Girija Pande, chairman of Tata Consultancy Services for the Asia Pacific region, knows both India and China well. In a conversation with Wharton management professor Jitendra Singh, he shares his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of both countries, and the challenges facing their businesses and governments. China has perfected timely project execution while India scores in fostering innovation, but both face a shortage of skilled, global managers, he says. He also explains why cultural sensitivity is crucial in the Asia Pacific and discusses his own style of leadership, including the “impatience” in his DNA.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows the three part video. A full-length version of the interview can be downloaded as a PDF here.
Jitendra Singh: It is a real pleasure to have you here at Wharton this morning. Let me just lay out very briefly what this interview is part of. As I had mentioned in our other conversations, I am working with a colleague of mine from CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai, Prof. Nandani Lynton. The question that we are very deeply intrigued by is: How does the landscape of Indian and Chinese business leadership look? We intend to interview leaders like you who have either deep knowledge of India and Indian business leadership or of China and Chinese business leadership — you, of course, are unusual in that you have deep knowledge of both. What is leadership like when looked at through their eyes? What is their (business leaders’) behavior like? What do they think of leadership either in Indian organizations or in Chinese organizations, and theorize, based on these interviews?
Tell me about your career. How did you come to your position of leadership in Tata Consultancy Services, and anything [else] you would want to talk about — family, education or overseas experience?
Girija Pande: Thank you very much for having me here. When I look back on some of the milestones in my life and how I came to this position, I have had three or four things that clearly are a part of that journey. One is the fact that my father was in the civil service in India so we moved a lot. In the same way I have moved around in so many countries.
I did mechanical engineering and [an] M.B.A. from the [Indian] Institute of Management at Ahmedabad. After that I was with one of India’s largest foreign banks at that time — Grindlays. I worked [with Grindlays] in India in many areas and then moved on to Asia. Asia has fascinated me. I had opportunities to be in other parts of the world, but for some reason I always stuck to Asia. So I was in Korea. I was in Hong Kong. I was in Taiwan. Then I went to Bahrain. Then I came back to India. Now I am in Singapore. So it [my career] has given me a great story of Asia.
I have also witnessed through the 1970s, when I started work, to now the growth and the transformation of Asia. Most importantly, I tracked China from the time I was in Hong Kong — and China was opening up in 1984. I remember going many times to Beijing when we set up our office there. I was in charge, at that time, of our corporate planning in Asia Pacific. I worked [in Asia Pacific] over these years when the transition happened, the ups and the downs of Asia, [and] same thing with India after the 1992 reforms. [All] that has molded my thinking of where Asia’s position will be and the leadership challenges of Asia.
After [my career in] banking for 25 years, I was the chairman of our (ANZ Grindlays Asset Management Co.) mutual fund … the first debt fund in India. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) was also a part of that entity we created for wealth management. They requested that I set up and start the complete Asia Pacific operation, which was very small at that time. We (TCS) had about 200 people in four countries (in the Asia Pacific region). Today we have 7,500 people in 14 countries, including China where we have about 1,100 people. We have local leadership.
Jitendra Singh: Let’s start with your leadership role in TCS, driving in particular the Asia Pacific agenda. What are some of the key priorities you have as a leader?
Pande: Right from the time I joined the bank (ANZ Grindlays), and then TCS, I have been a dissatisfied entrepreneur. A lot of people [told me], “You have impatience in your DNA.” I said inside large corporations you can be an entrepreneur. There is an entrepreneurial streak of just doing things and being sometimes a little more radical than others. Asking questions, which [other] people don’t ask.
Jitendra Singh: A dissatisfied entrepreneur?
Pande: Yes. I have built a lot of new businesses when I was in the bank and at TCS. Whenever someone gives me a clean slate I love that role and that’s what TCS gave me. They said, “The whole Asia is your canvas.” So one is entrepreneurial style, which is obviously less bureaucratic. Listening to everyone, [and] challenging conventional logic.
The other one is something I learned from my father. You have to be a very fair person, but firm in disciplining when you have to. People respect you if you are fair and open with them, but they also need sometimes a bit of disciplining. And being an entrepreneur, delegation has come easy to me. I don’t have all the answers because I’m creating new businesses. I used to go and tell all my people when I used to run treasury in the bank, “If you get it 75% of the time right you have done very well.” That is a very powerful statement to your team — that you will tolerate failures, you will allow them to innovate. Otherwise, they will wait for you for an answer.
My doors are always open. Everyone calls me by my first name even though the average age in TCS is 27 years. Some of them are younger than my children and yet they call me by the first name. They can walk in any time they like.
Jitendra Singh: There are always some experiences that are particularly meaningful in developing your leadership style. Were there such experiences and can you talk about any one experience and how it influenced you as a leader?
Pande: All of us have had role models as we have grown in leadership and taken new roles. The difference between when I work in the U.K. and when I work in Asia is that in Asia you have to be culturally very sensitive. Whenever I went to a new country or a new organization in that country I used to say that these are successful societies. Surely everything they do is not wrong. A lot of expatriates tend to have this view they bring from their home countries. I was very open-minded about accepting their culture and seeing the benefits and strengths of that culture. So the sensitivity [in] how you handle Asian leaders and businesses is very different I realized from Day One, whether I was in Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. That has been one of the defining areas of being able to manage a multicultural workforce.
Jitendra Singh: Management theory talks about how even much more than your greatest successes, sometimes the real crucibles for learning and development, particularly as a leader, can be from your greatest failures. Can you think of any such crucible-like experience that deeply shaped your own values and was a defining moment in setting the foundations for your leadership style?
Pande: I was a young man in those days when I was given the charge for Middle East to run a complete investment bank and treasury operation. I was a man in a hurry. I realized that we were trying to do many things. I had open fronts on “Let’s do this” and “Let’s do that” in my enthusiasm. I was all of 34, I think. When we were trying to put it all together the books were not written correctly. There were some losses in some areas. And we were all over the place.
I was trying to just run faster than the organization, the systems that could cope with it and the people that could cope with it. They were all enthusiastic young people like me. I learned something. One, you want to focus on what really works: What is it that adds value to your work? You can open many fronts and everybody gets very excited about that. Number two, if you don’t get the whole system behind it, your victory can be very pyrrhic. It will not succeed.
You need to have a stronger and stable base. I learned that growth has to be managed. It cannot be entrepreneurial all the time. This is where you learn and you control yourself. So when I built Asia Pacific, while we were growing fast, this is something which was in the back of my mind: Are we running ahead of systems to keep up? Are we running ahead of people who can handle it? Are we just pushing for growth for no regard [for] it? So for growth to be sustainable and profitable you have to be very clear that you have the wherewithal and the focus. So we decided in Asia, let’s first focus on a few countries; let’s first focus on a few customers. Then we go to the next step. Where did I learn this? [From] the mistakes I made in Bahrain.
Jitendra Singh: What would you see as your greatest leadership strengths and your greatest weaknesses? And would the answer be any different if in fact we were to ask some of the people that have worked closely with you?
Pande: I don’t think the answers to the last question would be that different because I have been a proponent of 360-degree feedback. So I know what my people think of me.
On the strengths of leadership and the style, I have an entrepreneurial bent and, therefore, there is a certain impatience and reluctance to follow rules all the time. Because I think sometimes the best ideas come from your most innovative people and they need to be encouraged. So clearly I act as a coach to my team. If you are going fast they will ask you, “You tell us and we’ll do it.” The minute that happens you are in a prescriptive mode. You want to say, “What do we think? This is the challenge.” And there are ideas bubbling forth. You will moderate it with your experience. You will finally have the stamp on it. They understand that. But that is the open coach that you need to [be] to bring this team its best.
Jitendra Singh: What would be some of your other strengths?
Pande: Over years one has learned that you can be open, but unless you have tight numbers and [are] metrics-driven, you may not receive the results you are looking for. It can generate into a lot of exciting things, but at the end of the day there has to be metrics-driven approach.
Jitendra Singh: Any thoughts about the weaknesses?
Pande: Yes. A lot of them, I’m sure. Impatience in my DNA … Sometimes people feel that I’m running much faster than them and don’t give them enough time — unrealistic time expectations. So when you have someone who is not really performing as well he finds it difficult working with me. Now that could be a signal for him to improve. Or that could be a signal for him to leave. When we have to remove someone from a leadership position we sometimes take too much time in it. I am clinical now when I have to get someone to leave.
Jitendra Singh: Let’s switch gears, Girija. What are some of the most unique or even most distinctive aspects of Indian or Chinese business leadership styles? What have been some of the main sources of influence for each country?
Pande: Let me just take the common aspects to both [countries]. In China as well we built a business from scratch there and, of course, [in] India where I work sometimes. Both countries over the last 15 to 20 years have taken growth for granted. So in both countries, the management leadership has to struggle with growth — high growth. Second, both are also globalizing.
We are short of [talent] on both sides. We have 1.5 billion people each in both countries. But qualified leadership [and] qualified management ranks are scarce in both countries because the rest of the world has also assumed that there is some good talent in these countries. So it is a hunting ground for everyone. Multinationals are run by good people from these countries. So trying to develop management and leadership becomes a big challenge for senior leadership. China has a bigger problem sometimes because [it is] growing so much faster. These are three of our common things.
Jitendra Singh: What about the differences?
Pande: The differences are obviously as you would expect — a little bit of history and a little bit of culture. Both of us have common colonial experiences. Roughly both of us came out of the colonial experience as independent countries around the same time. The difference in India is that the Commonwealth system of government allowed us to internationalize much faster [in] our legal systems whereas China for long was part of a very different philosophy.
So we are different in the way we think. A mayor in one of the cities in China asked me, “Mr. Pande, how did you like [the film] Slumdog Millionaire?” (Danny Boyle’s Oscar award-winning film exposes the underbelly of life in Mumbai’s slums, among other things.) I said, “Yeah, it was good.” He said he also liked it. And [that] he saw it twice with his family. The next question he asked me was, “How did the government allow it?” Allow the film to be produced, [he meant]. I looked puzzled and said, “You know, frankly, I don’t think the government knew about it.”
Jitendra Singh: The government would not have been aware
Pande: They were not even aware of it. And even if they were aware of it there was precious little they could do about it. So you have a mindset that is different in these matters. Second, Confucian thinking, which dominates the Chinese mindset in everything they do, has a lot of respect for authority and a lot of respect for a certain restraint on leadership. It is a very top-down driven issue. There are no arguments. I always have a challenge when I am with our Chinese team. I want them to argue. I encourage them to argue. I say to them, “All knowledge does not reside in me. In fact, the least resides in me. I am here to listen and hear from you.” It is difficult. In India, you open a room full of young people and you don’t have a chance to talk.
Jitendra Singh: You would have to use different leader behaviors to elicit the ideas…
Pande: That is true. If you were implementing something — if everyone has agreed to implement [it] — our China team would execute it perfectly, absolutely perfectly.
Jitendra Singh: Not the same in India?
Pande: Not the same in India, because they would argue continuously. I always remember Amartya Sen’s book “The Argumentative Indian.” They would continuously argue and you have to keep on arguing with them while you are doing it. Third, over the years the Chinese have realized the value of delivering on time. In that country it is sacrosanct. You don’t miss deadlines whether they are building a bridge or they are building an IT system. Customers expect it.
That is how they build bridges. That’s how they build large organizations and cities — with an amazing amount of military precision. Indian organizations don’t yet know the value of that. I think they are learning. But if you ask me the difference — the execution capability in China is absolutely outstanding.
Jitendra Singh: Is there any potential downside to this command-and-control military precision?
Pande: I think they (the Chinese) are realizing that there are downsides. Creativity doesn’t flower easily. New ideas are not expected from people who face customers that easily. Many of them also understand that while there are upsides to this strategy in terms of project implementation, there could be downsides. In India we find a lot more of ideas coming out — some crazy, some worthwhile — but they are coming out all the time.
Jitendra Singh: What are some of the strengths or weaknesses of business leadership on both the Indian and Chinese sides?
Pande: If you are looking at the weakness of both the Indian and Chinese systems… Clearly they are trying to address this issue of fast growth, rapid growth. Some of them don’t have the experience or the wherewithal in terms of resources to manage it. And they don’t have sometimes the systems to manage it. They are evolving and that’s a weakness. They leave a lot on the table. Sometimes there are holes in what they do. Sometimes there are losses, especially in China, because many of their companies are not driven by the stock market. So large investments are made, which are sometimes wasteful. I think they are struggling with that.
The same thing happens in India where the Indian government entities do the same thing. At least in the private sector, we have the tyranny of the market driving it. China is so largely government-dominated in terms of its growth. Their view is that you should take a longer-term horizon if you are building a road or a big plant. They’ll add capacity [that is] six times [bigger than what is immediately required]. In India, we would do it incrementally.
Jitendra Singh: Both India and China are currently on very impressive growth trajectories. There are also some potential constraints to this impressive growth continuing indefinitely at this rate. Is the availability of skilled leaders going to become one of the important gating factors in either India or China or both?
Pande: That is an issue that worries us every day. Where are we going to find people — and, more importantly, good leaders who are going to handle this growth because we see this growth continuing for some time in both countries? It is not going to taper off in a hurry. Availability of leadership that is global in nature [is important]; both countries are globalizing. China has a bigger challenge in finding global leaders than India, to some extent, because they started a little late.
What both of us will do [is to] develop leadership through accelerated systems. China is using it better than India. They tend to use their non-residents who are coming back to China — many of them were in this country (the United States). I have seen some very good talent that is coming back to China. Then they have a pool of talent around Hong Kong or Taiwan and some of the Southeast Asian countries which have ethnic Chinese. So they have that big pool to draw from — that’s about 50 million. India has a pool of 20 million people outside India. Many of them in [the United States] are doing well. We have to start using that pool better, especially in global affairs.
Jitendra Singh: Do you see it as desirable trying to take the best of both countries and try to create something new?
Pande: They are two polar opposites. One creates innovation and ideas. The other creates a huge powerful execution machine. I remember when the Chinese prime minister visited TCS in Bangalore, and he said, “You are good in software and we are good in hardware. Together the two of us can be leaders.” That’s what it is. The software side of thinking clearly is an Indian strength and it comes out of the ethos of our backgrounds. The execution capability of China and their ability to think scale and big is an advantage. Can we combine the two is a question I very often think about.