Leadership Study | Mapping Indian chief executives

Leadership Study | Mapping Indian chief executives
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First Published: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 12 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 12 AM IST
The Indian CEO is in the spotlight—the star in the cast of a booming India Inc. Whether it is handling a spate of mergers and acquisitions, or delivering higher and higher profit figures to stockholders quarter after quarter, it is the chief executive officer who is in the driver’s seat.
He is responsible not just for devising a strategy for success, but also for executing it. And the Indian business leader has been scoring high returns on both counts.
But how is he different from his global counterparts? What are his strengths and weaknesses? While umpteen studies have been carried out on the CEO, there have been few, if any, empirical analyses of the Indian business leader. This is a gap which a new book has tried to fill.
The Indian CEO—A Portrait of Excellence, released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this month in New Delhi, documents the results of a joint study by the HayGroup, a London-based global management consulting firm, and Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd (BPCL) in 2003. And, as the title of the book suggests, the Indian CEO comes out smelling of roses.
“In India, we have always celebrated Western CEOs such as Jack Welch and Henry Ford,” says Gaurav Lahiri, director, strategic clients, HayGroup, London, and one of the book’s authors. “Indians now have enough successful CEOs unique to the country’s conditions that they can learn from.”
Initially meant to aid the management of public sector enterprises, the study reveals interesting aspects of the managers of Indian businesses, both public and private.
One conclusion the book draws is that while the Indian CEO is good at managing changes, he is not very adept at interpersonal skills. Indian leaders were found to be using skills similar to those of their Western counterparts, but for different purposes. For instance, Indian CEOs seem to spend a lot of time and energy in managing relationships with governmental agencies than leaders elsewhere, who are more focused on understanding commercial organizations—their own as well as others.
Also, in India, stakeholder influence is most visible in influencing the government to obtain licences or permissions. Indian executives have unique characteristics in networking, too, tending to seek out more information through personal contacts, unlike in the West.
The study was based on a framework of theories developed by David McClelland, an American behavioural and social psychologist from Harvard University. To relate it to the Indian scenario, the authors carried out in-depth interviews and interacted with more than 30 top CEOs, apart from sourcing inputs from around 100 professionals across various fields over a period of 18 months.
Apart from Lahiri, the four co-authors are: Signe M. Spencer, senior consultant at HayGroup, in the McClelland Center for Research and Innovation; S.A. Narayan, director, human resources, BPCL; Seetharaman Mohan, executive director, human resources, BPCL; and Tharuma Rajah, partner and regional director, HayGroup, Asia. The book, brought out by Sage Publications Inc., is priced at Rs295.
The HayGroup office in Gurgaon (India) overlooks the half-constructed flyover marring the otherwise liberal expanse of National Highway No.8. It is in about the same state since we started our work four years ago. In stark contrast, when we travel to China we see cars zipping past places where the foundations were being laid only three months ago!
So does this mean that Indian workers are less capable than Chinese workers? One would think not. Indian workers in Dubai are building one floor a day, while those in Delhi take as many as two months to accomplish the same. Apparently the problem has little to do with Indian workers per se.
Then, is it the Indian leaders? Academicians, media professionals, CEOs and officials in the gorvernment—all those who helped us prepare this research seem to think so. They agree—almost unanimously—that the problem is ‘great thinking but little execution’. Yet, Indians across the globe are making top-notch talent in many a field and fast becoming a force to reckon with. For example, demonstrating corporate leadership are L.N. Mittal, Chairman of the global steel company Arcelor Mittal; Arun Sarin, Chief Executive of the global mobile communications company Vodafone; and Indra Nooyi, CEO of the global soft drink giant PepsiCo.
Today, given the unique juncture at which India Inc. finds itself, the need to devise strategies that are effective and give a competitive edge over a sustained period is one of the main challenges that an Indian leader faces, day in and day out. It is one front where, interestingly, Indian CEOs—contrary to popular perception—do well.
While Indian leaders (in our study) show a unique eagerness and capability in adapting the best in class innovations, practices and technologies, the real beauty lay in their excellent customization—that ‘Indian’ touch— be it the latest HR tools, or quality initiatives like Six Sigma, or rolling out software packages like SAP. It was striking how technologies or business practices were generally not adopted ‘as is’ from other countries, but were modified and adapted to suit the Indian situations.
Another unique revelation was the special focus and attention that the middle class and the lower strata of society received from these CEOs: many had geared their companies to cater to this huge segment of the Indian society. The bottom of the pyramid was on the crosshair of many CEOs; each one proactively taking actions to engage and develop a relationship with that segment.
Reproduced with permission. from Sage Publications Inc.
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First Published: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 12 AM IST