Circumstances conspire to produce highly-competitive, creative and competent students who become supermanagers abroad.
A famous person said that the measure of a society is how it converts its pain and suffering into something meaningful and useful. India has done that through the remarkable success of its overseas managers.
Indians are rightly jubilant with the overseas success of their compatriots, for example, when Nitin Nohria was appointed Dean of Harvard Business School (HBS); or earlier, when Subra Suresh became Dean of MIT or when Arun Sarin and Vikram Pandit rose to the top of their companies. The positive emotion often has a trace of India Rising.
The achievers are humble about their success. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen nonchalantly says, “It is not a big deal, because America is an egalitarian and meritocratic environment.” HBS’ Nitin Nohria gives credit to IIT. Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi modestly says, “I am a mother first and then a CEO.”
Do India-born managers possess something distinctive? Do they achieve more success abroad than other immigrants? It is tempting to think so and, indeed, there are many views. One view is that Indian managers are no different from similarly-educated managers from elsewhere.
Another is that Indians have always done well overseas, but media coverage has brought visibility and celebration.
A third view is reflected in a recent book, The India way: How India’s top business leaders are revolutionalizing management, in which Wharton professors Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Michael Useem identify four distinctive Indian practices: holistic engagement with employees, improvisation and adaptability, creative value propositions and broad mission and purpose.
Whichever may be correct, the upbringing of India-born managers quite unintentionally prepares them for a good chance of success overseas. As author Sanjaya Baru wrote in March this year in Careers 360, “Stories of extreme hardship, braving impossible odds and innumerable sacrifices, abound in the lives of nearly 90% of the students in the country.
But among them, some perform exceptionally well. Their academic laurels are so brilliant, that at times their CV looks intimidating. And each one acknowledges that it’s the right education that made them what they are today.”
India-born managers are products of four unique circumstances.
Competitive education: IIT/IIM effect: Thanks to subsidies, higher education is accessible to middle-class people. When viewed with the cultural propensity to acquire degrees, this fact results in an avalanche of several thousand applying for every college seat.
Higher education is crushingly competitive. Bright Indian children who do not get into IIT effortlessly secure admission into an Ivy League College! In the US, this has repositioned IIT as a genius factory, and IIT alumni promote this assiduously.
The graduates of India’s institutions have been psychologically autoclaved through high-pressure competition. They emerge with insatiate ambition that vastly exceeds their intellectual or financial resources.
This stretch between resource and unreasonable ambition is significant: recall the late Prof C KPrahalad, “It is essential for top management to set out an aspiration that creates, by design, a chasm between ambition and resources.” The Indian system creates in many graduates a chasm between aspiration and resource, but quite unintentionally.
Accelerated learning:Life for the student is a struggle in India compared to elsewhere: commuting in chaotic cities, inadequate privacy and lebensraum to study at home, facilities for sports and libraries, and a crushing burden of exams.
Almost every student has faced early setbacks: inadequate marks in exams, a lost college admission or a limited job choice. Chance plays too important a role in the Indian student’s life, making it quite stressful, hence youngsters just have to learn to face setbacks early on. They learn to be persistent and to fight with a never-say-die attitude.
Research indicates that extraordinary setbacks accelerate personal learning. Duke Corporate Education board member Judy Rosenblum wrote in 2009 in the Financial Times, “In order for people to develop as professionals, they need to be immersed in problems. A problem provides the opportunity to grapple with and test one’s ability to adapt.”
Although family and peer pressure are high, they also provide the required support to handle the stress. Fortunately, the influence of parents is prolonged and significant. Sir Winston Churchill told the English people, “Never give in, never, never, never, never” for the war years. The Indian student practises this all through life. Success is not just about being ambitious, it is about overcoming adversity.
Hard work plus creativity:It is not that other nationalities are lazy. It is just that overcoming shortcomings of infrastructure requires Indians to expend energy that could otherwise have been productively deployed.
The educated youngster is forced to develop the traits of hard work like east Asians who naturally derive it from their Confucian ethos. But there is a difference: the Indian has a low aptitude for repetitive tasks.
The Indian will try to do the repetitive task differently and creatively: in short, he works hard and creatively, a brilliant combination. The serious student works and sweatsasifonanacademictreadmillandbusinessexecutives do the same in their workplace.
Indians’ propensity for hard work was grudgingly acknowledged by Abraham Pinkusewitz while explaining how the Gujaratis managed to capture 70% of the diamond trade in the Antwerp market, “Indians succeed because business is all they have in their lives. If needed, they will work 24 hours per day.”
Young Indians have also to adapt to challenges arising from diversity, which is quite different from, for example, the Chinese: learning several Indian languages,adaptingtoschoolsystemswhiletransferring with parents, and coping with variable teaching quality.
Howard Gardner, Harvard academic on Cognition and Education, points out, “The only reliable way to determining whether understanding has trulybeenachievedistoposeanewquestionorpuzzle—one in which individuals have not been coached and to see how they fare.” Indian students are wired to work very hard, with passion and creatively.
Thinking in English:Where else in the world would a temple be constructed for Goddess English?On October 25, 2010, the birthday of Babington Macaulay, such a temple will be inaugurated in Uttar Pradesh. English is being installed as a deity there so that those who pray to her can be blessed with progress.
Uniquely, Indian managers think in English, the test being that they use English to express fine points. Manydon’tcomprehendthenuancesofavernacular paper. The manager’s professional education has almost certainly been in English,case studies have been Anglo-American, language proficiency has played animportantroleinsuccessandsocialisation,andthe language of business is English.
As a result, the Indian manager abroad is quite analytical, linear-thinking, and articulate in his intellectual skills. She hits the ground running in any overseas employment.
Unintended consequence: These four circumstances produce a sufficient number of highly-competitive, creative and competent students! Followed by a career in a relatively-orderly work environment with process-orientation in the west, the career manager goes Boom, Boom. She becomes productive early on because of lower frictional losses and obstacles.
Many, many Indians are successful abroad, not just the few that the media write about. I know from my Unilever experience that Indians are prized as much in India as in Peru, Poland and the Philippines.
These facts about the Indian manager ignore the harsh reality that many do not make it through the obstacle race. This has unfortunate social consequences. But for those that do, the probability of success abroad improves a lot.
A concurrent trend is that foreign business leaders are joining Indian companies: Carl-Peter Forster in Tata Motors, Marten Pieters at Vodafone Essar, Wolfgang Prock-Schauer at Jet Airways and Raymond Bickson at Indian Hotels.
In short, Indian managers are rapidly globalising, and that must be a good thing for the future.
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