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'The India Way': What makes Indians successful corporate leaders?

A set of principles unique to Indian leaders, shaped by culture, beyond the simplistic labelling based on pedigree or nationalities, helps them shine globally.

December 11, 2021 / 05:08 PM IST
Parag Agrawal succeeded Jack Dorsey as CEO of social microblogging website Twitter in late November 2021.

Parag Agrawal succeeded Jack Dorsey as CEO of social microblogging website Twitter in late November 2021.

If German political economist and historian Max Weber were alive today, he would be baffled by the growing trend of Indians rising to the top at leading global multinationals.

Writing in the early 20th century, Weber had argued that the system of beliefs and rules of conduct around otherworldliness and salvation prevalent in India worked against the spirit of capitalism. This was in contrast to what he posited as the necessary ingredients of capitalism: hard work and not seeing profit as a sin, quite the opposite of the beliefs many Indians held.

Today, of course, we aren’t just dealing with 20th century merchants and capitalists but also entrepreneurs, management gurus, CEOs who were born and raised (for most of their formative years at least) in India, and are now at the helm of some of the biggest global enterprises in the world, particularly in the US.

The latest entrant in this long and illustrious list is Parag Agrawal, who succeeded Jack Dorsey as the CEO of social microblogging website Twitter, in late November.

What are Indians doing differently that helps them succeed? The short answer is: they follow a set of principles unique to them, shaped by culture, beyond the simplistic labelling of leaders, who now have a global presence, based on their pedigree or nationalities. Let me explain.

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As economies evolve in a globalised world, a deepening interest has been to analyse management practices within a framework of individuals who perceive the world through cognitive lenses that are - to a great extent - drawn from their culture and partly derived from their own experiences.

These perceptions and experiences could be a set of informal rules, cultural beliefs, social structures, and organisations that shape individual values that then inform managerial practices, leadership styles and organisational cultures.

Specific to the context of Indians, this could translate to the norms and values within and outside of organisations that prioritise people first and guide employees and leaders in the absence of rules and absence of supervision.

Much like capitalism in India through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, when community ties, interpersonal trust and networks made up for the absence of formal institutions and helped businesses thrive, the focus on culture and family continues to persist in so many ways, as researched widely.

How this shapes leadership has been painstakingly elaborated in The India Way: How India's Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management, a 2010 book by Wharton academics Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Michael Useem.

Interviewing hundreds of top business leaders from India soon after the terror attacks in India’s financial capital Mumbai in 2008, the authors found that India’s top companies had sprung back in record time and were back to scoring remarkable successes.

They found that instead of adopting management practices that dominate Western businesses, Indian business leaders had innovated their own ways of doing business in every possible way, right from strategy to leadership, talent and organisational culture.

The India Way – the set of distinct principles, shaped by culture - distinctly looks beyond stockholders’ interests and commits itself to public mission and national purpose. It draws on improvisation, adaptation, and resilience to overcome hurdles, and identifies products and services of compelling value to customers. Core to this is also a dogged investment in talent by business leaders, and seeing their leadership as an extension of commitment usually equal to family in India.

My close brush with this set of principles was in 2015 when I was hired by the CEO of a digital real estate company to lead their content and communications wing. The start-up is now India’s largest player in real estate ecommerce. In the freewheeling interview, I was asked several questions about my family background and my childhood. It was clear the CEO wanted to get to the root of what drives me. I felt heard, seen, and valued, and joined the company without a doubt about the future of the company or its culture.

The cornerstones of The India Way of doing business are exemplfied in the working styles of several India-born CEOs of global MNCs today.

Cappelli et al, for instance, explain how these innovations work within Indian companies, identifying those likely to remain indigenous and those that can be adapted to the Western context.

The question to ask here is, have the set of norms and beliefs that dictated Indian business and leadership prior to the 1990s undergone a change or evolved when the Indian economy globalised, particularly the IT industry? In what ways do the norms continue to shape the companies, their management and ownership?

Some new norms and practices are evident, partly brought about by the rapid digital transformation of economies. Take, for example, Ganesh Ayyar, India-born EVP and President Digital Operations at Cognizant. In 2009, shortly before taking over as CEO of Mphasis, Ayyar asked himself if he was fit enough to lead a tech company into future. To start with, he learnt how to use Facebook from his juniors. What began as a Facebook lesson led to more learnings, setting off a chain of mind mapping in constant change and reinventing, adaptability, and growth.  In the process, Ayyar had to discard ego, ignorance, and fear of failure and commit to building a company culture that welcomed learning and innovation from all corners of the company.

Co-opting or co-creating with customers and colleagues, this seemed to be the central message in Agrawal’s letter to his colleagues at Twitter after his elevation to CEO was announced. Describing Parag, Dorsey’s letter constantly referred to not only the collective ability of Twitter employees, but he also referred to Parag’s ability to give his "heart and soul" to his work.

A flurry of news reports with interviews of his professors at IIT Bombay where he studied computer engineering described him as "hard working" and dedicated right from the start. On Twitter, Agrawal’s cover photo suggests a family festival scene while bio links to Twitter handles of his wife and son, what most of us call "family".

Parag Agrawal, 37, holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford University and a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Parag Agrawal, 37, holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford University and a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Hard work doesn’t put him far from the protestant ethic of Weber, but heart and soul and family are distinctly The India Way.

In the end, there is lots to think about. Has the Indian way of working and life evolved with globalisation post the 1990s? In what specific ways is this change shaped by globalisation itself? How are these changes, if at all, visible and distinct?

It’s time to snap out of fixed definitions or ways of looking at India-born business leaders, and to probe deeper to see what has changed and what persists. This has important lessons for leadership, management and innovation for companies around the world.

 
Pallavi Singh is a freelance journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal. She tweets at @econhistorienne
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