business, it means he can run a $2 billion global business as well,” says Valluri.
# 3. Indian CEOs try and make do with less. Apart from the famous Indian jugaad approach, which is frugal on resources and capital, most Indian companies are run as family businesses where capital and resources are sparingly given to the professional CEO.
According to Alok Kshirsagar of McKinsey, Indian managers have a “bifocal approach” – they can manage both daily cash balances and long-term vision.” To which Valluri adds the kicker: If China, with the best infrastructure, can grow at 9 percent, and India, with its bad infrastructure, can grow at 8 percent, Indian CEOs are managing very well, thank you.
# 4. Indian CEOs are more focused on returns and execution. According to Kshirsagar, the big differentiator for Indian managers is their focus on RoE – return on equity. “They have a value-orientation and (focus on) on return on equity”, which is obviously learnt in family-run businesses, which are niggardly in the allocation of capital.
# 5. Indian managers have a better overview of the whole business than their western counterparts. According to Massey, Indian CEOs have to ensure delivery of business results to their owners, and hence work towards execution. They thus learn about all sides of the business. In some global companies, “there is no organisational view even at the HOD (heads of department) level,” says Massey.
“The Indian CEO is groomed to work till the job is done. They have good talent, and a good view of the whole company.”
Duggal of Genpact would put innovativeness and creativity as a key factor in the success of the Indian manager. He says if he were to throw up a challenge to business colleagues in India, the chances are they would “deconstruct” it and raise a lot of questions. In China, they wouldn’t question it much, but would be extremely productive.
So is the sky the limit for Indian CEOs? Agarwal of TCI says that when 15 percent of the population is Indian, 15 percent of global CEOs should also be Indian in due course.
Not so fast, says Kshirsagar. He says Indian CEOs have a lot to learn. Among other things, they should not make the same errors expat CEOs made in India — assuming that what works at home should work well abroad, too. Most Indian companies that are going global are still staffed at the top by Indians —exactly the early mistake made by multinationals operating in India - and this is not a good sign.
Massey agrees. “The Indian CEO has not been put to the ultimate test – managing in a truly global multi-cultural environment.”
Kshirsagar is not sanguine about the availability of too much top quality Indian managers, too. According to him the quality gap between top CEOs and median CEOs is 50 percent and growing. “We need to increase the level of talent and leadership,” he says.
The caveats must be noted. But for now, Indian CEOs are basking in the sun for success.