We Americans are skeptical and ruggedly resistant. It’s a survival tool. Living in a predatory jungle with more than 2,000 daily advertisers all reaching out to strip us of our dollars, time, and votes, we need be ever wary.
So when I speak at United States universities, I am running with the T-Rexes. My lecture title or personal renown had better be sufficiently enticing to lure students and faculty into providing me their time. And if I do not hook them spellbindingly within the first five minutes, a steady, embarrassing trickle of audience begins heading for the exits.
“Behind Every Successful Woman Is Herself” — the title of one of my lectures and of our (Prometheus Publications’) latest book on solutions for the working woman — seemed to at least fill the U.S. university halls. The question was, how would this and my other talks and books translate over in the Indian subcontinent? I was in for a myth-shattering education.
Receiving invitations from several Indian Institutes of Management, I had set aside October for a speaking tour, based in Cochin, India, a port city near the country’s southern tip. These throat-rippingly competitive, state-generated management institutes offer masters of business programs to India’s best and brightest. “They are India’s equivalent of Harvard and Wharton,” explained Hari Gopal, who graduated among this elite and now lives in the U.S. juggling my firm’s tech needs and several other businesses at once.
It was remembering Hari’s daunting introduction that I walked into the India Institute of Management-Calutta, speech in hand. As I entered the hall, you could hear the sound of every student rising expectantly to his feet. Not a single soul in the room whispered or texted as I climbed the stage. After I took my seat, the entire hall remained standing until I verbally bade them sit.
Taking to the podium, I took off my suit jacket, rolled up my sleeves, began strolling among the audience and asking individuals to stand and deliver their thoughts. Jaws went slack. They all sat pens poised in their seats, never expecting some aging white guy to thrust a microphone in their faces. They were students — no one ever asked them for their insights. They were not supposed to have insights, only memories.
My book-related talks — “The Art of the CEO,” “Swift Start Entrepreneur,” “Teams and Leaders,” and “Behind Every Woman Is Herself” — each followed the same interactive format. Each time it took a while for them to catch on that someone actually wanted them to present their own ideas and opinions.
India, with its recession-resistant economy, views business as a passionate science. Learn enough of the formulas, follow them faithfully, and you will succeed. Thus Indian schools drench their students in methodology. Speakers and professors follow a single, carefully compiled syllabus without deviation. These tomes contain the periodic tables of business. Just like chemistry, biology, or any other hard science, management is merely a matter of learning the rules — all of the rules.
Conversely, in the United States, a melting pot of immigrants, business is viewed as an art. It is an instinct enhanced by several quickly consumed techniques, garnered along the way. “Having a head for business” is that strictly American term for elitely gifted money makers.
The Indian MBA student enters his classroom at 9 a.m. He or she (about 50 percent of students are female), stays in class until 6 p.m., with usually an hour break for lunch. During this full work day, the student sits and absorbs. One professor after another, via PowerPoint and personal experience, pounds home his piece of the syllabus in hour-long lectures. After a few-minute break, the next lecture begins. At the better schools, it does not end there. One recruiter at the I.I.M.-Callicut was soliciting students late into the evening when he gazed at his watch. “It’s 2 a.m.,” he remarked, “and you students are still running all around the halls.”
The reply: “Oh yes, that’s fairly typical, business leaders fly in and give classes at all kinds of odd hours, and we have to be up and ready or we will miss their talks.” And regardless of the hour, the students avidly do pay attention. In all my lectures, not once did a student rise and leave in the middle. They endured until the bitter end, never texting, until the last Q&A answer was given.
Beyond the speaking engagements, I had the privilege of long chats with business school deans and CEOs, such as Philip Abraham, head of major web-developing firm Reubro International, and Sushama Srikandath, CEO of McCormick Spices. These Indian business leaders kept noticing how United States’ MBA programs offered so much less class time, with more outside reading, group work, discussion groups, and much more writing.
Efforts on our side of the Pacific are made less to fill the mental maw of the student, and more to flake off the rust of that god-given “head for business.” To us, one’s hurdling of the admission requirements proves sufficiently that you’ve got that head on your shoulders.
While expressing their admiration for the U.S., these corporate heads were very quick to ponder the two nation’s scientific vs. artistic approaches to business. For the scientist, it’s all a matter of the recipe. The Nobel laureate chemist and 10-year-old boy each have the same chance of making successful gunpowder, if they mix the right proportions of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur. Anyone can do it.
When it comes to art, however, you can train hundreds of individuals in the use of brushes and paints, but in the end, only Vincent can paint a van Gogh. India’s explosive success in placing millions of its well educated graduates in top executive positions definitely testifies to the worth of their more formulaic approach. At the same time, most employers continually voiced disappointment in what they saw as India’s comparative lack of independent thinking and innovation.
Pioneers and farmers. The United States has flourished on the dream maxim of “build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Mention the term “entrepreneur” and most American business folks link it to some new concept or invention bursting upon the marketplace. “All I need is just the right app, and I’ll sell it to Apple and rest rosily on the royalties.” Thinking outside the box (an American laudable) is rewarded from grammar school right up to the board room floor.
Of course, having the world’s next great invention burning a hole in our collective back pockets has made U.S. workers antsy. Our innovative fire has each worker ever-ready to jump into some new, more promising territory. Raised on the dreams of thriving through novelty and grounded in the machine-gun pace of Sesame Street, we simply cannot sit still. We generate ideas, contract with outside companies to make that better mousetrap, then hand it off to some more plodding group to slog out the “non-creative” details of fulfillment.
In general, India’s entrepreneurial spirit, like its advertising assault on its citizens, stands well behind our own, but is enthusiastically striving to catch up. However, in talks with the burgeoning entrepreneurs’ clubs at universities, and those planning new startups, the emphasis seldom lies on inventing one’s way into the market, and more typically on competitively distributing or producing something already existent. This is in no way to deny all the brilliant research and creativity coming out of India in so many fields. Rather, it is indicative that so many new companies see themselves as ideal vessels for fulfillment of outside creations.
“What challenges me most about our new crop of business people and scientists,” says Srikandath, “is getting people to think for themselves on the job.”
Abraham agrees, noting, “they have to be winched out of the mire of routine. We need new ideas, and these very bright people simply shrug and say, ‘it’s the team leader’s job to come up with new ideas, not mine.’” Innovation may be in all our natures, but it takes a lifelong nurturing to encourage its expression.
Yet if top-flight Indian MBAs may seem a little slow on spontaneity, their knowledge, enthusiasm, and work ethic make them prime candidates for corporations the world over. Recruiters descend on India’s Institutes of Management in a feeding frenzy. Students, seeing their best hope in these major firms, pitch their all to get high-level internships.
The celebration of such competitions rivals any sport in publicity. On a glitzily televised set, I watched MBA student Philip Abraham compete with his peers before a panel of marketing judges for a slot with Nissan’s Asian marketing department. His win was lauded by the glib announcer and lovely ladies. No element of the reality/quiz show was omitted.
One notably distinctive critique given to new Indian executives is the immense tropism toward pleasing the boss. Partly this is culturally bred. Partly it is the realization that the boss holds enormous sway over one’s fate. The safety net of middle class is a much more fragile thing than in the U.S. Mess up this current job and there may be little likelihood of finding an equivalent very soon. “The downside of this is that you get impossible promises because employees think you want to hear them,” says Paradigm IT’s CEO, Ravi George.
For the most part, U.S. workers hoist the banner of pleasing the boss only within the limit of self interest. American employees note with near defiance that they work for, and to please themselves first. “I drive my own success,” we say. “The boss and company are mere vehicles.”
Business media. Many of these business-cultural differences are reflected in the media. Browsing through Indian trade and business journals, one finds an instructive tone — “How to Develop an Ideal IT Team,” “Why You Need a Balanced Budget.” Profiles of the successful are written with a respectful tone, honoring the achiever, and typically spiced with a few banal quotes. As in the U.S., India’s business journals are gadget-smitten. Both nations fervently preach that salvation lies in the next-generation tool. But there the similarity ends.
If there is one major theme in U.S. business journals, it must be, “so what’s wrong with you?” American journals lavishly celebrate not only the achievements but the personalities, hobbies, and lifestyles of our business achievers. Spun to a golden turn, our modern Horatio Algers are dangled before us poor struggling masses as those who have dared and made it. Advice on how to emulate these achievers comes in bite-size, quick tips distilled to one single technique that powers this entrepreneur’s rise from basement to $100 million sell off. Obviously, this player has a head for business.
Yet with all these dangerously generalized differences, the common energy of youth and passion for the realm of business comes through loudly in both lands. Students greedily suck up their education in hopes that they will be better equipped to handle what they hope will be immense challenges. Indian MBA students, when asked how to improve their schools, almost to an individual suggested more time to write, work in groups, and develop individual thoughts. U.S. business students, in contrast, are calling for more information from experienced business veterans. Each side wants more of what the other has, in addition to all they currently have.
Part of my publishing company’s vision states that “If improvement comes to humankind, it will spring from the leaders of business.” From the energy and ambition, blended with that sense of thoughtful stewardship expressed in these students of both nations, we have every reason to be hopeful.
-- Jackson, a frequent U.S. 1 contributor, is CEO of Prometheus Publishing, which produces BartsBooks Ultimate Business Guides (bartsbooks.com). He has recently returned from a lecture circuit among India’s major business schools.