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Lunch with BS: Shital Kakkar Mehra

Soft Skills International head says the demand for soft skills training for executives took off in India when the multinational presence expanded and the corporate world stopped being an old boys' club

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Shital Kakkar Mehra

The prospect of lunch with a certified etiquette and protocol consultant leaves me so anxious to not be late that I arrive half an hour early at Diva, celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia's European food restaurant at Greater Kailash. But Shital Kakkar Mehra, elegant in an aquamarine churidar-kurta, doesn't look like she would take umbrage if Delhi's awful traffic had delayed me. Instead of the martinet on manners I nervously expect from her occasional email homilies (the last one on the art of air kissing) and a useful book called Business Etiquette: A Guide for the Indian Professional, she turns out to be a relaxed lunch companion, accepting the foibles of Indian behaviour with good-humoured tolerance.

I had been dismayed when she chose Diva since meals there some years ago had not encouraged a return. Happily, this time proved different. After exchanging cards in the correct manner (it's a bit like taking delivery of the Kohinoor), we order asparagus soup followed by, for her, Tagliolini Puttanesca, a spicy dish with handmade spaghetti ("it will be al dente, ma'am," the impossibly urbane waiter warns) and, for me, tenderloin steak (genuine beef, not buffalo, he assures me). She declines wine so I glumly follow the Good Host protocol and double the fresh lime order before asking her how she came to choose such an unusual profession.

Mehra had been living in the US where she enrolled at the Protocol School of Washington, the only Indian to be trained and certified to teach the subject. Protocol consulting, she explains, is a big industry in the West but when she returned to India in the year 2000 she found it tough to get the business going. "Nobody understood it and would call it crazy things like 'etiquettes', grooming, personality development or finishing school. I would meet HR heads and CEOs who would say, 'Oh yes, come and teach but do you want us to pay you?' They thought they were giving me a wonderful platform for my skills!"

In 2004, however, she found herself in the right place at the right time. First, the multinational presence in India had expanded considerably and the introduction of matrix reporting meant Indian executives had to interact with foreign bosses and travel overseas more often. Second, large Indian multinationals such as Tata, Aditya Birla or Mahindra started acquiring foreign firms so their own M&A teams had to travel overseas. "When you are sending people overseas, they are your brand ambassadors. You want them to dress well. Then, more than 50 per cent of business is done over breakfast, lunch or dinner so meal etiquette becomes an essential career skill. Suddenly, a need was created for this business," she laughs.

More so because the expanding Indian economy meant that recruitment extended beyond the elite westernised class - "the old boys' club" of people from families in the armed forces, or those who went to prestigious boarding schools or whose fathers worked in the world. "Today, the good news is that there are 300 million middle-class Indians who come from small towns and local-language schools, are extremely intelligent and progressive, have a lot of fire in the belly and are open to learning new skills."

As we discuss the nature of her work, two amuse-bouches, pumpkin and water chestnut tarts, are served, so minuscule it is impossible to get a sense of their taste. Apart from customised workshops, she also offers one-on-one coaching for CEOs and directors. What kind of etiquette advice do such senior people need? All sorts, it turns out, from learning about wines, cross-cultural behaviour, body language, presentation skills…."The problem is that it's very lonely at the top, so everybody tells them they're very good. It's my - dirty! - job to tell them what's wrong with them."

Shital Kakkar Mehra
Having trained over 13,000 executives she itemises four major needs for Indian executives. The biggest is written and spoken communication, skills our school system doesn't teach. "Remember that ridiculous 10-mark letter and 15-mark essay? Your English teacher told you these are the options, so you made your cheat-sheets and just mugged up things," she says as the soup is served. "Then, schools tend to identify the four or five extroverts in class early and for the next 12 years they alone participate in dramatics, debate and elocution. The remaining students provide the free audience."

The soup is both robust and delicately flavoured so I can honestly tell Dalmia, who walks up to enquire, that it is splendid. Back to our conversation, I ask Mehra whether deteriorating standards of English play a part in poor communication skills. Not really, she replies, "Let's agree that there's an Indian way of speaking English, chalo, but putting thoughts into words is a skill that has not been taught, so we write shoddy emails or communicate poorly in teleconferences." Then, Indians also tend to speak English very fast, so the rest of the world struggles to understand.

When the main course arrives, the steak, medium rare as ordered, is so succulent that I take a few reverential seconds of silence to savour it and the aromatic mash potato - just as Mehra tells me the Indian executive's next biggest need is dining skills. "We are very scared to communicate over a meal. We are so focused on managing our knives and forks that we won't focus on the conversation."

And finally, she says, is Indians' innate inability to say no. She actually had to teach people this, I ask incredulously. "In our culture 'no' is a negative word," she explains, "so most of us say yes to something and then simply don't do it. So bosses around the world get very upset when they, say, expect a report at 9 am and it arrives some hours later."

The weirdest advice she has offered, however, involved none of the above. "One guy who came for one-on-one coaching took my card and casually used it as dental floss. I told him not to do this - ever!" Some people also have to be urgently counselled on wardrobe choices. "People will spend $1,500 on a suit and when I look at the colour, it's, like, chocolate brown or purple and I have to advise them to give it away to charity."

In the main, she says, though Indian women have upped their grooming standards significantly, men haven't. She thinks it's our mindset. "I have to explain that clothes are an investment; the world is like the world of acting. If you want the part you must look it. I often tell clients that if they align themselves to the role models in their industry, their chances of success are higher. After all, look at the top 50 people in the leading companies - they are clones of each other."

My guest has hardly eaten, so I give her a chance to catch up by telling her about a visit to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Now, NYSE requires everyone, including visitors, to wear jackets, something I found odd. She, however, understands. "Financial services is a good example. The minute you handle other people's money, formality builds trust. I also get lots of young entrepreneurs coming to me, the kind with private equity backing, and they take great pride in being hip and happening. They say, look at Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. I tell them, when you are geniuses like them, you can wear what you like. Anyway, even Zuckerberg showed up in a fancy $4,000-suit when he went to meet President Obama."

Mehra also trains foreign executives, mostly to help them understand Indian behaviour. Their main pain points? Punctuality, she says, and tells me an amusing story of a Japanese CEO who arrived on the dot for a north Indian wedding that, true to form, started two and a half hours later. The other is the lack of RSVP to invitations. "In our culture, it's okay to say I'll try to come to a party, which means a 50 per cent chance of non-attendance. But this indirect communication irritates foreigners, so one of my jobs is to help them understand this."

The subject of social behaviour is so fascinating that it keeps us chatting for nearly two and a half hours. As we end our meal with black coffee for her and herbal tea for me, I can't help thinking Diva would be a great place for Mehra, ever friendly and non-judgemental, to teach the art of fine dining.

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First Published: Fri, January 23 2015. 22:32 IST