Monday, January 21, 2013

Are you one of these six newly-evolved corporate species?

Are you one of these six newly-evolved corporate species?

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?
Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

If you are in VikramBhardwaj's line of work, you would be able to flag a self-inflating ego from a mile away. As a veteran executive search pro, he is adept at dealing with larger-than-life self-images, which can make a potential dream hire seem like a nightmare.

But even Bhardwaj, CEO of head-hunting firm Redileon, couldn't see this one coming. For three months in 2012, Bhardwaj pursued a Singapore-based senior MNC executive for the CEO's job at a large Indian conglomerate. Things were progressing well, in fact, unexpectedly smooth. All that was now left was for the CEO to fly down to Mumbai to meet the chairman before signing up. Sure enough, he was sent a business class ticket.

The CEO replied within hours: "Sorry, I am not available." Worse, he stopped taking Bhardwaj's calls altogether.

A flummoxed Bhardwaj, still trying to figure out what could have possibly gone wrong, finally managed to pin the CEO down. And after some persuasion, he blurted it out: "I only travel first class. It will be difficult to work for somebody who penny-pinches like this."

Now, having had a hang of the CEO, Bhardwaj — still hopeful of tying up the loose ends — went back to the chairman. After all, it's no big deal, just a matter of upgrading a flight ticket.

But the chairman screamed back at Bhardwaj: "In this company, except me, nobody travels first class. If he has such hang-ups he will never fit in my company."

Needless to say, the MNC executive was never hired.

Well, blame it all on that absolute intangible: the touchy-feely thing. In the corridors of India Inc, not many like to talk about it. And rarely does it get written about. Hard to articulate, work culture can be comprehended only when you experience it. Yet, in an era of job-hopping, where Indian executives change companies, move sectors and switch careers with increasing ease, work culture and work environment has become an important intangible factor in vetting a job offer.

For the recruitment at the top, cultural fitness is one of the most important factors that headhunters look at. Not surprisingly, for both employers and employees this could often be a deal breaker.

Talk to executives and corporate cliches tumble out: Indian companies thrive on ambiguities and disdain structures and processes. Japanese companies lay thrust on hierarchy. Korean companies are aggressively competitive. European companies are stuffy but offer good work-life balance. And American companies are informal but too cut-and-dried.

True, some of these cliches are exaggerated and make some sweeping generalisations. But they are helpful in capturing nuances, and potential employees can visualise the work culture in different types of companies and take their career decisions.

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

From Silos to Melting Pot

Well, blame the post-liberalisation India for all this chaos. Things were smooth back then when everyone was happy to be in his own silo. Very few executives changed companies, forget switching sectors. Traits, behaviour and work culture in companies were far more deeply ingrained then.

There were broadly three categories of workplaces. The biggest was that of the haloed government workers. Then a smaller number toiled in home-grown Indian firms like the Birlas, Goenkas etc. But at the top were the small but elitist, blue-blooded MNC executives who lived the good life with fat pay packets and fancy perks. Each category looked and felt different in their internal as well as external manifestation — salaries and perks, offices and attire, career paths and work culture.

But irrespective of the employer pedigree, that era was lot more formal and bureaucratic. You did not call your boss by his first name, almost never went out for a meal with him. The size of the work table and the cabin were strictly based on your designation. On the whole, paternalistic sentiments shaped employers' management style.

Over the years, the differences have narrowed. "Desi companies have become more professional. MNCs have become more Indianised," says Rajeev Vasudeva, managing partner, Egon Zehnder International. And Indian workers today switch jobs, change sectors seamlessly. Old differentiators, especially the physical ones, have long gone. They all work in somewhat similar-looking modern offices, wear western suits and branded clothes, drive sedans and are comfortable in in English.

Yet differences — both subtle and nuanced — remain. Over the years, India's corporate universe has become multi-hued and the range of executive species working there has multiplied.

Evolution of Executive Species

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?
The blue-blooded MNC breed is still there except that they are no longer as elitist and homogeneous as they were once. And they have many subvarieties. So there is the American variety which is more casual, informal and accessible. There is a growing Japanese crowd that is more reserved, formal and conservative. There is the Korean variety, which is aggressive and target-driven. And those working in European and Chinese MNCs fall somewhere in between.

The sarkari breed is still there, except they have fallen from their mighty perch. "We were once the brown sahibs — the most revered, sought-after and powerful lot in the country. Today, there are so many better opportunities outside the government," says a Delhi-based 1992 batch IAS officer.

It's the desi companies that have undergone the most dramatic change. From a not-so-aspirational workplace, with average salary, poor working conditions and not-so-professional work environment, Indian entrepreneurs have turned the table. Today, their corporate offices are world-class, Bharti AirtelBSE 1.62 % and Havells IndiaBSE -0.05 % being good examples.

"On the salary front, many Indian firms today pay better salary than MNCs," says Arun Das Mahapatra, partner-in-charge, Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm.

Indian companies aren't a homogeneous lot either. One one end are old business houses like the Birlas and Goenkas. Then there are the new ones like the Bharti Group, Future Group and GMRBSE -1.01 %. There is also a growing set of professional-led companies. Seasoned executives like Rana Kapoor of Yes BankBSE -1.30 %, Deep Kalra of or Vivek Gour of Air Works have left their cushy jobs in MNCs like Bank of America and GE to turn into entrepreneurs. Expectedly, the work culture in these companies is very different from other promoter-led companies, says K Sudarshan, head of executive recruitment firm EMA Partners.

Other new executive species too have emerged. For instance, the kurta-jeans-clad jholawallah variety working with NGOs is a fast-growing breed. Then there is the hybrid variety — executives who defy any typifying. They have moved from one sunrise sector to another, spotting new opportunities. Take the case of Gopal Vittal, theHULBSE 1.01 % veteran, who has returned to the Bharti group for the second time.

Each of these species shapes as well as gets shaped in the work environment.

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

So, What is the Work Culture?

Well, in explaining such intangibles, anecdotes come in handy. A director in an Indian firm has an interesting story. He had just quit the IAS to join the private sector. Leading a start-up team, he would send notes on virtually every decision to the chairman for his approval. "There was radio silence. No answer, no feedback, nothing," he says. For a few weeks, he even thought he had committed a professional hara-kiri by joining the private sector.

Then one day, the chairman met him in Delhi and asked casually: "You have been sending me those notes. What am I supposed to do?" And then the chairman went on to clarify: "You are a director here. You take these decisions. You don't need my approval." For the ex-bureaucrat it was a far cry from the sarkari work culture where even for a measly Rs 500 expense you needed to send a note to your boss for approval. "From then to now, most of my approvals happen on SMS within hours," he says.

Holidays are another cultural pointer that varies from species to species. In an MNC, your holiday is sacrosanct — nobody bothers you regardless of the situation at the corporate HQ. But in an Indian entrepreneur-led firm, there is nothing called a zero-noise holiday. If you are required, you should be available. In the government, you club weekends, the weekday holidays and bingo you can pack in many more vacations. In the social sector, it is quite another story. "Passionate about their work, people take sabbaticals or holidays to work as volunteers in their areas of interests," says Supriya Sankaran, venture manager, Ashoka Foundation, which is focused on the not-for-profit sector.

Nowhere is this contrast more dramatic than in the MNC vs the desi company narrative. As MNCs try to understand India better and Indian companies pursue global ambitions, more and more Indian executives are moving from one to the other. Hence the vast gap between the two varieties has narrowed a bit. Yet differences remain.

The Blue-Blooded MNC Breed

In an MNC, you are a cog in the wheel. A Nitin Paranjpe may head HULBSE 1.08 % in India but there is a boundary set by the HQ that he has to factor in. An MNC CEO masters the art of working in a globally standardised and restricted environment with lots of dos and don'ts. Managing the boss — who could be residing in multiple locations in a matrix organisation — is more difficult and unpredictable.

In an MNC, things often happen on autopilot. Annual budgets will be part of a global exercise. Job rotation is a given every three-five years. Things can change overnight without you doing anything. If a Reebok gets acquired by Adidas globally, the India CEO has to worry about his job. As power structures are constantly shifting, there is often this sense of paranoia (internal rather than external) among MNC CEOs. Driven by physically distant HQs, these CEOs often appear cut-and-dried and spreadsheet-driven, specially in matters like layoffs where they have little control.

All this plays out in the way MNC executives behave. Most of them are high fliers from the best institutes and for them the badge value matters in everything they do. So what they wear, how they look, where they eat, who they socialise with, where they live, where they holiday, everything must make a statement about who they are. Benchmarking themselves with their peers in developed parts of the world, they are a pampered lot more used to creature comforts. So dining and staying at five-star hotels and travelling business class come naturally to them. MNC CEOs tend to have bigger egos with a visible sense of superiority and self-importance. They also learn to bask in the glamour of a global brand which they lead.

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

Agile & Modest Desi Variety

Things are different for those working in Indian entrepreneur-led companies. Remember, the promoter is also the majority shareholder and many things like dividend payout, expansion and family issues weigh on his mind but they may not be apparent. There is a lot of opacity and ambiguity. Often you may not know where the organisation stands on issues and you should not be surprised if promoters change their stand overnight. While they will try and nail things to the last detail and work to a plan in an MNC, it is okay in a home-grown company to constantly evolve, fine-tune and even change.

Here, the promoter is the HQ and the power centre. So managing bosses is logistically a lot easier here. While most strategic issues will be shaped by the promoter, the CEO who manages to win the trust of the promoter can enjoy a fair amount of latitude and freedom, which is almost impossible in an MNC. Do not go by designations here. The power nodes in the physical and virtual organisation can be very different. The promoter's trusted chief accountant — who may know everything about his black money dealings — may be far more important than the CFO.

There's usually a certain stinginess in the way executives work and live in these companies. It will show up in small and big things — like their travel (stay in guest houses rather than five-star hotels) and offsites (domestic rather than overseas). Executives here are typically go-getters, very hands-on and multitaskers who understand and appreciate the importance of jugaad at workplace.

Above all, executives at promoter-led companies are more conservative on issues like layoffs.

The Transition Trends

So just how do these differences in various executive species play out in the job market? Typically, an MNC executive would join another MNC and an executive working with a home-grown company will prefer to go to another of its ilk.

But a lifer at an Indian firm will find it difficult to get a job elsewhere. His proximity and close association with the promoter makes him an untouchable outside. That is not the case for an MNC executive who are being hired by Indian firms.

There were many smart executives, the opportunity seekers, who moved from one industry to another during the 2004-08 boom period, spotting new sunrise sectors and rapidly rising to the top. But in a lacklustre economy, they find they are out of favour.

Govind Iyer of Heidrick & Struggles says PE-backed ventures prefer to get executives from home-grown companies as they are street-smart and go-getters, unlike MNC guys who need a certain level of infrastructure around them to perform.

Experts say it is the hybrids — those who have moved from MNC to Indian firms or vice versa — that are the fastest-growing breed. Their ability to adapt and be nimble makes them great candidates. A shift from an MNC to an Indian firm is gaining traction as the latter try to globalise. HUL's Gopal Vittal joining AirtelBSE 1.51 % or GM's KarlBSE 0.00 % Slym joining Tata MotorsBSE -1.34 % are good examples. A shift from an Indian firm to MNC too is happening as MNCs try to understand India better.

Have you figured out your species type and where you fit in? Do that before planning your next job hop.

Two decades of churning in India Inc have unleashed new species of corporate professionals, each flaunting a unique set of skills. So which type are you?

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