In an India that prides itself on respecting elders, what happens when the old report to the new?
In the coming columns, I’ll look at this issue from a few different angles. Today focuses on young managers.
Ashwani Acharya, quality manager for InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, first became a supervisor when he was 25, the chief of engineering for a small four-craft airline in Pune. Then he spent some time overseas at larger airlines such as KLM and Lufthansa, joining InterGlobe in 2005 as one of the first hires to help set up IndiGo airlines. His conclusion?
Generational differences define Indian office politics more than anywhere else he’s been.
“If you are in Germany and someone is 55 or 60, the interaction is still between two individuals, first name basis and all,” Acharya, now 37, says. “That informality is there in Europe. It is not here so much. Although it will change.”
Indeed, it must. With two-thirds of India’s population under the age of 36, more than half under 25 and an acute talent crunch in the upper- and middle-management rungs, Indian workplaces are promoting lots of young workers; sometimes they are ready, but sometimes there’s no choice. A survey released this month by staffing company TeamLease shows that employers plan to make the largest number of hires this quarter in middle management—an increase of 10% over the last quarter.
Suddenly, workers in their 20s and 30s are managing subordinates from their parents’ generation. On top of learning how to be managers—a trial and error process, take it from me—they grapple with directing people who might be more experienced and knowledgeable about certain sectors or applications, but simply unfit or unwilling to lead.
“We are seeing some non-traditional recruiting tactics because companies don’t have the luxury of waiting five to six years,” says Asim Handa, the country manager for Futurestep India, a middle-management recruitment firm. “They want ready-made people who, from the word ‘go’, can start producing results.”
Workers with experience in areas such as banking and airlines are perhaps used to old-economy management styles where they perform very specific tasks and don’t necessarily need to think of the big picture.
IndiGo’s Acharya, for example, has several retired Indian airlines engineers who report to him. Besides the differences between public and private sector employment, he also has had to convey to his team the need to think broadly.
“In a bigger organization, they did a certain job in a certain fashion and they were restricted to that. The delegation of authority is more structured in an established airline,” he said. “In a growing airline... people can’t have that microscopic view.”
His answer has been to use logic and clarity to explain his ideas and orders, to prepare what he’s going to say before he says it. “I try to be fair and firm,” he says. “But with a senior fellow, who is as good as your father’s age, you have to keep a respectful approach.”
In some cases, younger managers say that their older workers are willing to defer to hierarchy and titles. It’s those who are just a little bit older, perhaps still on the side of youth, and perhaps passed over for the promotion themselves, that can be the most subversive.
“Relating when I was 21, the age difference was enough to create friction,” says Viraj Kalra, the vice-president for new businesses at PlanMan Consulting, who first became a manager at that age for a public-relations firm.
Just turned 30, Kalra says he relies on a lesson learned in those early days to now get workers of all ages to do what he needs: “They are not working for me. They are working with me,” he says. “They know I bring skill sets to the table that otherwise our team does not have. They do the same.”
Young Indian workers concede that an “us versus them” mentality has crept into office dynamics, especially in new or fast-growing companies.
“If I were to frame our culture, if I were to say anything about myself or the people I work with, we are the new-age guys,” says Gurpreith Kalra, 26, a manager in a large telecommunications firm. “I wouldn’t derogatorily call them old-timers, but they are the folks who end up living in silos. What we see most of the time, if you are in the cafeteria, there are pockets of people divided that way.”
Now that Acharya fits into the shrinking third of Indians over the age of 36, he says he focuses on bridging the experience and wisdom of the older engineers with the enthusiasm and technology savvy of newer hires.
“To keep that balance,” he says, “I appreciate the efficiency and base knowledge of the youngsters, but you have to have the experience. Twenty-five years on an aircraft means experience that a youngster will not have.”
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