Ratan Tata may have been misquoted and misrepresented about his comments on Indian managers working harder than those in the UK, but the debate around the efficacy of the Indian manager has begun. In fact, behind closed corporate doors, this debate on how productive the Indian manager really is and what he brings to the table has been going on for some time.
India Inc is asking what is it that a manager brings to a company that's more than the country's scorching economic growth, while young and aspiring managers are questioning his old modus operandi that has little space in the India of tomorrow, the India they are creating with new attitudes, new values. So, does the Indian manager have what it takes to be globally competitive?
Riding a rising tide
The answer is heavy with hope. "Indian managers are doing better than their international counterparts," said Santrupt Misra, director (human resources) at the $30 billion, Aditya Birla Group that has 130,600 employees in 40 countries. "The business environment here on legislation, regulation, government approvals and so on is so much more difficult."It is a miracle that the Indian manager performs at all. Long before he even gets to his seat to take a decision, he needs to negotiate a fleet of inspectors, petty officials of municipal corporations and colleagues coming late because of a road cave-in and so on. And then there is the work culture. "An 11.30 am appointment means nothing," said Ashish Dhume of Europe-Interface, a London-based real estate firm. "We finally begin at 2.00 pm, after lunch, after chai, after all niceties are done and over with. My time, however precious, means nothing."
Related to the work culture is another twist: ownership. "The performance of the Indian manager is dependent upon the freedom he gets. He can have a greater impact in professionally-managed companies rather than promoter-driven ones. In the latter case, it becomes difficult to gauge whether it is the manager or the promoter who should get the performance credit," said the CEO of a power company, who declined to be identified.
Taking that thought further is the invisible exploitation of the manager. Does he perform better because he has no options, no rights? "Definitely. An Indian manager would be ready for global conference calls at 10 am, 4 pm, 11 pm, 2 am… anytime. Managers in other parts of the world would say, 'sorry, this doesn't suit me'," said Vikram Chhachhi, executive vice-president, DHR International, a global executive search firm.
This ready-to-die attitude could have a more nuanced explanation. "India is still an aspirational society," Misra said. "We are willing to stretch more to reach a lifestyle that is taken for granted by the foreign manager. Our children, who were born to relative affluence, are not so tolerant. They value their work-life balance. They will bring change."
The dark underbelly
That change is going to take some time coming, as existing managers create the superstructure for the leaders of tomorrow. The transition is not going to be smooth. The values and attitudes of the old, while ensuring continuity, will carry a cost that the morals and manners of the young will not tolerate beyond a point. But before the young take charge and change, they will be viewing the underbelly of India's growth story — sloth, low productivity, parochialism, sexual harassment.
"We are under a lot of pressure. They (the management) don't hire enough people and expect you to work for 10-12 hours," said Neha Gupta (22), manager in a global computing firm. "They even expect you to come on weekends."
A related problem is of control freaks. "If I was late by even one minute, I would start getting text messages," said Anurima Ghose (25), manager with a telecom company, who has now moved on. "She began to invade my personal space, calling me on weekends at the last minute. But my work was only that of a post box."
Then there is behaviour bordering on the criminal. "We called him (our boss) 'scanner'. He would scan all of us from top to bottom, all the time and would look a foot below our eyes while speaking to us," Ghose said. You could laugh at that but this but he once stood very close behind a young woman manager and said, "If you dress like this, you can't blame me if I get an erection." Is there no respite, no systems in place? "Systems, yes. Respite no. There is a written code of conduct but it is meaningless. Nothing happens."
Nothing frustrates a young manager more than a boss who doesn't allow career growth. "There's no career planning, no direction on what I am doing, where can I go," said Parthasarthy G (33), a middle manager at an FMCG company. "If I'm good in one area, I'm stuck to that job — for good." Parochialism is another issue. "In a cosmopolitan culture, it's not okay to speak in Bengali. It is unprofessional. It disgusts me."
Real cost of growth
Could it be India standing at an inflection point, a sweet spot from where it is looking at very high growth without being prepared for it in managerial terms? "The Indian manager is definitely at the right place at the right time," Chhachhi said. "But managers have become commodities. It is getting very difficult to pinpoint a manager's contribution."
Practitioners disagree. "India is not the only growth market in the world," said Sanjay Kapoor, CEO, Bharti Airtel. "We are competing with the world here in India itself. When you take that into account, the 9% factor (India's GDP growth) goes away and what you are left with is the managerial capability."
That capability also has a downside, as Nitin Paranjpe, CEO and managing director, Hindustan Unilever, writes (See column on the right): "An Indian manager tends to have less faith in processes and systems, believing that individual effort can override the limitations of a larger, organised and process-driven work ethic."
There's no doubt that the Indian manager brings a capability on a company's table that helps it ride the broader India story. Just by how much in terms of return and at what cost to emerging managers is fuzzy. In the rush for growth, perhaps, there is too little time to ponder over such obstacles. The mantra for now: let's grow!