THE INDIAN MANAGER IN SEARCH OF A STYLE

K C R Raja

In 1970 Arabinda Ray, then a General Manager at Metal Box, wrote a series of articles in The Economic and Political Weekly titled The Indian Manager in Search of a Style. Later, with some additions, he published them as a book with the same title. Looking back, one feels the book did not get the attention it deserved, because management as a profession was still new in India . And perhaps, he was ahead of his time. Discussions on management were not frequent and there was hardly any print medium that could generate a discussion on the book.

I do not have a copy of the book right now but I distinctly remember some of the things he alluded to. The theme was a confusion of identity, a wrong perception of the manager’s style of functioning, the ‘gin and tonic “ culture that symbolized a pale imitation of western lifestyles and ostensibly marked out the Indian manager from the rest of the professional class in India. ( These words are mine and should not be attributed to him! )

Many years later, in one of his works, Peter Drucker commented upon the absence of a truly Indian approach to management while talking about Japanese management and its homegrown style of functioning.

The absence of a homegrown style in India was not surprising. In the 1950’s and 60’s, except for a few Indian business houses like Tatas and Birlas, the business scene in India was dominated by foreign, mainly British, multinationals. In companies like Unilever, Andre Yule, Dunlop, ICI and Metal Box (where I worked) British officers held the top posts. Indian recruits were drawn largely for their family background and educational status-particularly the school and college they had attended. In 1960’s there were only three institutes of management, which altogether produced around 200 management degree holders a year, a small fraction of total demand. For the rest, British companies recruited the sons and nephews of senior government officials who managed the license-permit Raj and on retirement became part time directors or even Chairmen of these companies .These young recruits came from public schools or elitist missionary colleges and bore the stamp of westernization, whatever that meant.

The result was a confusion of identity, a reflection of the crisis of identity that the westernized Indian middle class was going through. The so-called westernized Indian had high career growth goals and aspirational life styles based on their perception of western lifestyles. Many -indeed, the westernised Indian middle class of that period-suffered from a split personality, a cultural schizophrenia, that left them in the world of Trishanku-! They imbibed some western cultural traits and life style habits, not necessarily the best, and superimposed them on the inescapable cultural mores of India. A Brahmin manager, however westernized, (or for that matter even a Brahmin communist) would not skip the thread ceremony for his son!

The result was a loss of anchorage and a failure to find new moorings.

Has there been any change? Is the Indian manager any different? Has he evolved?

. Over the years, the Indian manager had had a great deal of management knowledge pumped into him by the institutes of management that have sprung up. We have today over 3000 institutes offering post-graduate degree education in management. Most offer. US. style management. education to fresh graduates. They produce the largest number of. MBAs that any country does. And more than this country needs.

I should like to raise, in this context, the following questions:

a. While the best of the institutes have been producing brilliant management graduates, the majority offer a curriculum that is far too infrequently updated. Their admission policies, sadly controlled by state governments, ensure. poor quality of student intake. With weak faculty, poor funding , inadequate infrastrucure and little attempt at knowledge creation, are they simply churning out yet another post-graduate degree or is it a professional course that equips the student with the requisite managerial skills ?

b. The. Indian manager may have moved away from the ‘gin and tonic culture’ but has he found fresh moorings? With the IT culture, western style high pressure jobs, how does the Indian manager see and cope with. issues like work-life balance, family breakdowns and mid career crisis? Are we going the American way here too?

c. A great amount of entrepreneurial talent has come up from among the new managerial class in India . We have a number of success stories of Indian start ups in India and abroad. What has been their impact on the style and functioning of Indian managers.?

d. A great source of inspiration for the Indian manager could be the presence. of Indians in high positions in management and in business education – Indians heading giant corporations – Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, and in senior positions in IBM, Mckinseys, Kellogg, Harvard. Almost every top class business school in the U S has Indian professors in senior positions. When I visited Kellogg, the Dean was Dipak Jain, then the first Asian to hear a business school in the U S. Now Harvard is headed by Nitin. Nohria. Others have senior professors whose writings have had an impact on policy making in US corporations. Their work has certainly rubbed off on business education in the U S and possibly in India. To what extent and what has been the outcome?

e. And finally, is it any more a matter of style? Or of substance too ?

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