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Global lessons, made in India

What can managing in India teach expatriates about managing globally?

Kanika Datta 

Jerome Golaszewski, programs and director of Altran India, the Indian subsidiary of the $2 billion Paris-headquartered consulting company, had this story to tell about sitting in on a recruitment interview for a

"One candidate spent 10 to 15 minutes telling us about his parents' health. I was puzzled; what did this have to do with the job at hand? HR later explained that that was the candidate's way of indicating that he cares about the people with whom he works - and I had totally misunderstood!"

Cross-connections like this are par for the course as seek to establish western best practices and concepts in India's developing corporate culture. But as many have discovered, there is scope for "reverse engineering" embedded in these small cultural lessons - that is, applying lessons from one of the world's fastest-growing markets to a global corporate environment.

For Golaszewski, who has quotations from Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and the motivational speaker Jim Rohn pinned up in his cabin, that interview was among several experiences that taught him the importance of seeing things from different viewpoints, especially when it comes to problem-solving. "There is never only one solution to a problem - sometimes we should think back to see things from a different perspective," he said.

If he learnt another lesson from his four-year experience in India so far it is to improve his self-control, because, he discovered, "Anger is perceived as a lack of wisdom." Daizo Ito, president of Panasonic India, called this imbibing "life skills" that can help create a self-motivated and dedicated team. "One of the things that I have learnt while working in India is the virtue of being patient and having a sense of humility," he said.

As Golaszewski and Ito's experiences show, coming to grips with cultural issues in the workplace is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges for Another common discovery, for instance, is the relatively high personal element in professional relations. Saiid Laurent Marcel, managing director of Danone Nutricia. "In India, you have to pay attention to small things, such as attending a colleague's wedding," he said. Marcel is in a good position to judge. Before joining Danone Nutricia, the Indian subsidiary of the global food company that acquired Wockhardt India's nutrition business in 2011, he had worked in emerging markets as diverse as Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

This characteristic of overlapping the personal and the professional can, however, have its uses in developed markets. "There are things around sociability in India that have taught us some useful things," said Nigel Eastwood, CEO of British telecommunication provider For instance, he noticed that "there is a lot of collective socialising outside of work such as playing cricket matches". Rather than being something that calls for good-natured tolerance, Eastwood said it's a lesson he has "taken on board in the UK outfit because we discovered it has a massive impact on morale".

For companies like New Call, imbibing lessons from India are critical because the company has aggressive growth plans here. In 2009, it acquired high-end app developer Nimbuzz, which recently launched a free caller ID app for Android called Holaa!, and is awaiting government approval for another acquisition. India, says Eastwood, will soon be New Call's largest geography.

Work ethic is another discovery that taught how to raise the bar on the art of the possible. Eastwood, for example, said there is a "complete contrast between the Indian and the UK employee". Indians, he added, had a "superb work ethic". They did not mind working long hours and six days a week and "have this rich vein of and innovation". In Europe, Golaszewski added, "someone will always say something is not possible". In India,"an engineer who would be asked to travel to, say, Germany next week will promptly say yes. In Europe, you will hear 'yes, but…'." Marcel ascribed this can-do approach to the fact that Indians are not shy about being aggressive - a quality that in France may be considered "the stretch version of ambition".

Discoveries of India
If imbibing global lessons from managing in India is one issue for expatriate managers, learning how to manage within Indian companies is another. Here are some thoughts:
  • JEROME GOLASZEWSKI, programs and director, Altran India: “My first learning in India is that you have to face bigger challenges here and do things faster. That’s because Indians have a lot of ambition and are more willing to move forward and they do things with great national enthusiasm. As a result, you never get bored.”
    This “can do” approach can have a downside. “The most difficult thing is that our engineers have difficulty saying no to something. As I discovered when they say yes, it’s sometimes a polite way of saying ‘I’ll listen to you but…’”
  • LAURENT MARCEL, managing director, Danone Nutricia: I find Indian managers tend to be assertive but they also tend to look to their bosses more than their peers which make working through lateral cross-functional teams something of a challenge.

    Indians’ innate ambition also plays into their communication skills, particularly when it comes to recruitment interviews. “I discovered that candidates in India tend to oversell themselves, so you require a filter to decode what he or she is really saying.”
    And finally, there is the issue of systems and processes. “Implementing systems and processes like ERP is not very difficult. The challenge comes in consistency of execution.”

  • NIGEL EASTWOOD, CEO, New Call: “I have been travelling to India for over a decade and what’s struck me is the entrepreneurial spirit – I think every Indian is born with it. This could be because there is no benefits system here unlike in the UK where the benefits system allows people not to work.”
    As for systems and processes, “the average employee has the capability to work by a checklist or replicate a function but it’s the thinking outside the box that’s sometimes lacking.”
  • DAIZO ITO, President, Panasonic India: “I have been part of Panasonic’s India operations for over seven years. One major lesson that I have learnt here is that in a country that has undergone much more social and economic change in the last generation than any other country, holds the key for success.

Golaszewski discovered that this stretch principle can translate into real gains: received five accreditations within 11 months, a world record for the Most Company Quality Accreditations, according to the World Record Academy. His experience is that though "everything is bigger" in terms of challenges, "you always have this feeling that everything is possible."

There are, of course, some discoveries that are uniquely Indian - such as hierarchy-prone managers, the struggles with consistent execution and the difficulty Indian executives have in saying 'no'. But one of India's most unique characteristics - its enormous diversity - has also been an important source of learning. As Marcel pointed out, "One thing which I have found particularly rich in India is the cultural diversity between different regions, and at the same time the possibility to build diverse and high-performing teams in one organisation. While a Tamil manager and a Punjabi manager would behave very differently at work, they are absolutely capable of working together, and it proves very valuable to have both in a leadership team. The day I come back to Europe, I am sure I will keep this with me, this richness of building multi-cultural teams."

First Published: Mon, June 22 2015. 00:15 IST