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'Adolescence of the Indian Executive' by Subramanian K V
Article » Career Topics
Posted by : subramanian   Sep 1 2007
With the opening up of the Indian economy and its integration with the global economy, the author talks about the personal traits and behavioral attributes that an executive today needs to possess to enable him to perform his role effectively. The author also talks about some business opportunities which arise due to these more
The importance of non-technical attributes and competence in those aspiring for executive positions in business and industry has gained considerable attention in recent times. This has become particularly pronounced in the wake of the opening up of the Indian economy and its integration with the global economy. The dismantling of policy and legal barriers for business, trade and investment, as well as the emergence of IT which has broken all technical barriers for collaboration has opened up huge opportunities for business expansion, exploration of new possibilities, collaborative working and realization of The Extended Enterprise. This paradigm shift has resulted in revolutionary changes in the business environment and in the context in which businesses are being conducted. This new scenario has generated the need for business executives to function effectively and efficiently in culturally diverse business environments within the country and across geographical borders. Large scale movement of professionals across continents, particularly in the IT and related industries after the 1990s, has also raised the expected levels of excellence of professionals, of services provided, as well as of the corporate world as a whole. Higher level of exposure to global norms, increasing purchasing power, and experience with the delivery of services to global corporations operating in the Indian market have raised the expectation levels among all strata of the population even in the domestic market and this trend is bound to speed up in the coming years.

The pre-liberalization organizational scenario in India

The emerging scenario in India revolves around a few central themes, which are at variance with the business environment in the pre-1990s. During the pre-1990s, the economic environment was characterized by a mixed economy— a semi-closed system comprising of a mix of state-owned joint sector and private sector led enterprises. The businesses were operating in a relatively closed system, shielded from global competition through trade barriers, as well as from the need to conform to the global standards and best practices of the enlightened world. The environment was characterized by selective controls and pricing distortions thereby masking the real cost of goods and services.

The state-owned enterprises ended up as sole beneficiaries of preferential treatment in access to and allocation of severely controlled resources, had supreme protection of the government from closure or bankruptcy due to poor performance, and their employees never got exposed to the hardships of business enterprises. Furthermore, micro- and granular-level performance monitoring did not exist, and aggregation of performance resulted in enough shield for the low end performer, and denied any incentive for the actual performers, with no consideration for global performance standards and expectations. The focus on performance on defined and tangible parameters was at best minimal or distorted. Individual performance used to be overshadowed / masked by the collective organizational performance or otherwise. The perceived difference between a good performer and a poor one was at best, invisible.

Incentives / disincentives were mistakenly taken as a matter of right, with very little incentive element to differentiate performance, at individual level. Most incentives also were defined through collective bargaining process, with even bonuses becoming a matter of right and not performance linked. The closed system also limited consumer exposure and scuttled expressed demand for quality and efficiency. There used to be no compulsion to meet / exceed internal / external customer expectations to stay in business / employment. The executive as well as the enterprise drew comfort from misconceived euphoria.

The executives’ expectation environment

In the pre 1990 era, executives considered their role was merely to carry out the task assigned to them without having to worry at all about the outcome of their action or inaction. In the extreme cases, for instance, they would be paid for marking their attendance religiously and being available on record, till end of the day’s business. In fact, some even considered their performance to be measured by their mere physical presence in the office or factory during the official working hours.

Demanding pay for the activity level task performance and believing it was someone else’s (management’s) problem; to ensure achievement of tangible value from a customer perspective became the order of the day. Customer satisfaction in the country used to be at the lowest level, being suppressed by supply constraints and monopolistic power of service providers over a captive market. It was also not found necessary to be otherwise, as the professed organizational objectives were grandiose mass appealing statements of social equality, welfare orientation and defensive financial growth. All good and bad ended up in the same basket, one conveniently masking the other, and the law of averages prevailed, and thereby, overshadowing of performance variations at the granular level.

Welfare oriented measures such as instances of bonus declaration en masse at a statutorily defined percentage of salary for everyone, flat salary increments for all and retirement age enhancement, all amounting to a collective aggregated approach were not uncommon. This also meant that there were no incentives at the individual level for performance excellence. It was more of a collective, all in the family approach.

Yet, employers’ agreements with the unions or employees and labor laws prevailed to shield the employees from being questioned or having to bear any cost of not being able to meet the desired outcome of their actions. Lack of precisely defined systems enabling speedy and voluminous data acquisition and analysis to track granular level performance, and relating the same at micro level to individual performances, contributed to misplaced euphoria across organizational constituents. The inability to define, track and measure performance at granular level and relate rewards to measurable performance at the individual level, aided and abetted the all in the family approach.

The prevailing context resulted in the absence of any need or opportunity for executives to be innovative, to deliver tangible results and to be held directly accountable. The situation was akin to that of a tribal king who was invisible in the global radar.

The transition phase

The past one and a half decade has seen a transition from a closed economy to an open system, exposing businesses and industries to the global environment. Such a change carries with it higher levels of complexity, expectation, formalization, competition, risks and rewards.

Liberalization and the introduction of IT, outsourcing, integration with business enterprises from all over the world, the need to compete in an open market and being able to unlock value and exploit opportunities, have dramatically changed the rules of the game. Most of the shackles on business and industry have either been removed or at least loosened, to the extent that what was taboo then is now openly eulogized, appreciated and celebrated.

The emergence of outsourcing driven by technological possibilities has created the need for granular definition of processes (being outsourced) to manage commercial contracts through third party service providers. In the absence of outsourcing, these processes were handled internally within the organizations, obviating the need for precise definition necessary for administering a commercial contract. The outcome of this practice has been recognizing its acceptance for performance management even internal to organizations. What started of as an unavoidable evil in an outsourcing context, gained acceptance as a performance management practice (tool), even within organizations.

Management by Objectives (MBO), a concept that emerged during the eighties, as a performance management tool internal to organizations, had a limited purpose for performance definition and tracking as a management tool at the department/unit level. The post outsourcing scenario has seen this concept being stretched to granular levels, necessitated by the need to manage external service providers.

The manifestation of the changed scenario include the rewards getting directly linked to productivity and performance defined at the granular level, wide wage disparity within the organization between the best and worst performers, tracking of individual performance on well defined Key Result Areas (KRAs) through metrics and organizational initiatives such as Business Process Reengineering (BPR) that render non value adding practices being given a go bye.

Process streamlining enabled clear boundary for role definition and measurement, definition of quality parameters at granular levels of performance, its transparency and its tracking, individual role alignment with organizational objectives, granular accountability and performance driven reward systems, all of which necessitated the need for having to think of oneself as a manager accountable for results defined through KRAs across levels in the hierarchy.

What the employer looks for in the executive

In order to exploit the global opportunities as well as to survive in the emerging environs, we need to have the global character within our organizations and the executives who represent them, and in our transactions with the world outside as well. Executives need to gain acceptance as partners worth dealing with in business transactions.

A professional who gets into the employment market in today’s context needs to possess personal traits and behavioral attributes that enable him to perform his role effectively in today’s open environment.The qualities needed in an executive in today’s context are that of an entrepreneur manager, being directly accountable to the outcomes of his actions and being able to enjoy their fruits or having to pay for their failure. The emerging scenario has brought in the need for consciously examining and remedying the gaps in our executive’s competence levels for fitting into the expectation space.

The level of preparedness to meet or exceed the unfolding expectations of stakeholders, from a behavioral/competence perspective is expressed by the term employability. The stakeholders could be internal - such as the superiors (in the organizational hierarchy) to whom one is accountable, the peers with whom one needs to collaborate or work as a team in a customer oriented problem solving situation or the subordinates who support the executive in the realization of organizational goals. Also, the stakeholders can be external - like the stakeholders in an external organization such as the suppliers and customers.

A measure of employability would be the matching and alignment of the personal and behavioral traits with the stated and implied needs in a business and social environment. The personal traits comprise soft/social skills (how an individual conducts himself in a business or social environment), emotional quotient (EQ or how an individual responds to a difficult situation), physical quotient (physical presentability to send out the right message to business partners), and networking skills (ability to be part of informal groups in his profession or business).

The behavioral expectations would encompass commitment to performance and performing to meet commitments, ownership for delivery against commitments, customer orientation (internal and external), sensitivity to contextual expectations in a business and social environment, crisis handling ability in an unobtrusive manner, thinking on the feet whenever it is called for, and in totality, assuming the role of an owner / ambassador of the organization.

Traits such as reeling off excuses for inability to deliver according to agreed commitments and implicit expectations, hairsplitting to wriggle out of difficult situations, over promising, looking for scapegoats - all tend to put one in a defensive position in any situation. The desperate need to take a defensive position results in loss of negotiating power, loss of credibility and esteem, and loss of image, all of which in turn will substantially lower the perceived value of the offerings of the organization. Thus, apparently innocuous undesirable behavioral patterns end up in tangible loss, through their negative commercial implications.

The above expectation is being recognized and is explicitly articulated in commercial contracts, particularly, when these are in the nature of outsourcing of services or business processes. The need for explicit statement has arisen from the emergence of the concept of the extended/virtual organization, in which the provider of service through outsourcing or home based work is an inherent link in the process chain to fulfill obligations.

Control measures are also put in place to align services with expectations defined in granular terms, through definition of the service and the level of its achievement. Customer-service provider contracts incorporate in them Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to formalize the understanding between the client and the service provider. SLAs for internal services as well as external delivery of outputs bring in clarity about expectations and how performance is measured. Such definitions result in clarity and focused approach among stakeholders, since rewards are directly linked to achievement at agreed service levels. Rewards get reflected as performance based pay, variable allowance, incentives for exceeding goals and penalty for breaching service level agreements (SLA).

This emerging scenario demands individual attributes that lead to delivering on commitment, delivering quality, reliability, repeatability, and predictability, and to move towards a measurable value-driven incentives system. It has also placed demands on the individual whether that person is running a unit, a centre or a team, to view his or her own role holistically and realize that it encompasses all elements of a business at a scaled down level, as a manager responsible for delivering performance.

This paradigm shift has made the working professionals realize the opportunities that lie ahead and what is necessary to exploit those opportunities. There is no scope for finger-pointing, taking shelter behind external factors, looking for excuses for non performance and banking on larger group efficiency/halo effect overshadowing individual inefficiencies.

As is widely known, carrying out a task and delivering results from a customer (internal or external) perspective are two different things. Delivering results means to have a holistic perspective and focused approach, being able to recognize the multidimensional context of one’s role expectation to the achievement of results, being able to overcome operational/task level hurdles, and to reach the desired destination.

Opportunity for executive development for the 21st century

Executive development has to take on the challenge of molding the mindset of executives from a mere technical expert or help, to a manager responsible for results. Alignment of individual output to organizational objectives is becoming a paramount necessity.

The requirements of the new role encompass internalizing aspects of organizational (human) behavior, interpersonal communication, business communication, knowledge and practice of business etiquette, emotional maturity to assess a situation and act on it, ability to distinguish between and segregate the rational from the emotional, ability to tolerate and resolve ambiguity, ability to convince stakeholders, being able to gain acceptability within the immediate professional and stakeholder community, being able to be seen as a team player, being able to add value and seen to be doing so, and possessing negotiation skills, presentation skills and analytical, writing and language proficiency.

The collective acquisition, internalization and practice of these non- technical skills / personal attributes are keys to success in the emerging liberalized and globalized scenario.

Organizations expect their new recruits to be able to seamlessly move into their organizational role, carrying with them the above desirable qualities to compete and stay in the global environment. There is a premium attached to right attitudes, desirable behavioral traits, reliability, efficiency, generating value for resources deployed, innovation, assuming responsibility, team work, being independent and still being a team player. The employee is transformed into a mini entrepreneur within his organization, nurturing the co-existence of size, structure, agility, and enterprise.

Though these individual attributes are expected to be occurring naturally, it has become imperative to train executives to attain these desirable qualities. While many professional organizations instill these qualities in their new recruits through their internal training programs, most emerging upstarts and traditional family owned enterprises are not able to measure up to the needs. There is thus a huge business opportunity across various industries to cater to this segment of focused executive training.

“Take him for attitudes, train him for skills” has become the keyword among HR managers. This recognizes the value of personal qualities as being more fundamental to success in a dynamic environment than mere technical skills. While technical competence is a necessary prerequisite, the right personal attributes demonstrated through track record or results of assessments are valued more. The employee is considered as a resource (human capital) and not a liability (cost centre). Therefore, acquisition and nurturing of this resource has become a serious and considered responsibility. References, track record and assessments of the potential of the candidates through psychometric tests, have become central to any recruitment process. With the right attributes, the individual can achieve anything.