Mr. Laxman Narasimhan, former CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, was recently appointed CEO of Starbucks Inc. A few days later, advertising and PR giant Ogilvy (part of WPP, the global marketing and communications group) announced the appointment of Ms. Devika Bulchandani as its global CEO. These two are only the latest additions to an already impressive list of Indian-origin CEOs of global business organizations. This list includes blue chip names like Microsoft, Alphabet/Google, Adobe, Deloitte, IBM, Twitter, Bata, FedEx, Arista Networks, Vertex Pharma, Chanel and many more. Leading global VC firms including Masayoshi San’s Softbank have a number of Indians at the helm.
Ms. Indira Nooyi became Pepsico’s CEO in 2006 (and remained in that powerful position till 2018). However, it’s fair to say that the currently visible trend of Indian-origin leaders being appointed CEOs of global enterprises with headquarters outside India began about a decade ago, with the appointment of Mr. Ajay Banga as CEO of Mastercard. Since then, a number of other leaders who were born/raised and studied in India (at least their undergraduate degrees) have been chosen to lead global organizations across industries. All of them qualified with advanced degrees abroad and have spent a significant chunk of time working in overseas markets; most of them are no longer Indian citizens. Nonetheless, it is a matter of pride that no other non-G7 country has contributed as many executives to C-suites across the globe. Admittedly, the technology sector has the highest number of such leaders as CEOs, but companies from other sectors too are following suit.
To me, this trend is not a fad. It is also testament to more than just the intellectual capabilities, global experience or proficiency in English that these Indian-origin executives offer. I believe this phenomenon is also an acknowledgement of the innate ability and willingness of Indians (I use the word loosely because many of these business leaders are no longer Indian citizens) to deal with adversity, crises and rapid changes- all of which are dominant characteristics of our emerging world. These are the very same elements that have shaped the first 25 years of their lives, and taught them to adapt. This point was made more than two decades ago by the late Dr. C. K. Prahalad, who pointed out that those growing up in India quickly learn to be “natural managers” because they have to deal with infrastructural inadequacies, insufficient capacities and other constraints. This helps them develop a solution mindset and think outside the box.
Given India’s inherent cultural diversity, Indians are more used to coping with diversity in multiple spheres; this helps leaders work in multi-cultural organizations and environments. Such a complex, competitive environment imbues individuals with a certain level of humility- something that probably also has a cultural dimension. Add to all this the fact that Indians working abroad have to work extra hard to prove themselves at every step- and you have a near-perfect recipe for leadership success. Of course, I must also acknowledge the critical role played by the US and other western nations in allowing Indian-origin talent to evolve, mature and shine. Although no society has as yet achieved the perfect balance, these countries are more proactive in promoting merit and providing equal opportunities.
But it would be unfair if I paint a universally rosy picture. Not every Indian leader who has become a CEO has been successful. There will naturally be variations based on a host of factors including the company, industry, external events, timing of becoming the CEO etc. For example, Vishal Garg, CEO of Better.com did not exactly cover himself in glory when he fired 900 employees on a Zoom call. He is back in the saddle of the company he founded. A couple of months ago, Ms. Sonia Syngal resigned as the CEO of Gap Inc. But there have been claims (supposedly backed by studies) that in corporate America, women leaders typically have shorter tenures and are more likely to be forced out when things start going wrong- irrespective of what causes the unravelling and to what extent the CEO could control those factors. But that’s another topic and I must not digress.
New sectors are emerging, driven by scientific and technological innovation. Combined with India’s burgeoning ecosystem and large talent pool, and changes to our education system and shifts in operational models and organizational development paradigms, we as a nation stand at the cusp of a huge opportunity to accelerate our socio-economic progress. It is time for organizations across sectors to rethink how they engage with talent in order to create enriching work environments that remain productive and mutually beneficial at a time when mindsets and aspirations are shifting more rapidly than ever before. Only then can we ensure that home-grown enterprises too are led by committed, dynamic and visionary leaders who can propel India to the US$5 Trillion league at the earliest.
Given India’s inherent cultural diversity, Indians are more used to coping with diversity in multiple spheres; this helps leaders work in multi-cultural organizations and environments.