India’s business leaders and the vision thing
On the morning of India’s 71st Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a call for “bharat jodo”, roughly translated as “let’s bind India.” His dream: a New India in the next five years which will be free of caste and religious differences, corruption and terrorism. In the context of the wave of communal disharmony that threatens to divide the country, the Prime Minister’s call to action is timely and much needed.
It isn’t unusual for political leaders across the globe to try and sell a dream to their people: there is political capital in it and an association with one that resonates with the electorate brings in votes. No wonder even Donald Trump has had a dream or two, though it may not be quite in the Martin Luther King playbook.
In business though, dreams are often sobered by the grim reality of meeting market expectations. It is, therefore, rare to meet a corporate leader who is able to articulate a vision which isn’t enveloped around the bottom line with a hat tip to the stock price. Even young entrepreneurs, ostensibly free from the pressure exerted by quarterly earnings, quickly revert to type with the Series A funding. India’s e-commerce champions are a perfect case in point.
There are honourable exceptions and men like Elon Musk of Tesla and Jeff Bezos of Amazon who, besides being shrewd businessmen, have an overarching vision which has enabled them to eke out business white spaces seemingly out of nowhere. Bezos’s original bet, selling books online, disregarded all evidence that showed books sales in the US were dropping with experts reckoning there was little future in the business. It is this conviction that is the hallmark of a great leader.
But these men and women also know how to share their vision. Whether it is Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, or Elon Musk, the multi-faceted entrepreneur extraordinary, whose company Tesla seems to be simultaneously chasing multiple goals, the dream that they share with others isn’t just a catchy slogan but well-thought-through, one that they first work hard to get a buy-in from those they lead.
When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella first took up the role of rebuilding the company, his first goal was to bring everyone on the same page with a shared responsibility for restoring the software giant to the world-beater it had once been.
In India, Reliance group founder Dhirubhai Ambani was the ultimate big-picture man, articulating his dream for a petrochemical project even when he was scrambling to build a small textile mill. Despite its subsequent failure, Nano, an affordable car that a middle class Indian could aspire for, was Ratan Tata’s grand vision. As Mint editor R. Sukumar pointed out in his weekly column, “Irrespective of the fate of the car, that remains a defining moment in the history of manufacturing innovations” in India. Devi Prasad Shetty dreamt of making healthcare affordable to every Indian. It isn’t yet, but the Narayana Hrudayalaya chain of hospitals and healthcare centres he has set up, is working hard to realize his dream.
So what is this vision thing? Is it the poet’s version of a world in which all men would be born free or Mahatma Gandhi’s more tangible and precise aim of freeing all Indians from the 200-year rule of the British? Is it about a pharma company’s vision to be the biggest supplier of some drugs to the world or Bill Gates’s mission to rid the world of four diseases including polio and Guinea worm, in his lifetime? In one instance, the goal is personal, in another universal. Sometimes, it can be a combination of the two. Thus, Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s articulated vision is to help over a billion people improve their health and livelihoods by 2020, while also cutting his company’s environmental footprint in half by 2030.
But while these harbingers of new business thinking are working hard to broaden the ambit of that elusive word, versions of a vision for business are still limited by a lack of diverse voices in the workplace. For example, the low level of female representation in top management positions in India means that their vision for an equal and unbiased workplace is yet to gain enough momentum in corporate vernacular. It will take a visionary set of leaders to make that the goal of their lives and only then will we see real change in the workplace with respect to women’s participation.
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.
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