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The Secret Sauce

A look at the factors that work in favour of global managers who have grown up and had their foundational education in a chaotic India

The Secret Sauce

The Made in India Manager / By R. Gopalakrishnan and Ranjan Banerjee

Buying a gas connection, bargaining with vendors, living in a joint family, navigating traffic, getting admission to a good school/college or securing a job - the Generation X who grew up in India had experienced them all and also witnessed their parents struggling with the same. Chaos and contradictions, competition and perseverance often rule people's lives in this country, and they mostly manage to deal with those. This is the environment that the authors, R. Gopalakrishnan and Ranjan Banerjee, have written about, weaving a meaningful narrative to explain why India-made managers succeed globally.

Terabytes have been published about India's English-speaking population (leading to a multicultural mindset), jugaad economy (read resourcefulness in a challenging environment), crushingly competitive environment (for top-rung education and good jobs) and the steady supply of highly innovative alumni from genius factories - the IITs and the IIMs. But the writers, both of them business experts, think a concoction of all these factors could help explain the unique capabilities of India-made managers who have been elevated to top positions in global corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Adobe and NIO over the past decade or so.

Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Shantanu Narayen, Padmasree Warrior and their ilk "have received their foundational education and degrees in India till the age of eighteen and a little later. They have had prolonged exposure to Indian institutions... They have experienced the collage of strengths, contradictions and anomalies that make up India on a daily basis. After this foundational exposure, these managers may have studied or embarked on a career abroad. Over the course of their professional lives, they have most likely travelled internationally and been through a process of cultural adjustment and adaptation,..." the book elaborates. And the authors attribute their success to this very factor, highlighting how this environment impacted their decision-making and crisis-preparedness - most critical qualities of a successful manager.

Understandably, the theory of emergence is in play here. Simply put, it is the synergy of many factors, but the combined effect could be distinctive and produce unexpected results. "Poverty and living in cramped spaces occur 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. But the combination of challenges in India is quite distinctive. Navigating those challenges while growing up endows distinctive capabilities in made-in-Indian managers," the authors explain. The outcome: Single-minded focus and soft power that these managers seem to be exerting over the global corporations where they work.

Next comes the evolution of their thoughts, practices and future trajectory. The book chronicles how managers of yesteryears in companies like HLL, Metal Box and ITC have metamorphosed and led from the front in organisations such as Sun Microsystems, Berkshire Hathaway and Google. It can be argued, though, that they are the outliers who left India at the right time and were good at tapping opportunities. It will be interesting to know the ratio of successful made-in-India managers to other made-in-India Indians settled abroad or the corresponding ratio of Chinese or European or American managers. And what about the Indians who failed? They too have grown up here before moving (the book does not include Indian-origin people born and brought up overseas). So, how do we explain their failures?

This is where the problem lies. According to the authors, the book is based on their experience and that of their acquaintances and the anecdotes shared with them. So, I am assuming that the samples will be too few and skewed for a vast country like India. It cannot be generalised. The Satya Nadellas and the Sundar Pichais are a minuscule percentage of our population, and the book requires more research to rise above personal experiences. But then, everyone needs role models, and good stories must be shared. To that extent, the authors have succeeded in "offering a sense of possibility".

The writer is Associate Director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business

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