Leadership Traits that India-Born CEOs Bring to Global Companies

By Shefali Anand March 16, 2020
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IBM headquarters

​The recent election of Arvind Krishna as the next chief executive of IBM has added to the roster of India-born leaders heading global companies. Others on the list include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, and Indra Nooyi, who was CEO of PepsiCo for 12 years until 2018. Three of these CEOs—Nadella, Narayen and Banga—were named among the world's top 10 best-performing CEOs in 2019, by Harvard Business Review

Growing up in India has instilled qualities in these leaders that help them successfully steer multinational companies, say management experts. Some of these qualities include:

1. Adaptability and Agility

As a developing country, India presents a lot of constraints and has limited resources. For instance, there isn't enough electricity for everyone, and many small towns and cities have power cuts daily.

"If you grow up in an environment where the basic infrastructure and systems are not reliable, you learn to adapt," said Ranjan Banerjee, a professor at S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, a business school in Mumbai, and co-author of the book The Made-In-India Manager. 

India-born managers often are prepared for the unexpected and willing to handle ambiguities and navigate through changes. And when something breaks down, they are quick to get back up and running.

"Agile leaders become global leaders," said Gopal Mahapatra, a professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, a business school.

Indra Nooyi, who boosted PepsiCo's fortunes by shifting its focus to healthier products, has said that adaptability is a central skill for CEOs.

"In uncertain environments, it isn't any specific asset, intellectual property or competitive position that matters most. Rather, being adaptable and nimble are the characteristics that will separate the winners from the losers over the long term," she said in a speech in Washington, D.C.

2. Ability to Thrive Amid High Competition

Limited resources and India's huge population of 1.3 billion means that Indians face strong competition from a young age. Whether getting into a good school or finding a first job, it's a struggle.

A well-known example is the competition to gain entrance into the country's pre-eminent engineering schools, the Indian Institute of Technology, or IITs, whose alumni includes Krishna of IBM and Pichai of Google. In 2018, more than 1 million students took a nationwide entrance exam to get one of 12,000 seats offered by 23 IITs in the country.

Having thrived amid this highly competitive environment prepares leaders to shepherd their organizations through competition on the world stage.

3. Ability to Balance Polarities 

India is a country of contrasts and paradoxes. It has the world's poorest and richest living side by side. While it is developing many advanced technologies, nearly a fourth of the population can't read or write.

"Indian leaders know how to deal with the polarities, dealing with paradox," said Anil Sachdev, founder and CEO of the School of Inspired Leadership, a leadership and management institute in Gurgaon. This helps leaders deal with the many polarities that confront them in their roles as company leaders, Sachdev said.

For instance, one typical polarity CEOs face is the pressure to manage short-term expectations of the company's performance while also making strategic, long-term decisions that may take time to show results.

"Leaders who really plan for the long term and believe in sustainable businesses, they don't take short cuts. They really manage that," Sachdev said.

4. Ingrained Inclusivity

India's population speaks more than 1,600 languages, comprises dozens of different cultures, traditional clothes and foods. Growing up in this environment means one is exposed to different types of people early on.

In school, it is not uncommon for children to share their lunch with students from different parts of the country who have a different skin color, speak different languages and belong to different religions. "Inclusivity was a deep part of our upbringing," Banerjee said.

This ingrained acceptance of diversity helps leaders in multinational companies manage people from different countries and backgrounds, while honoring their uniqueness.

Banga of Mastercard has often said that being around similar people can lead to blind spots. "The moment you surround yourself with people who don't look like you, didn't have the same experiences as you, sitting at a table with you, you will have perspectives that are different. They will make you be aware of opportunities," he said.

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5. Focus on Family Values

Growing up in a middle-class family inIndia typically involves close ties with extended family, including uncles, aunts and cousins. Sometimes all of them might be living under the same roof. These close familial ties infuse a capacity to be tolerant and respectful of different people—qualities that bode well for leaders.

The mindset is: "every human being is part of my family," Mahapatra said.

This way of thinking translates into making leaders compassionate, accepting and empathetic to individual needs. Satya Nadella, who has been credited with turning around the fortunes of Microsoft, often talks about the importance of empathy, including how it helps drive innovation.

These leaders understand how an employee's personal and professional lives are connected. They encourage employees to express their emotions at the workplace and bring their authentic self to work, Sachdev said.

"Community building in the workplace is an extraordinary part of every leader's role," he said. "They know that if they create an environment where people feel a sense of abundance and flourish, then their company will flourish."

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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