Playing Corporate Snakes & Ladders

The General ManagersThe popular television serial Bones features a female protagonist Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. An immensely intelligent woman capable of formidable physical action, Bones is unbelievably literal and socially inept. While this helps underpin the humour in an otherwise serious criminal investigation series, it also causes much hurt and heartache for the people around her.  We’ve all met people like that—incredibly smart, at the top of their game, even good-looking, but utterly lacking in empathy. Yet without these smart people, empathetic or not, it would be difficult to get much of our business or work done.

As managers, how do we deal with such folks? Is it possible to get them to develop empathy—for their co-workers and customers at the very least? Historically, the most common method that people have recommended to build empathy has been “walking in the other person’s shoes”. Nothing opens up our eyes, and hopefully our minds, as experiencing what Mischelle goes through every day or what Rajagopal deals with on a daily basis. And in the India of the early 21st century, there is somewhat of a unique challenge.

Companies, both multinationals already here and those entering each day, are jockeying with growing Indian companies and India-origin multinationals for middle and senior managers. Despite the promise of India’s vaunted demographic dividend, the reality today is one of far too many opportunities chasing far too few suitable candidates. Matters probably haven’t helped in the past few years, when fast-rising managers in Indian multinationals have been promoted to run their businesses elsewhere. In many ways, the downturn has been a positive step forward as growth of companies and white collar jobs in India have continued, while most of the rest of the world has stagnated.

In specific specialized fields, such as airline pilots, we’ve had no option but to go overseas and hire expatriate pilots. Retail, automotive initially began on a similar route, but have largely transitioned to hiring in India or poaching senior folks from other Indian or multinational companies in India. This has led to an interesting dynamic, evident to even a casual browser of LinkedIn or the business appointment announcements—the rapid rise of individuals into executive positions. The days of my dad working his way up a single organization over 20-odd years appear downright quaint in today’s India. Even in the early 2000s when the big four IT companies were making names for themselves as high-growth global businesses, they had their share of blue, green or other colour badges (signifying 10, 15 or even 20 years of service) in senior positions.

A quick and unscientific survey of the managing directors or India heads of technology firms, for instance, reveals folks who have moved on average four-six jobs over a period of 10-12 years. This is definitely a great time of opportunity for individuals themselves, but one of challenges for companies. It also begs the question: has the business world or India indeed changed and is this the new normal? And, more importantly, does this serve the companies, individuals and the nation well? Will Parkinson’s law kick in and can these leaders, indeed, lead without the experience that staying in one industry, even if not in one company, will bring them?

The good news is that this question has risen before and been examined in great detail. The General Managers by John Kotter of the Harvard Business School set out to answer this very question of “professional managers” who can step into any business and run it well. Kotter took an empathetic approach of walking in the footsteps of 15 general managers across a variety of industries over a year. His key finding was successful managers are domain specialists having spent most or all of their career in one industry. This enabled them to establish cooperative working relationships and wide informal networks that he attributes to their success. In what should give pause to all of us, he finds outsiders rarely do as well—as probably John Sculley and others found at Apple.

This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint.

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