Why Indian CEOs are taking over the global technology industry

Jim Collins spent over 20 years studied the role of leadership in determining what causes some companies to become “great” having superior performance while others are just good or mediocre. The gist of his research can be summarized in one powerful statement-

“The key to an organization becoming great is having a leader who blends humility with intense professional will”

By this he means one who is modest yet willful, with unwavering resolve; and one who is shy and courteous yet fearless. These leaders achieved extraordinary results and built great organizations without fanfare. It was iconoclastic when Collins first wrote about it—almost everyone believed that CEOs should be countercultural, charismatic, larger-than-life Napoleonic figures. The ascension of Indian business leaders such as Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella, Shantanu Narayen, Rajeev Suri, and Sanjay Mehrotra today adds so much credence to Collins’ research.

While Indian managers aren’t in many cases the founders of the companies they lead, they are well respected managers who have risen through the ranks. Sundar Pichai was born in Chennai, and joined Google in 2004. In the past 11 years, he has made Chrome the world’s most popular browser, and Android the dominant mobile operating system in the world. He now is CEO over the part of Google that was the original Google. In just over a yceo-1ear, Satya Nadella has made Microsoft collaborative and partnership driven, in addition to making it visionary and futuristic once again. Sanjay Mehrotra helped found SanDisk in 1988, and over the years served in various capacities- he’s been CEO since 2011. Rajeev Suri has been with Nokia for two decades before being appointed CEO. He has been credited with the successful turnaround of Nokia’s mobile network arm- Nokia Solutions and Networks. Shantanu Narayan became CEO of Adobe in 2007, and was instrumental in transforming the traditional license software company into a cloud and mobile centric organization.

Global leadership is one parameter where India is ahead of China. The apparent rationale can be English education, high levels of aspiration and comfort with American business environment, in addition to an overlapping technology centric heritage in India. Deeper analysis reveals the all-important role of Indian culture in shaping its leaders for today’s business context. Research shows that while US management orientation is more bottom-line orientated and prone to change, India scores higher than US when it comes to future orientation- the degree to which a society looks towards the future and values traditions and responsibilities.

Analysis of Collins’ leadership framework throws up some more interesting insights. Collins defined five types of leaders. Level 1 leaders are highly capable individuals who make substantial contributions at the individual level. They are very knowledgeable, have good skills and work habits. Level 2 leaders contribute to the achievement of group goals and working effectively with others. Level 3 leader is a competent manager who identifies task requirements and organizes others to achieve objectives. Level 4 leaders focus on substantial changes within the system and uses their charismatic personality to implement those changes.

Level 5 leaders’ ambition is not for themselves but for the future success of the company. They are not necessarily charismatic. They surround themselves with individuals who are self-confident and not self-centered. The senior management team tends to give credit to others and assumes responsibility when things go poorly. They understand the importance of their roles. They inspire people around them to be self-motivated, bringing out the best in people. Studies by Southern Hampshire University show that for Level 2, 3, and 4 leaders, American and India rankings are comparable, but India scores higher on Level 1 and Level 5 leadership index.

However, while we may bask in the glory of the success of Indian leaders across the globe, the challenge before India today is how best to create opportunities for its best and brightest minds to achieve their true potential in India itself.

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