Global meritocracy & Indian CEOs

It takes worldly conquests for sons of our soil to be put in our elite league, writes Narayanan Madhavan.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2007 20:47 IST

When Arun Sarin flew into Delhi this week to announce the acquisition of Hutchison-Essar by his Vodafone, the chief executive of the world's second biggest telecom services company made one more statement on the enigma of arrival.

It takes worldly conquests for some sons of our soil to be put in our elite league. Had he stayed put in India, Sarin, with his IIT-Kharagpur degree and impeccable credentials as a sportsman and manager, would have at best been a managing director in a largish company, not a world-beater.

There is something to be said about western capitalist meritocracy, which allows Indians to rise to the top.

The 1980s saw the glass ceiling develop cracks and the 1990s made more of it give away, though there is still a long way to go.

Indians who have made it to the top four ranks in western companies have played a key role in raising the can-do spirit of less fortunate cousins back home, while also raising the Brand India flag overseas.

Several names come to mind: Arshad Zakaria, who was president of global markets in Merrill Lynch; Vinod Khosla, arguably the most successful venture capitalist on the planet; Rajat Gupta, who became managing director of McKinsey & Co; Victor Menezes in Citigroup; and of course, Indra Nooyi, who is now the CEO of PepsiCo.

There are several aspects to these success stories. They all involve hard work, dedication, some risk taking, lots of social chutzpah and sheer drive.

The success stories are a tribute to the western system in which board-driven managements and widely held companies have their own dynamics that sends some people to the top.

More important, they realise relatively early that there is a chance to race to the top. How many Indian companies can we think of today, where the trainee can aspire to be the chairman one day?

A lot is said about reservations in the public sector and the government, but there must be something in the larger system that prevents people from rising to the very top in India.

But these things are changing fast. Management and knowledge are becoming increasingly complex issues. The way Mukesh Ambani has been scouting for talent to push his retail venture is a case in point.

As companies become more accountable to shareholders and stakeholders at large, a higher degree of meritocracy may come to prevail in India Inc, but there is still a long way to go.

Having said that, there is something to be said about western-style CEO nominations, too.

Our own India's Rono Dutta and Rakesh Gangwal exited from United Airlines and US Airways respectively after the 9/11 attacks in New York made the aviation industry a sick sector, bringing unprecedented troubles to managers.

The exit of Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard, and the scandals involving CEO pay packets show that being a CEO is no cakewalk. Reputations are fickle and falls can be crippling.

There are some conspiracy theorists who believe some western companies are recognising ethnic Indians at the top because of the emergence of India as a potentially explosive market.

I do tend to agree with them somewhat. Indians who have worked long in western companies and earned their laurels are a natural fit when boards look for people who can run existing shows while cracking new markets.

But the key point to note is that the "India story" is not the only factor driving the rise of people like Nooyi and Sarin.

I wonder if Padmasree Warrior, the charming Delhi IIT-ian who is the chief technology officer of Motorola, will ever get to fill the charismatic Ed Zander's CEO shoes.

With the company having regulatory issues in India that would seem a good option. But, when it comes to the crunch, the CEOs they look for are like Sarin: the type that does boxing and knows how to send roses to difficult partners.

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First Published: Feb 15, 2007 17:21 IST