India’s corporate leaders lack a funny bone
Over the weekend, Google CEO Sundar Pichai joined the raging debate over whether in his company’s burger emoji the cheese is placed underneath the burger or as in the case of Apple, on top. Google, he tweeted, “will drop everything else we are doing and address on Monday:) if folks can agree on the correct way to do this!”.
Putting aside such weighty issues as a record fine by the European Union, the Russian disinformation imbroglio, investments in blockchain and the performance of the Pixel 2 XL, Pichai allowed himself a moment of genuine levity in an otherwise grim business environment.
Don’t expect that from India’s oh-so-serious corporate leaders.
Caught up in an image of deadly seriousness, the weight of the world on their shoulders, India’s business honchos refuse to succumb to such frivolities. Over the last one year, as mighty boardroom battles raged and in the marketplace telcos clashed in ferocious pricing wars, we didn’t have a single moment of comic relief. The gloves may have come off, but the suits remained steadfastly on.
There are honourable exceptions but these only highlight even more strongly the need to lighten up in those boardrooms. Harit Nagpal, managing director and CEO of Tata Sky, tweeted this attention-grabbing remark at the height of the Infosys fracas with founder Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy going hell-for-leather against what he claimed were breaches in corporate governance under CEO Vishal Sikka: “Thank God, Mr Narayana Murthy is not my Mother in Law!”
Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra as well as Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises, have been known to liven up a dull day with their cracks on Twitter. But the vast majority of our corporate leaders, much like their counterparts in politics, choose to present a grave and ponderous front.
It wasn’t always like that though. In the 1990s, Indian business was still getting used to the new liberalized environment and vast armies of flacks had not yet appeared to sanitize every word they uttered. P.R. Roy, then group CEO of Arvind Mills, when he was described as the father of denim in India, quipped, “I have always wondered who the mother is though.”
In another instance, I was interviewing HCL group founder and chairman Shiv Nadar in his office. Since it was getting late, Nadar, whose public persona is forbidding and downright fearsome, suggested we continue the meeting as he drove back home. Asking his driver to follow us, he took the seat next to me in my Maruti 800, which had seen better days and whose headlamps needed a thump to get them to work. Having done that, I settled into the driver’s seat to set off at which point Nadar remarked drily “Boy, that’s a hell of a way to start the car.”
It was the kind of easy banter almost impossible to imagine today. Much of the problem, of course, stems from the vast array of protective followers that CEOs have, who are only too keen to spread the word about what the boss doesn’t like or how he’s in a bad mood.
It isn’t as if our business executives are intrinsically humourless bores. Meet them in B-schools or even in the earliest stages of their careers and they are delightfully funny and irreverent. It is just that as they start getting a whiff of the top jobs, they fall off what Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, who co-teach a course on the subject, call the “humor cliff”.
The result of this is political correctness and also a tendency to take themselves very seriously. The image is all-important, no matter how dour. At conferences, seminars and press briefings, it is unlikely we will ever hear the kind of self deprecatory comment that Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett once made, “I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.”
The strange part is, surveys show that a sense of humour is considered among the most important traits of the best CEOs. People follow leaders who can crack a joke and more important, take one too.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.