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Ten things you should know about Indian business culture

Ten things you should know about Indian business culture article image

During more than a decade dealing with India, leading trade missions, writing for Indian business media and advising on cross-cultural issues, Stephen Manallack cites ten reasons for India’s meteoric rise on the world stage … 

What are the reasons for India’s success globally and why are so many Indians at the top in major western corporations? 

The success is not just attributed to massive capital, systems and a huge labour force. 

The real secret of Indian success can be found in ten mindsets of Indian business leaders: 

1. Acceptance of change 

Indians have acceptance of change hardwired into their psyche – they thrive on it. 

Lakshmi Mittal is Britain’s wealthiest man and a non-resident Indian who heads up the world’s biggest steel manufacturer, ArcelorMittal. Mittal has clear views on leadership and on change: “Always think outside the box and embrace opportunities that appear – whatever they might be.” 

This unique Indian view of change (they do not fight it when there is little chance) is one key to success and was well stated by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India (2002-07): “I was willing to accept what I couldn't change”. 

2. Live in the moment – now 

Living more in the moment makes India’s business leaders very adaptable and opportunistic. 

This mindset shows up in small ways – arrive in Mumbai with an idea and no appointments, pretty soon you will be seeing the people at the top. 

Being in the “now” results from learning how to control the mind. 

Anil Ambani, Managing Director of Reliance ADAG says: “Concentration can be cultivated. One can learn to exercise will power, discipline one's body and train one's mind.” 

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is a great example of focusing on the now: “I am not thinking too far ahead, just want to take it one thing at a time.” 

3. Generosity

One of the inspirational features of Indian business leaders is how they build generosity into their personal and business life – while too many measure successful leadership in the west just by the share price. 

Ratan Tata epitomises the Tata Group’s success and ethics:  “Some foreign investors accuse us of being unfair to shareholders by using our resources for community development. Yes, this is money that could have made for dividend payouts, but it also is money that’s uplifting and improving the quality of life of people in the rural areas where we operate and work. We owe them that.” 

4. Patience, not anger 

Of the great texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, is an influential part of the education of so many Indian business leaders and it sums all this up so beautifully: “Delusion arises from anger. The mind is bewildered by delusion. Reasoning is destroyed when the mind is bewildered. One falls down when reasoning is destroyed.” 

The Indian thought process enables good leaders to focus on their reaction to events, which they see as more important than the events themselves. 

5. Ethics and respect 

While many see India as held back by corruption – particularly at government level – the companies having global success are remarkable for their corporate governance. 

My exposure to this aspect of India began in 2005 when the Chairman and Chief Mentor of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, spoke about corporate governance and morality in business: “We follow one principle – the softest pillow is a clear conscience.” 

To understand the different starting point of many Indian business leaders, consider the views of Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of petrochemical and diversified industries giant, Reliance Industries Limited: “As long as we place millions of Indians at the centre of our thought process, as long as we think of their welfare, their future, their opportunities for self-realization we are on the right track.” 

6. Problems are a gift 

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chair and Managing Director, Biocon Ltd, shows how this works: “My philosophy in life is that every failure can be converted into a success. As somebody said, defeat is temporary but giving up is permanent. The way I approached it was that I am going to be just not brainwashed by perceptions. I thought let me do it my way." 

The Indian born Lakshmi Mittal, head of Arcelor Mittal, knows about tough times and has this view: “Everyone experiences tough times, it is a measure of your determination and dedication how you deal with them and how you can come through them.” 

7. Right words 

To westerners, much of Indian corporate communication can be frustratingly low key – but the power of it is finding the right words for the right time. 

Ratan Tata modernised the Tata Group and expresses this communication style this way: “I do not know how history will judge me, but let me say that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise. It would, therefore, be a mark of failure on my part if it were perceived that Ratan Tata epitomises the Group’s success. What I have done is establish growth mechanisms, play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the ‘I’. If history remembers me at all, I hope it will be for this transformation.” 

8. Leaders as gurus 

TT Srinivasaraghavan is the Managing Director of Sundaram Finance, a diverse company that is active in savings deposits, mutual funds, car finance, insurance, home loans, business process outsourcing, IT and software and logistics. TT is a most honoured business leader in his home city of Chennai (once Madras) and expressed it this way - that Sundaram is first a family and second a company. Fundamental to his business is ‘trust’ and what he calls a ‘chain of faith’ that flows from people who trust each other — from the board through to senior management. 

As head of Sundaram, he talks about the old Indian way of learning through having a teacher and a disciple – ‘guru’ system. Sundaram in a way tries to build a management system like that. As a result, when they hire it is never at the top searching from some miracle from outside – they hire for the bottom and build people up.  

9. Life as a spider web 

While the west strives for simplicity and certainty, Indian business leaders know that life is like trying to find your way through a spider web – where does it begin, where does it lead, who can tell? Consistent with this view, most Indian corporations offer an incredibly diverse range of products and services – whereas western business tends to focus on just one area. 

Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of The Aditya Birla Group, gives us inspiration: “Well, I think the golden rule I can think of is the fact that you must follow your passion and do something that's close to your heart. And I think that that's very important, well, to be successful and to be happy.” 

Taking a positive approach was the advice from India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” 

10. Leading by not conforming 

The western dilemma of conformity versus creativity was summed up by the great Indian thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said: “So, having made life into a technical process, conforming to a particular pattern of action, which is merely technique, naturally we have lost confidence in ourselves, and therefore we are increasing our inward struggle, our inward pain and confusion.” 

Thinking of others rather than “profits first” is one way Indian leaders do not conform. The wisdom of this was pointed out by Paramahansa Yogananda: “Business ambition can be spiritualized. Business is nothing but serving others materially in the best possible way.” 

Sadhguru uses a sporting analogy: “You must have the fire of wanting to win but also the balance to see that if you lose, it is okay with you.” 

India’s non-conformity is supported by a “can do” belief – Tagore is the inspiration to action: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” 

*Stephen Manallack is a published author and speaker in India. His latest book is Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill).

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