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The "Made In India"​ Leader

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

For decades, Indian Institutes of Talent (a different kind of IIT - India headquartered organizations that have heavily invested in grooming top talent), have been the silent breeding ground for a lot of top-notch India bred executive talent or the "Made in India" executive Leaders —a fact we sometimes overlook.

In the human resources profession, we spend a considerable amount of time with Promoters and CEO’s of businesses on the subject of executive succession and on boarding of leadership talent to executive teams. Most of my professional exposure has been with promoters and CEO’s of businesses that have an Indian Origin/businesses that are India headquartered. Over the last decade or so, I have seen a pattern that is emerging with a segment of the this group. When you ask these promoters/CEO's to put together a wish list that they seek in the executive talent whom they would like to bring into their executive teams;

Often, the wish list would feature these four parameters:

Exposure in a multinational set up

Lived and worked internationally

Preferably in his/her early 40s and

An education from a premier institute.

Do these ring a bell?

In theory, it’s hard to argue with the logic behind the above four choices. What could be better than getting an executive on to your team who brings with them the exposure and understanding of processes at the scale of an MNC? Not to mention having someone who is culturally global, has a long road ahead in their career, and has found themselves at this stage of their career by virtue of qualifying for and attending the best education institutions growing up. As they say: ‘broader the exposure, better the thinking, and stronger the perspective.’ Can’t argue with that logic!

If this is all so straightforward, why am I writing this article, then?

Today, we as a country have successfully positioned ourselves as an emerging superpower that holds with itself the capability of consistently producing CEOs who are enlisted by the top Fortune 500 companies. The world’s eyes are now on us, and we are basking in our very well-deserved spotlight. However, this article is not about those CEOs. It’s worthwhile to dig a little deeper and understand the different phenotypes of Indian executive talent beyond this celebrated pool of CEO’s/executive talent in Fortune 500 companies, in a detailed manner. Broadly, based on their career journeys, we can classify the Indian executive talent into the following buckets:

Indian Origin, India/Internationally educated with little work experience In India - predominantly in MNCs.

Indian Origin, India/Internationally educated with reasonable experience In India and also outside - predominantly in MNCs.

Indian Origin, India/Internationally educated with lots of work experience In India - predominantly in MNCs.

Indian Origin, India/Internationally educated with lots of work experience In India - predominantly in Indian Headquartered companies

Indian Origin, India/Internationally educated with reasonable experience In India and also outside - predominantly in Indian Headquartered companies

I could go on and add a lot more variants to this list above because career journeys are so unique to individuals. Given such diverse backgrounds, I am focussing on the executive talent that is truly India bred and that emerges from the third, fourth, and fifth category above, in this article.

The Dark Horse For Talent

For this executive talent yield, we will have to be very thankful to what I call the ‘Indian Institutes of Talent (IIT).’ The IIT’s like our very own Steel Authority of India, Indian Oil, Tata, Reliance, Aditya Birla Group, Mahindra & Mahindra, Marico, Dabur, Godrej, RPG, Essar, Vedanta, HLL, ITC, Adani, Murugappa, Infosys, Wipro, and hundreds of other such companies that have, year after year and without fuss, churned out some of the most top-notch executive talents who could give any global executive a run for their money. Each of these IIT's has their own, independent ecosystem and andragogy that they have prioritized and invested in over the years that makes them so effective with grooming top-notch executive talent.

Glory that deserves more attention

Those familiar with SAIL will know how many of their executives have run success steel operations across the world. None of these folks had any international stints before they left SAIL. I have personally known several executives who have made the transition from PSU’s to private organizations in their 50’s and made a big difference in the five/ten years they served. Size of impact vs runway in career is clearly another choice available to us. Good general mental ability is indeed a strong indicator of potential, however smart executives who have figured out learning how to learn quickly in their careers coupled with a sound EQ equally make a strong case.

Take the Tata Group as another example; how difficult will it be to name an Ishaat, Chandra, Gopal, Venkat, Irani...Guess what? None of them had an MNC background in their careers! Now isn’t’ that something?

The Common Thread

So, what are the common factors that these IIT's instil in their executive talent throughout? I found the following factors that resonated more than others:

1. Strategic exposure very early in their career, steep learning curves at various points.

Although common knowledge by now, executives with good business acumen have a thorough understanding of exactly what will work in the marketplace and what won’t. Not just that, but they’ll also have insights on why it works. Thoroughly India bred talent is exposed to critical areas of the business very early in their career. They are in roles that need them to own the analysis and the outcome of business problems very early their career. I call it the headquarter exposure syndrome. This gets them to handle major career transitions responsibly and effectively. They are prepared well.

2. Pursuit of Excellence, Value to Customers, and Success Mongers

Every IIT will have a bunch of executives who will be thrown to a new business idea every now and then. Such leaders are driven by simply one motto: to create good business. In turn, this adds a high level of value to customers which ensures a healthy relationship between the business and the buyer. Success mongers like these leaders are capable of lending their hand to any business and coming out with an assured protocol of process excellence, value to customers, and top-notch delivery no matter what. They are determined players, ones who aren’t threatened by fickleness—they stay grounded and rooted no matter what.

3. Confident Risk Takers: entrepreneurial and comfortable with ambiguity

These executives are extremely confident risk-takers—they understand that being a leader in the business alongside a promoter for an organization is as good as treating it as your own, independent business. The moment you enter the mindset of viewing it as your own company, in order to succeed you will take risks that you’ll ensure will pay off. These risks, however, aren’t frivolous—these aggressive leaders are surprisingly comfortable with tackling uncharted territories. Ambiguity poses no threat to them.

4. Masters of Power Play

If you ever want to understand how power underlies an organization, these are the people you go to. It’s also salient how they utilize the power they observe in a positive manner in order to deliver outcomes in an organization. They will seek to attain power so as to use it for the best and are conscious of misusing it for personal gain. They’re clear about the concept that at its core, the organization is an institution of power rather than an individual with power.

5. Pragmatic Idealism

These executives approach their business from a holistic perspective—they intertwine what’s good for society with what’s good for business. These people prove that you can retain a idealistic approach to business yet be pragmatic and still make money. Bunch of leaders who made Tata Nano or Mahindra Scorpio dream come true would be a good example.

6. Team builders par excellence

These executives are leaders not managers. They earn their way through their teams. Usually, extremely demanding in outcomes, they are experts in creating and sustaining an environment of tough love with their teams. Most IIT’s have a culture of belongingness, a sense of family feeling among colleagues, a cohesiveness in teams and are organizations with a soul. These leaders are some the strongest contributors in upholding that culture.

Conclusively, am I saying that the four logically sound and theoretically correct combinations that I hear promoters/CEO's ask for in their executive teams are not practical? No, I am simply giving you something more that's proven elsewhere, like the IIT's, to ponder about. It’s no wonder, then, that management is the tasteful combination of the art and the science which the IIT's realized early and embraced.

Next time you are putting out that wish list on executive talent, my request to you is for you to approach it with an open mind.


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