Celebrating the Indian CEO

British consumer goods and healthcare giant Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc recently made some waves when it named PepsiCo’s Laxman Narasimhan as its next chief executive officer, looking outside its own ranks for a new leader after a difficult few years. Interestingly, he replaces Rakesh Kapoor, another Indian who had been at the helm for eight years. Narasimhan’s appointment is the latest in a series of appointments 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 Vivek Sankaran, President & CEO of Albertsons Companies and Nitin Paranjpe, global COO at Unilever.

There’s no ignoring the trend of Indians (or rather people of Indian origin) making it to global leadership roles at multinational firms. And while this trend has largely been noticed in the tech firmament and Silicon Valley where the geek background helped in no small measure, the other industries surprisingly are not far behind. Consumer goods, retail, pharma – there is quite a diverse slate of industries across the US and Europe that are hiring Indian CEOs. One would assume that Indians would find it hard to read the western consumer and even harder to work in places like the highly regulated hidebound pharma world or the telecom infrastructure space. But we have been proved wrong. And it is impossible to ignore the fact that several of the earlier mentioned examples were brought in to script a turnaround in the company’s fortunes. In a nutshell – they represent the quintessential transformational leader!

Which brings us to this key question – what is it that makes Indians so uniquely appropriate for the top transformational leadership positions at these firms?

Consider this – almost all Indian CEOs have learned 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 well represented in the tech industry, it was a rare few that were present in the top positions at the tech giants. But with glass ceilings being shattered and diversity at the forefront recent times, many Indians who have hitherto been under-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 its equivalents. The rigorous, highly selective and fairly unbiased selection procedures of these premium institutes have ensured that the best of the best was chosen – and this makes it easy for global MNCs to handpick talent from the best possible pool of resources. Additionally, India is one of the last great growth markets with an untapped billion-plus population. It’s no wonder then that India is highly attractive for consumer/tech companies like Amazon, Walmart, IKEA among other multinationals. In order to enter the complex and emerging markets like India and Asia for that matter, they need “insiders” who are well versed with the nuances of functioning in such markets, so they can crack 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 enough opportunities in India where the majority of businesses and even multinational enterprises are family-run, and the reins are typically passed on from generation to generation. It’s only recently that the startup scene in India is changing which translates into a growing demand for high calibre transformational leadership. But the numbers are tiny yet, and there’s a while to go before it can reach the stature of US, Europe or China. Until then we shall continue to be a net exporter of talent.

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