A friend of a friend, an NRI on vacation in India, has dropped in to see me at our office. Away two decades, he left India for graduate school and has since had a successful career overseas. Over an espresso and biscotti, he reveals that he’s had a few tentative conversations with his existing employer about opportunities in India. He wants to be back, but he just isn’t sure of if, when and how. What did I think?
Well, let's start from the beginning. Why did he really want to come back? The usual motivations—he’s hoping to be closer to home, care for ageing parents, have his children grow up with Indian values. Perhaps even give back to the country. More compellingly, the Chindia growth story beckons, particularly so when much of the world struggles with the fear of double dip recession. And then, India is home.
The opportunities in Incredible India are many, of course. We ran through the gamut of increasingly global Indian conglomerates, emerging business houses, multinational companies, venture-backed start-ups, infrastructure, emerging technologies, the offshoring hubs, consulting, private equity and then some. We discussed various positioning strategies he could adopt in his search, from industry expertise versus general management skills versus global market experience. He has old school tie and professional networks in place. He has global experience that companies here will value. He’s a global Indian. It’s a no-brainer, as they say back home. Or is it?
Long road ahead: It’s not going to be a smooth ride.
There are some bumps on the great Indian expressway, both literally and figuratively.
To start with, the competition is now fierce. The Indian talent pool has developed significantly and a group of savvy local-global Indians have emerged over the last two decades. While the war for talent rages on, many employers fear that returning Indians may not have enough local context, commitment, relationships or an understanding of the way things are done here. Also, I share our experience of running a global search for the COO (chief operating officer) for a large aviation major—we realized that an increasing number of expatriates are throwing their hats in the ring, increasingly willing to accept local or semi-expat packages, and with public sector units to boot. Employers sometimes believe that expatriates come into India with less baggage, fewer agendas, and more realistic expectations of what it takes to get the job done.
Also, the work culture is different. At an MNC, could he see himself in a back office instead of the headquarters? Or at a start-up of the India outpost, struggling with red tape? Indian companies themselves are increasingly professional, sometimes parochial, but commercial, aggressive and with an essentially Indian ethos. Does addressing the family business patriarch as ji jar the nerves or roll easily off the tongue? Can he cope with jugaad? While he would be part of the change, perhaps even driving it, he might find that things do change, but slowly; things do move, but often in mysterious ways.
The easiest way back in is, of course, through his existing employer, we agree. He knows how the company operates, whom to call, and they know and trust him. His downside can be protected, and compensation maintained. Otherwise, I tell him to expect the process to take time, and to be prepared to make the investment of some trips out to explore opportunities, suss out the market and build—and use—the network.
I cautioned him not to necessarily expect top dollar at a local job. While the pay differential with the West has reduced considerably, part of being in a fast growing emerging power means benchmarking compensation and benefits with Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries rather than developed Western economies.
Then, there is the not-so-incredible India—of creaking infrastructure, traffic, crowds, appalling poverty, school scarcities, poor medical care, chai-paani, Indian Stretchable Time and of course, our “differing standards of hygiene”. Is he ready to wrestle his way through it? And even if he is, will his family bite? Is he prepared for the reverse cultural shock that often hits returnees? Will they live in an NRI enclave? International schools or local? Many will recommend bringing the family over for a look-see first, particularly if they haven’t been too exposed to India. Manage expectations, coach them on how to handle the poverty, the chaos, the new social context.
Be honest about why you are returning, at least to yourself, I suggested. Is this a stop-gap plan? Does he have a timeline? A back-up plan? Is this the whole nine yards? His approach to the move will need to dovetail into these.
Have a checklist and do the math—setting up costs, taxes, citizenships and visa, schooling, housing, budgets, relocation, et al. Get perspectives and points of reference from contacts, experts, family and friends. Talk to others who made the journey back, those who survived and those who didn’t. Be prepared that it could take months to settle in. Homecomings aren’t always easy.
Most importantly, don’t assume things are the same as before. Contexts have changed, both professionally and socially. The new India has a new-found confidence—and arrogance. Professionals here have earned their place on the gravy train, and much as they grumble about the state of the roads, hackles may still rise when an NRI does the same. Just remember that while it’s his country of birth too, it’s not his birthright—yet.
I watch him survey the Ganpati processions and Id crowds that have caused a massive traffic jam outside our office. His fingers tap the car window in tune with the drumbeats. If all of this hasn’t scared him off, maybe he’s actually ready. Home really is where the heart is.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.
Write to Sonal Agrawal at email@example.com