Celebrating the Indian CEO
British consumer goods and healthcaregiant Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc recently made some waves when it namedPepsiCo's Laxman Narasimhan as its next chief executive officer, lookingoutside its own ranks for a new leader after a difficult few years.Interestingly, he replaces Rakesh Kapoor, another Indian who had been at thehelm for eight years. Narasimhan’s appointment is the latest in a series ofappointments of Indian-origin CEOs at top global firms in the last decade or so.Think – Vasant Narasimhan (Novartis), Sundar Pichai (Google), Satya Nadella(Microsoft), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), Ajay Banga (Master Card), Ivan Menezes(Diageo), Sonia Syngal (Old Navy), Rajeev Suri (Nokia) and more recently VivekSankaran, President & CEO of Albertsons Companies and Nitin Paranjpe,global COO at Unilever.
There’s no ignoring the trend ofIndians (or rather people of Indian origin) making it to global leadershiproles at multinational firms. And while this trend has largely been noticed inthe tech firmament and Silicon Valley where the geek background helped in nosmall measure, the other industries surprisingly are not far behind. Consumergoods, retail, pharma – there is quite a diverse slate of industries across theUS and Europe that are hiring Indian CEOs. One would assume that Indians wouldfind it hard to read the western consumer and even harder to work in placeslike the highly regulated hidebound pharma world or the telecom infrastructurespace. But we have been proved wrong. And it is impossible to ignore the factthat several of the earlier mentioned examples were brought in to script aturnaround in the company’s fortunes. In a nutshell – they represent thequintessential transformational leader!
Which brings us to this key question –what is it that makes Indians so uniquely appropriate for the toptransformational leadership positions at these firms?
Consider this – almost all Indian CEOs havelearned the basics of working in a multicultural and highly diverse environment– the holy grail of management 101 skills! In fact, while the Indian community has long since been wellrepresented in the tech industry, it was a rare few that were present in thetop positions at the tech giants. But with glass ceilings being shattered anddiversity at the forefront recent times, many Indians who have hitherto beenunder-represented are now coming into the spotlight as leaders. And ironically,the US tech world gets the best talent from India’s IITs, IIMs, REC and itsequivalents. The rigorous, highly selective and fairly unbiased selectionprocedures of these premium institutes have ensured that the best of the best waschosen – and this makes it easy for global MNCs to handpick talent from thebest possible pool of resources. Additionally, India is one of the last greatgrowth markets with an untapped billion-plus population. It’s no wonder thenthat India is highly attractive for consumer/tech companies like Amazon,Walmart, IKEA among other multinationals. In order to enter the complex andemerging markets like India and Asia for that matter, they need “insiders” whoare well versed with the nuances of functioning in such markets, so they cancrack the next big growth burst.
Which begs the question - why aren’t we able to retain top talent within the country? The sad part is there are not enoughopportunities in India where the majority of businesses and even multinationalenterprises are family-run, and the reins are typically passed on from generationto generation. It’s only recently that the startup scene in India is changingwhich translates into a growing demand for high calibre transformationalleadership. But the numbers are tiny yet, and there’s a while to go before itcan reach the stature of US, Europe or China. Until then we shall continue tobe a net exporter of talent.