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Are Indian Employees Immature? A Counter-view

                                                                      “Buffalo Round Up” by Velino Shije Herrera. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Devika Devaiah

Indian Employees are Immature:

This headline appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on the 21st April 2016: Employees’ emotions render Indian work culture immature: Professionals. Experts feel it takes longer to build a company with a global culture in India. (Reference 1)

The conclusion came from a dialogue at ‘Startup Girls’, where Kirthiga Reddy, the MD of FaceBook and Lakshmi Purthy, the CEO of INK, spoke. Quoting from the article, ‘Kirthiga said it took longer to build a company with a global culture in India due to emotions of the employees. “When I returned to India, we were very clear that we want an open culture and global values to be followed in the Indian office. This was a mandate that our company followed. However, implementing that in India takes longer. India is a very emotional country. There is no such thing as work-life balance in India. It is all one.”

Kirthiga said that in the US, Facebook, as a company would have things like open peer-to-peer feedback and all information, was lateral. “Building such a culture in India takes a long time. People take things too personally here rather than logically.”

Lakshmi, CEO of INK, said the capacity of managing is very less in India. “There is a tremendous amount of training needed to be given on managing skills to Indians. Right from basics to writing a mail to responding to them. Everything is very immature at the moment. It is also because India opened up only in 1991 and comparatively we are a new country in the field.”
She cited an example. “When I was with Intel in the US, if I had a project I had worked on for months and my boss did not like it, he would just say that it is not good enough and get me something better. In India, the same would be taken personally. It is more about personal emotions than about the product in India, which needs to be dealt with.”

Entrepreneurs agree with these ladies. Rahm Shastry, co-founder DriveU, has worked in the US for 25 years before returning to India. He says the whole culture is very different in India and it reflects professionally as well. “Unlike in Silicon Valley, the level of migration from other countries is lesser here. This reflects on the work culture. There, the hierarchy is not given much of importance, but in India it is. This is mainly because they are taught so from childhood. Not arguing and not saying ‘No’ is equated with showing respect. But in the US, it is not considered disrespectful.”

A counter-view:

In a career spanning 22 years, I’ve worked extensively in India and Asia, including projects in Europe, Egypt, and UAE. I have consulted in diverse sectors- from IT to banking, to FMCG, to manufacturing, to insurance, to entertainment and media, to research, to automobiles, to retail to micro-finance etc. And finally, I’ve also been fortunate to be based in Bangalore and working with the dawn of the IT age, IT India 1.0, so to speak, between 1997-2002: with companies like Novel, HP, Lucent, Motorola, Honeywell, Intel, Phillips, Wipro, iGate to name just a few. It is this experience that feeds my reaction to the article with a couple of observations; and of course, I take a contrarian stance.

Beyond IT:

 One, I think we should be clear about, is that the professionals in this discussion are limiting their judgment only to the IT sector, and not necessarily, ‘work culture in India in general.’ For my experience in India has been entirely different. I have found, over my period of work across sectors, that managers in the Indian sub continent, actually build a greater degree of emotional resilience and wherewithal, given the sheer number of challenges they face. Put a fresh MBA into the market selling body lotion or cars, and within a year, he has gathered, because of the complex and unforgiving nature of the Indian market, a great degree of latent experience that will hold him in good stead, life-long.

In fact, the diversity that Rahm Shastry talks about in Silicon Valley is ever present in India, but from a different source. In Silicon Valley, the diversity comes from apparent migration. In India, it comes from our inherent differences in language, culture, lifestyles and therefore customer needs. A young marketing manager or sales manager learns very quickly that uniform approaches don’t necessarily always work across the country. The finesse he builds in dealing with the entire distribution and supply chain with all their quirks and complexities is an excellent ground for maturity building. How do you deal with a transport company owner who makes a commitment to buy and then reneges without reason? Or with someone who insists in conducting business with black money? Or when you find spurious copies cannibalising your product on the shelves in local markets? A whole lot of savvy with on-street wit and wisdom is called for. In fact, this insightful article in the Fortune Magazine on the Nestle Maggi crisis shows how India is forever a great teaching ground due to its unique set of circumstances. http://fortune.com/nestle-maggi-noodle-crisis/?xid=nl_daily

Emotion or Passion? Two sides of the same coin:

 In conversation with B.P. Biddappa, the Executive Director of HR at Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), he says, “What others call emotions, is actually passion, passion for working, passion for never giving up. In fact, younger and younger people are being given bigger and bigger jobs, because there is a fire to do it much earlier, and they are being really successful.”

No wonder then HUL, is the breeding ground for international leadership. Vindi Banga and Harish Manwani’s global corporate achievements are just a few of the well-known stories. Even today, Unilever businesses in Indonesia, Russia, Malaysia, and Singapore for example, are being led by homegrown Indians. 300-400 corporate leaders in India itself come from the HUL stable. Consider this: Would this robust global leadership pipeline with repeated success, have ever been possible in an emotionally immature environment?

IT 1.0: Breaking all known organisation paradigms for people and work management:

Second, now coming to the IT sector in India. I understand, of course, the IT sector in India has been through many avatars. Broadly, 1.0 was the model of software offshoring in development and maintenance, 2.0, the BPO outsourcing model, 3.0, e-commerce and the start-ups. My POV, is largely from IT 1.0, in some ways the most difficult of all, because it was the first time an offshoring relationship in software at such large scales was ever being envisioned, without any previous reference point. These visionaries who set up offices in a sleepy, retirement town called Bangalore (where we’d never even seen a flyover growing up) were at the forefront of making breakthroughs in organisation work structures and cultures. Overnight, each firm hired thousands of engineers fresh out of college. Young managers were thrown into an environment of managing their work and relationships with demanding customers all over the world. It is rather difficult to believe that such a large and thriving paradigm shift of outsourcing key work responsibilities could even be conceived of, let alone built- without a robust work culture in India. The pioneers were led by the Narayan Murthys and Azim Premjis of this world, but their successes wouldn’t have been possible without a rapidly growing workforce that rose to the occasion. Were they issues? Yes, for sure. Were they enough to derail this new global industry? No! According to a rediff.com business article, “The software and services industry was mere $152 million in the early 90s. However, the industry witnessed rapid growth and by 2001 it was worth $8 billion, with at least four Indian companies of significant size.” (Reference 2)

At this point in time, due to my extensive work in this area, we (Reference 3) undertook a global study on Trans-world partnerships across countries and cultures. The participating organisations were organisations like Honeywell, Novell, Phillips, HP, Nortel Silicon Automation Systems, and Wipro. The first-hand interviews were conducted across India, Singapore, Japan, USA, Europe and the UK. We found that there were issues on both sides of the pond; as detailed by this slide.

My key takes away was that emotions masquerading as a misalignment of professional expectations ran high on both sides!  It therefore definitely called for managerial maturity, but on both sides, in the Indian locations as well as with the counterparts located in the U.S. and Europe.

Why did I get such a rich first-hand experience, and what led to an in depth global research? It was the commitment of senior leadership, across the board in India to build an open, professional work culture. They invested extensive management time and money in building openness, cultivating processes for feedback, building managerial maturity and alignment across sites. So when Kirthiga Reddy talks of open feedback on FaceBook in the U.S. today, this process was actually institutionalised in the 1.0 Indian software organisations 20 years ago!

What is a global culture?

Third, there is no such thing as a successful global, professional culture emanating from one country. There are strengths in every country and weaknesses too. If you recall, in 2011 Ratan Tata had this to say of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and Corus Steel, the UK  regarding his frustration in their leadership management style. Quoting from an article in The Sunday Times, “It’s a work-ethic issue. In my experience, in both Corus and JLR, nobody is willing to go the extra mile, nobody. I feel if you have come from Bombay to have a meeting and the meeting goes until 6 pm, I would expect that you won’t, at 5 o’clock, say, ‘Sorry, I have my train to catch. I have to go home.’ “Friday, from 3.30 pm, you can’t find anybody in their office.”Mr Tata said that things are different in his native India.”If you are in a crisis, if it means working to midnight, you would do it.” (Reference 4)

The Tata Group then went on the issue a clarification statement saying that at no point in time had Mr Ratan Tata meant to imply that the British managers were lazy. (Reference 5)

Therefore, leaders seeking to build a global culture must come to terms with the fact that every organisation, regardless of location, will have its inherent weaknesses. But rather than focus on weaknesses, they must instead seek to build from strengths within, from the uniqueness of a country. It will not do to simply ‘cut-paste’ their expectations from their country of origin or country of greatest work experience. The leaders of IT 1.0 understood this, and this is why they were successful.

What expectations do CEO’s create when they go to work every day?

When John Flannery took over as head of GE India, he could easily have, but refused to treat India as an outpost of the U.S. Quoting him from an interview in Forbes, in 2009, “I want GE India to be viewed as one of India’s best Indian companies — not one of its best MNCs. By combining strong local talent with our global experiences, we can help India develop important sectors like power, health care, transportation, and infrastructure. Achieving that vision will benefit our customers, our employees, and India as a country — and doing so will provide rewards to GE shareholders as well.

One of the really inspiring aspects of this opportunity is our potential to impact the lives of the large population in India’s rural areas. Low-cost, innovative product breakthroughs such as Mac i, an ECG machine that runs on battery and takes an ECG report at less than the cost of a bottle of mineral water; Lullaby, a baby-warmer that plays a key role in survival of newborns and helps reduce infantile mortality in India through high technology and significantly reduced price (70 percent lower than an imported product) are going to bring high-quality health care at an affordable cost to millions of people. How can you be anything but motivated by the prospect of that kind of change?” (Reference 6)

No wonder then the Mac 400 was the only product in the world which got a full page mention in the global GE annual report in 2010. It is leadership expectations like Flannery’s: of creating an exciting vision of possibility with big innovations, of putting the local customer at the centre, of building pride around doing meaningful work; that makes people, no matter the country of their origin, rise to challenges and deliver exceptionally on them.

My advice to leaders seeking to build a professional culture in India is threefold:

  1. Do not seek to compare or cut-paste; start with India’s unique cultural strengths instead, and build from within, with patience. Construct an institutional vision and mechanisms to channel emotions into a passion for work.
  2. Find leadership lessons from those who came before: John Flannery is just one example. The erstwhile Infosys leadership team: (Narayan Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Mohandas Pai for example) the Wipro leadership team, (with those such as Azim Premji and T.K. Kurien), Subroto Bagchi of MindTree etc. are great reference points of how to build successful, professional work cultures.
  3. Cross fertilise from industries beyond your own: Indian firms like HUL (paradoxically, because it is a multinational but feels so Indian), Marico, ITC, Mahindra and Mahindra to name a few, have been remarkably successful in building professional cultures.

****************

This counter-view is in no way meant to diminish or deny the genuine experiences by the professionals mentioned in the Bangalore Mirror article, of the challenges they have faced in building great work cultures in India. It is just that the dominant narrative of ‘Indians is immature’, needs far greater consideration and balance, for nuances and complexities do exist. It is this expanded narrative that I wanted to explore in considerable depth through this post.

I am keen to hear your POV on the Indian work culture: What had been your experience? Where do you see strengths and weaknesses? What solutions have you seen in action to build a positive, performance oriented work culture?

Connect with us on @thinkanarva on twitter https://twitter.com/ThinkAnarva or on our FaceBook page. https://www.facebook.com/thinkanarva/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

 References:

  1. The Bangalore Mirror article: ‘Employees’ emotions render Indian work culture immature: Professionals: http://www.bangaloremirror.com/bangalore/others/Employees-emotions-render-Indian-work-culture-immature-Professionals/articleshow/51916468.cms
  2. How TCS became a global company: http://www.rediff.com/business/slide-show/slide-show-1-how-ycs-became-a-global-company/20110503.htm#3
  3. Erehwon Innovation Consulting: Transworld Collaboration, Radical Paradigms, Radical Solutions, Presented at HRD Asia, 2000
  4. The Sunday Times: British work ethic condemned by Indian steel tycoon: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/leaders/article631760.ece
  5. The Telegraph: The Tata Group clarification:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/8527734/British-work-ethic-condemned-by-Indian-tycoon.html
  6. Forbes: Interview with John Flannery: http://forbesindia.com/interview/magazine-extra/quot;i-want-ge-india-to-be-viewed-as-one-of-indias-best-indian-companiesquot;/7862/1

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