Leadership: India Inc’s biggest challenge

7 06 2008

Jasjeet Singh

Courtesy : rediff.com

June 05, 2008

India has a people and leadership crisis despite its huge population.

Corporates whine that the Indian education system does not produce ’employable human resources.’ Engineers need to be re-skilled before they can write software and face clients confidently. Graduates need extensive training before they can turn call specialists, sales staff or store managers. B-school graduates go through companies as management trainees to become functional managers. . .

In the midst of a high growth era, where Indian companies have been consumed by the challenge of base level hiring, have enough and competent leaders been groomed?
Most Indian companies, I suspect, have been woefully myopic on that count. Thus, one sees expatriates being hired at astronomical salaries or ‘the good line manager’ from a well-regarded breeding ground bagging a leadership position.

Neither of the two approaches can yield results. The expatriate is hamstrung by the lack of experience with a diverse population: India, as a country, is arguably more diverse than Europe is, as a continent. The good line manager — newly crowned and eager to flag his/her arrival — is unable to come to terms right away with his/her newfound power.

Most attempt to run away like racing stock and fail to understand that putting together ambitious yet happy teams is the sustainable way to build businesses.

In my opinion, there is no short cut to building one’s own leadership. Besides business skills, leadership needs to be steeped in the culture of the company and aligned to its goals. To my mind, this is India Inc’s biggest challenge, in its march forward.

If one looks at the dominance of the American corporate on the world stage, one can single out leadership as the most important factor. To cite an example, GE had groomed three strong leaders to take over from Jack Welch. Within days of Jeffrey Immelt being appointed as the successor, 3M and Home Depot snapped up the other two incumbents James McNerney and Robert Nardelli, respectively. GE filled three top positions from within its ranks. With ease.
Here are a few haves in leadership, in the Indian context:
Importance of continuity and assertiveness
Successive, strong leadership can alone produce good results in India, with all its diversity (read, myriad opinions and fractured consensus). To illustrate the point: Good leadership in the past has intermittently elevated the offices of the President, the Chief Justice of India, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Sebi chairman. However, when leadership has had some continuity and strength of character, the results have been better than good. The office of the Chief Election Commissioner and the relative fairness in the electoral system today versus that which prevailed a couple of decades ago is a case in point.

Similarly, compare the fortunes of a Reliance [Get Quote] or a Wipro [Get Quote] today vis a vis the heavyweight business groups that dotted the Indian corporate world as more than their equals in 1991.

Cultural and class inclusiveness
In a nation as diverse as ours, it pays to build culturally inclusive leadership. A lot of Indian corporates, including the so-called professional ones, have relied on family, friends and community to build the circle of leadership. For example, one software company is grappling with the situation of having close to 60 vice presidents from a single community. How did it happen? What does it portend for the hundreds of employees the company has?
Such situations abound in India. And, unfortunately, it does not build an environment of trust. Nor does a situation where young men and women from elitist backgrounds filled up the management and top rungs of an organisation.
Some large MNCs in India (regarded as breeding grounds) are guilty of having fostered an environment of ‘thinking Brahmanism.’
But that was in the last millennium. That is dead. Here is a new India that is emerging as much from its vibrant, small towns as from its growing cities.
The happenings in the Indian cricket team in the last decade or so are a case study on India and its leadership.
Did things first start looking up for Team India with Sourav Ganguly’s strong and assertive leadership?
Is Dhoni’s present day style reminiscent of Sourav’s non-controversial early days? Does it offer continuity of sorts?
Has the West Zone domination of Indian cricket ended?
Is the new crop of youngsters from small towns finding energy, in inclusion that comes with little heed to zone, race, class or creed?
Can one of them become the captain in years to come just as Dhoni has?
Given a free hand with the trust reposed in them, have Indian coaches brought up in the domestic system, understood the young cricketers and given as much commitment, if not more, as the erstwhile expat coaches?
And finally, has the cricket board gained tremendously with all this?
The stellar success of the Indian Premier League is proof enough.
It is time India Inc invested in leadership, to be among the very best. In Peter Drucker’s words: Results will exist on the outside, in the marketplace.
The author is Head, Marketing, International Business, Titan Industries Ltd [Get Quote], Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal.