After having lived in the UK for three years in the 1990s as part of Unilever, Bharti Retail CEO Raj Jain got a call from Whirlpool in Shanghai to lead its product development and marketing in the region. Later, he became President of Emerging Markets based in China. For the vegetarian Jain, China was lost in translation the moment he landed.
If the language was alien, the food was far removed from his regular fare. But the positive takeaways remain etched in his mind forever. "For the first time, I saw that 50% of the workforce comprised women, who worked in what is perceived to be male-dominated sectors, like shop floor, factories and transportation...there's no taboo, like there is in India," he says.
Today, he wants to replicate that model in his Bharti Retail, which has launched the Housewives' Program, where hausfraus can find jobs in the company's Easy Day stores when their kids go to school.
For Indian business leaders, a foreign posting is mind-altering in more ways than one. Apart from managing cultural diversity better with exposure to a global peer group, it tends to mature them faster by throwing them at the deep end of complex business processes.
Ashish Arora, MD of headhunting firm HR Anexi, cites his most recent recruitment by fixing the spotlight on a 45-year-old who worked in one of the largest logistics companies in the world for 18 long years in one location, India, until moving to Singapore as part of the same company a couple of years ago.
In India, he could never make the grade to the country manager but the job in Singapore entailed managing key accounts for the entire APAC region and gave him exposure to manage 13 different nationalities, including some from Europe. "He was managing Euro 150 million in India whereas in Singapore, he managed Euro 450 million. He's now returning to India as CEO of another company," says Arora.
Few understand the value of responsible positions overseas as clearly as Avinash Vashistha, chairman & managing director of Accenture India. Vashistha migrated to North America as a student in the early 1980s and worked with Bell Labs and Nortel before turning entrepreneur and eventually taking up the Accenture job. He came to India in 2011 to head Accenture in the subcontinent.
Apart from a flat structure and equal opportunity that the land of liberty is famed for, Vashistha lauds connectivity the most. "The US has connectivity with all markets and that gave me inroads into China, the Philippines and Latam. If you have American experience, you'll be able to help with access to US clients and markets and that's exactly what the headquarters are looking for," he says.
In India, there's always room at the top for people like Vashistha and Jain as they operate in sectors where their overseas experience is valued. Jain came to Indian retail from Wal-Mart in China at a time when experiential retailing was missing in the country. His job was to pretty much set up the retail apparatus ground up.
Again, in Vashistha's case, he combines the best of hardware and software with experiences around cloud, analytics and big data that the US market continues to redefine every now and then.
Navnit Singh, Chairman and Country Head of headhunter Korn/Ferry International recently closed two top positions in software MNCs. He says that since both candidates had US experience, they could relate to the latest in technology and had marketing skills aligned to the global headquarters, which is normally amiss in their homegrown counterpart. "It ensures the go to market is better," says
Singh. While hiring CEOs in India, companies are increasingly looking for American, European or Asian experience. Ashish Arora says that over the last few weeks he had met several candidates who had served in Africa between 18-34 months but did not fit the bill owing to regional dissonance with the subcontinent. Should an aspiring economy look at mature markets while hiring its leaders?
Arvind Uppal, who heads APAC for Whirlpool, has been with Nestle in Switzerland, China and Vietnam before returning to India to head Whirlpool. He says he'd be wary of picking up top talent from developed markets where labor costs are high with an over-dependence on processes. "It is different in India. While there should be exposure to advanced economies, the top boss should not be totally process dominated," he says.
While Uppal was in China, he realised the overriding denial of rights had created a culture where execution was swift once a strategy is laid. "In India, on the other hand, everybody had a point of view and so getting people to adhere to a strategy, needed clarity," he says, adding how he sat down with his team in India to devise a onepage document that remains the Bible in his company.
It is a three-year document that sets out annual objectives in lucid terms. "After reading the document, there should not be a single employee in the organisation who would not know his role," claims Uppal. This year, for instance, the stress is on market share and growth, while in the previous year, the focus was on profitability.
In case external factors come into play, it is communicated to the employees and an amendment drawn up to focus on the temporary period. It certainly wouldn't have been possible without Uppal's dragon ride.
Uppal has also worked in Nestle's headquarters at Vevey, Switzerland. So leaders who are engaged with the headquarters more directly in mature markets also tend to bring in international values as to what the corporation stands for and respect for the consumer. And that takes delivery to another level. The Chennai-based Sachin Nandgaonkar, Senior Partner & Director, BCG works in the automotive and capital goods space.
He contends that an overseas posting would enable the candidate get a better grip on product complexity, scale and standardization, where companies are increasingly dealing with common platforms and taking a longer term view in terms of product portfolios.
"They have also seen markets evolve in different periods of time and have a good understanding of market realities," he says. Recently, Nandgaonkar hired someone for the auto sector who spent several years in South East Asia, though in a different industry. One day, while discussing safety features inside a car, they touched upon connectedness in Indian cars.
He said that while he understood the perception of Indians was different than South East Asia or the rest of the world, being a value-conscious market, the subcontinent was a huge smartphone market too.
So he concluded that connectedness was a natural for the Indian consumer. Despite repeated warnings by his product managers, he's now bent on introducing "global connected values" to Indian car buyers, which is in sync with his headquarters.
Nandgaonkar also points to the liberal side of top talent coming from overseas. "They are able to get people to speak up and get their perspectives as the challenge in India is that the middle and junior management are seldom expressive," he says. And that is one way how Anirban Dey, Managing Director of SAP Labs India, benefitted. An IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, Dey went on to do his Masters in Engineering and MBA from the US before signing on at Oracle for a decade. Admittedly, his American exposure taught him what a free bent of mind can achieve. It drilled in him the innovative startup culture of the Silicon Valley and a deep understanding of global consumers.
Today, as he manages SAP Labs in India, it is the same spirit of innovation and free-thinking he's trying to inculcate in the Indian workforce. "I have a very flexible workforce," he claims.
Also, his understanding of global customers is helping him connect with local businesses. Last year, for instance, he was giving a retail solution for customers of a global brokerage house and during the discussion, there were issues on data privacy that cropped up. "It was relatively easy for me to tackle since I grasped the nuances of data privacy around the world having had that exposure earlier," say Dey.
Similarly, Vivek Nath, Managing Director of HR consulting firm Towers Watson, credits his business perspective to stints in China and Malaysia. Nath started out in Noble & Hewitt in India in the 1990s until he left for his MBA in 2002 in Singapore.
A year later, he was snapped up by
PwC in Shanghai and remained there till May 2006 when Towers Watson (then Watson & Wyatt) made an offer in the Malaysian market.
All of 29 in 2008, he was offered the role of country manager in Kuala Lumpur alongside the option of a senior consultant's position in London. He chose the former since the role entailed leadership attributes and more interaction with the headquarters. "It gave me a great alignment and learning as to how to sell your strategy to the global HQ," says Nath.
Nath has been in India for the last three years and finds his relevance with clients higher today than moons ago when he was a consultant with Noble & Hewitt. He says one of his clients recently faced an issue with their executive compensation plan in the US and he was able to bring in a better perspective through interactions with the global Towers Watson offices.
But most of all, Nath wants to inculcate a profitability culture among his Indian colleagues. "My interaction with managers has always been around market share and growth but the US headquarters is looking at profitability as well," he says. "Projects must be profitable today, not tomorrow."
That thinking is echoed by Raj Jain of Bharti Retail too as he regularly emphasizes on the merits of training and development for profitable growth. He realized this is his days at Unilever in London where not just the management but even the shopfloor workers were ingrained in the values of training and development.
So when he returned to India as part of HUL, he ran a plant in UP with a similar drill making workers realise the virtues of best manufacturing practices. The initiative got noticed and was taken up by the HUL board in 1995 with workers from the plant presenting their case. Again, it was Jain's overseas exposure that allowed him to have the last laugh.