Gautam Kumra: Leading the leaders
The managing partner of McKinsey India on hard work and luck, and teaching Indian heads of business how to compete in the global market
Gautam Kumra is a firm believer in serendipity. He says it has played a significant role in shaping both his life and career: The 47-year-old is the managing partner of the India business of global management consulting firm McKinsey, and founder of the McKinsey Leadership Institute (MLI) in India.
We are meeting at his Gurugram office, enclosed by glass windows, overlooking a lush garden. It’s easy, sitting here, to believe his life has been shaped by serendipity. But Kumra is remarkably humble: What he calls luck, others would call reward for hard work and talent.
Born in Srinagar, Kumra spent the first 10 years of his life in Amritsar, before the family moved to Delhi. Kumra’s father was a bureaucrat, and Kumra studied at the Kendriya Vidyayala in INA colony. “Studying in a Kendriya Vidyalaya was probably not the best thing to do if you wanted to do something with your life,” Kumra says, smiling. “But the funny thing is, that year, after many years in our school’s history, three people in my class made it to IIT (Indian Institute of Technology).” Kumra himself joined IIT, Delhi in 1987 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. “That was a game changer. It put me in a different orbit.” This, he says, was the first lucky moment.
Like many undergraduates at IIT, Kumra applied to colleges in the US for further studies. “You had to be really stupid to stay back,” he says. “I was offered 13 scholarships, but I had a change of heart in my third year. I was not sure I wanted to do research. So I sat for the CAT MBA entrance exam.” He got admission to Stanford University, but without financial aid; and while he interviewed with the Indian Institutes of Management in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata, he was only offered a spot at Ahmedabad. In effect, the choice was made for him.
In 1992, McKinsey set up its first office in India. “I was in the batch of 1993 at IIM and almost didn’t make it.” Kumra was among the eight best candidates, but his name was not in the final list, which comprised only two names. “I was so disappointed that I did not make it to the final two,” he says. “I had a summer offer from Citibank which I thought I would accept.” But, as luck would have it, the college staff asked him to wait until evening.
At the time, the request seemed strange. The list for that day was put up on the noticeboard in the evening, and, much to his surprise and delight, Kumra found he had been selected. “McKinsey had sent two more names and I was one of the two. I couldn’t believe it.”
“The third moment of serendipity was how I met my wife,” Kumra continues. “As a consultant, you work long hours and don’t get to meet too many women,” he laughs. One year, Kumra happened to be working on New Year’s Eve, and a colleague dragged him to a party organized by Citibank employees. There, he met Sujata Makkar, who worked at Citibank. One meeting followed another, and they married in 1995.
Sujata is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a global network of chief executives, and conducts training occasionally as a mindfulness facilitator. They have two children—an 18-year-old son who studies at Rugby School in England and a 15-year-old daughter who is in high school in Gurugram.
Kumra’s passion for his job is visible. “All these years, I’ve never counted how many vacation days are due to me,” he says. “I take holidays when I want to, and no one has told me you can’t take more or that you have not used your quota so take more. Even after 25 years, I feel fresh,” says the
man who needs 7-8 hours of sleep daily to be effective.
When he’s in Gurugram, his day begins at 9.30am. “I don’t like early mornings because I take enough early morning flights.” The day is packed with meetings with clients, calls, recruitment, dealing with risk issues, and attending to emails and communication. “My day is quite fragmented. The real test is how to remain focused.”
Kumra has been at McKinsey India almost as long as the firm has operated here. McKinsey celebrated its silver jubilee in India in 2017, Kumra completes 25 years with the firm this year.
So what made him stick around so long? “I was lucky to join when I did. McKinsey was a start-up then so there was a great degree of ownership with the firm. We had to educate our clients as to what management consulting is. The analogy I used is that we are like doctors for companies. There were only three people in the India office when I started, so in a way I was part of the team that built this office. We would go to client meetings, work directly with partners, meet CEOs from Day Zero, (we also) built the office—and even bought furniture! So it felt like it was my company.
“Secondly, McKinsey has given me amazing opportunities. There is so much travel. Within three months of joining, I was sent to Japan and it has never stopped. I lived in the US for two years. Then I was shipped off to Korea in the middle of the Asian economic crisis,” he says.
“McKinsey takes you all over the world. I have been to 50 countries and I hope I can get to 100. I love being outdoors, and, when I’m visiting a city overseas, I try to find a park and spend some time there. I like to feel connected with nature.”
With the travel came constant growth and learning.
In 2000, Kumra was promoted as partner. In fact, he was one of the first local persons to become a partner in India. He became a senior partner in 2006 and managing partner of the India office—which currently has 60 partners—in 2017.
Kumra values the flexibility that the firm offers, saying it allows for continuous learning and growth, and gives one the freedom to develop new skills and new roles.“The firm encourages employees to ‘Make your own McKinsey’. That means you pick your own sectors, your own clients, pick your geographies. I had the option to move to the US. No one told me to come back. Even today, I could move to New York and the firm wouldn’t say anything.”
Kumra’s expertise lies in CEO leadership. He is the founder of the MLI and convenes the CEO Bower Forum in Asia. Both these forums provide a platform for peer-learning amongst CEOs, covering a range of issues that business leaders encounter.
“Indian companies often don’t have leaders who know how to compete globally,” Kumra says. “Often, they have ideas but no talent or the bandwidth to take them there. That was the genesis behind MLI. I thought, why don’t we form an entity to help build leadership capability in Indian leaders? I wanted to work with the person at the top as I feel the CEO and founder can make a huge difference. It is their knowledge, mindset and skills that are key, and they all seemed very lonely at the top. Indian CEOs have not been taught how to manage their business and how to pass it down.”
Kumra has worked with about 100 CEOs across India and the Asia-Pacific region and serves as lead faculty for McKinsey’s senior partners on CEO counselling.
Similarly, the Bower forum (named after Marvin Bower, the founder of McKinsey) is a three-day programme in which four-five CEOs come together and receive personalized insights about the challenges in leading their companies. Kumra hosts the forum jointly with Daniel Vasella, former CEO of Novartis, and K.V. Kamath, former managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank. “So far we have done 17 forums with 60 CEOs. The joy this gives me is immense.”
Kumra recounts how a Chinese CEO once started crying because he had a difficult relationship with the founder of his company. Then there was a 57-year-old CEO whose relationship with his wife and children had soured, and he wondered if the price of success was too high. “The answers often lie in changing your team, changing your strategy, and sometimes even changing yourself,” Kumra says.
Kumra likes to read, especially books on adult development and psychology. “Why do people behave the way they do? I work with a lot of people so I am intrigued by how they behave. It is a subject that fascinates me.” Robert Kegan and Tal Ben-Shahar are among his favourite authors.
Kumra dreams of writing a book about leadership, and even building an institute dedicated to CEO leadership. “But these are all ideas floating in my head,” he says. For now, he is happy where he is.
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