Why is Siddhartha Verma, managing director, Reebok India, the symbol of a quiet revolution that is taking place in the Indian corporate world?
In a few weeks Verma will be heading to Rotterdam to head Reebok's marketing in 13 European countries. He will be the fifth employee of the Boston-based footwear giant's Indian operations to move up the global hierarchy.
At Reebok it started three years ago when Muktesh Pant, the then managing director of Reebok India, stepped into a bigger pair of shoes as the chief marketing officer of Reebok Worldwide.
That was only the beginning. Next it was Harpreet Singh Thind, Reebok India, marketing manager who jetted off to become marketing director (Asia Pacific), in Hong Kong. And Dhruv Parashar, in-charge of the retail environment in India, took over as the head of Asia Pacific retail operations. Similarly, Johnny John, the apparel head, also moved to Hong Kong in the same capacity.
What's happening at Reebok, is a microcosm of what is happening in a string of global corporations. Slowly, but very steadily, Indians are climbing the ladder at top multinationals to take on global responsibilities. Some are climbing to the top jobs and others are becoming part of a global network of expatriate managers.
Take Citibank, for instance. In the last three years around 99 managers have moved to jobs in the bank's international network. "We have more than 300 Indians who started their careers in the bank in India and have moved overseas for further career advancement," says Pradeep Mukerjee, country human resources director, Citibank.
At the top level, in recent months there has been a constant stream of managers who've been buying one-way tickets abroad. Days before news of Verma's promotion became public, David Davidar, the high-profile managing director of Penguin India, announced that he was relocating to Canada to look after the interests of the publishing house in that country. Before him, Kapil Kapoor, the suave managing director of Timex Watches India, was made the regional director for Timex South Pacific.
Around the same time, Manu Sawhney, the street-smart head of sports channels ESPN and Star Sports in India, announced that he was shifting base from New Delhi to Singapore as the vice-president of programming and event management group of ESPN Star Sports, the 50:50 joint venture between ESPN Inc and Rupert Murdoch-promoted Star. The only Indian in the senior management of ESPN Star Sports, Sawhney will report directly to Rick Dovey, the managing director of ESPN Star Sports.
Or, look at Vibha Paul Rishi, the marketing head of PepsiCo India, who has moved to New York to take up her new responsibility in charge of Pepsi's non-cola business outside the US.
The brands in her portfolio include SevenUp, Mirinda, Mountain Dew etc, while her reach spreads over key markets like Brazil, India, China, Russia, Germany and Argentina, amongst others.
Along with Vibha, her husband, Sanjay Rishi, too shifted to New York on a huge promotion: from being vice president and general manager in charge of the American Express service centres in Asia since early 2001, he has been made senior vice-president, service network partners.
In his expanded role, Rishi is directly responsible for overseeing service partners globally for American Express' US operations, while continuing to manage American Express' customer processing operations across Asia.
The list of Indian expat managers is getting longer by the week. And the trend is visible across sectors like FMCG, banking, pharmaceuticals, information technology, publishing, consulting etc.
Pepsico, in the last decade, has moved about 20 to 25 Indian managers overseas in a steady manner. And Hindustan Lever has about 70 managers climbing the corporate ladder around the world.
HSBC has anywhere between 40 and 60 Indian managers abroad at any given time. "HSBC's talent management strategy is applicable to all its branches across the globe. At any given time, at least 10 per cent to 15 per cent of our management cadre will be overseas," says Joel Farnworth, head of human resource at HSBC India.
Why has the world suddenly awaken to Indian managerial talent? To begin with, Indian managers have proved their ability not only in India but also abroad.
"Indian managers are inheritors -- often unconsciously, maybe reluctantly -- of the great Indian vaisya dharma. This culture has always valued artha, wealth as the second of the four human life goals," says management guru Mrityunjay Athreya.
Today, the Indian market is very clearly integrated into global markets, hence leadership capability required to succeed in India can be replicated into other markets.
And for most, the overseas posting is a reward for cracking the Indian market. "The Indian market is complex and success in this market means high-level leadership expertise," says Preety Kumar of Amrop, an execuive search firm which specialises in top management placement.
Take the example of Vibha Paul Rishi. When Pepsi came to India over a decade ago, the awareness of its brand was low. Also, as aerated beverages are a mass product, any communication undertaken by the company had to cut across various regions of the country.
But Vibha, the second employee of Pepsi in India after Ramesh Vangal, overcame the problem by associating with the two national passions of India: cricket and films.
And this became the key to Pepsi's success in India. Vangal zoomed through the Pepsi hierarchy and is now a highly successful venture capitalist.
But Vangal and Vibha Rishi aren't the only Pepsi managers who made it to foreign shores. One executive Vikram Tandon is the head of concentrate worldwide and another Sanjeev Chadha is the head, customer development and sales, Asia-Pacific based in Hong Kong.
The overseas sojourn helps in another way: it prepares Indian managers to take on bigger responsibilities in India in the future. Take, for example Aditya Vij, who heads GM India.
Vij crossed the globe for GM and lived in countries like Hungary. Surprisingly, even GM India which till recently had relatively small operations in this country has sent several managers abroad.
"The objective is to better integrate them and familiarise them with the parent company's culture and style so that they come back to India and represent the parent company and the Indian market in a well integrated and holistic manner" says Amrop's Kumar.
Adds Mukerjee; "Overseas experience in different markets broadens a person's perspectives and responsibilities in a global organisation like Citigroup."
Each company has its own reason for promoting Indian talent. Some insiders say that Pepsi, for instance, finds it slightly tougher to recruit top stars management because it is the clear number two in the Cola market.
So, it is always on the lookout for talent in places like Latin America and Asia. At a slightly different level, pharmaceutical company Novartis has been hiring fresh management graduates from the Indian School of Business.
Also, as the globe gets smaller, Indian managers are becoming more integrated into worldwide networks than ever before. Jobs are often posted on the company's intranet and anyone can apply for them.
Some companies make it a policy to post a certain number of managers abroad each year. Novartis, for instance, makes it a policy to post around two people abroad each year.
Other companies like Nestle also follow similar policies so that Indian managers get experience abroad. And Bharat Shell has about 25 Indian managers abroad. Says a Shell spokesman: "In open resourcing, all jobs in Shell across the globe are pasted on its website, and any manager from all over the world is free to apply."
Inevitably, corporate politics also plays a part. Sending a person abroad is often a way of moving a person from a key job in India. "A lot of the transfers abroad are politically motivated," says one senior executive.
How have Indian managers fared when they've been posted abroad? There have been conspicuous successes and, of course, others who plodded their way through the corporate world.
The oldest example of an Indian manager making it big abroad is probably Victor Menezes who rose from being a management trainee in India to president, Citibank and contender for the top post. Another ex-Citibank star was Rana Talwar who rose to fame as the managing director of Standard Chartered.
Indians are still turning in star performances at Citigroup. Currently, there's Shirish Apte who heads the corporate & investment banking business in Central Europe, Middle East and Africa.
And Sanjay Nayar, the current Citi chief in India has just returned to India after almost a decade abroad in places like London and New York. Says Mukherjee: "Our current senior management in India, including chairman Nanoo Pamnani, Nayar and Sarvesh Sarup (country business manager for the consumer bank) have all started in India then moved on to hold important positions overseas before coming back."
In Unilever too, Indians have climbed all the way to the top. In the past senior Indians like T Thomas and Ashok Ganguly moved to the Unilever board in London.
And Keki Dadiseth who was managing director of Hindustan Lever is currently the home and personal care director of Unilever in London. Harish Manwani, a board member of HLL in India is now the business group president in Latin America.
Clearly, the Indian manager is enjoying it. "Kicking off the new and wider responsibilities offer a unique set of challenges.
"And when coupled with the added responsibilities of moving your family, dogs and all...trust me, a move can be quite challenging, but then any other way would be a heck of a bore!
"You face mixed emotions -- there is the inevitable sadness of leaving behind what you were an integral part of at work and of course, within the family, and the exhiliration of newer horizons and wider responsibilities," says American Express's Rishi.
Taking a faster track
What's the quickest route to the top for an Indian manager who wants to make it big globally? Let's face the facts: it's a long way to the corner suite in Wall Street, if you've started as a management trainee in Mumbai or Dindigul. It's usually easier if you've studied in a top-flight management school like Wharton, Harvard Business School or Kellogg.
That's the route that most of the top Indians abroad have taken. An engineering degree from one of the IITs has been followed by an MBA from one of the Ivy League business schools. One typical example is Rono Dutta, CEO, United Airlines who studied at IIT, Kharagpur and then headed for Harvard Business School.
Another IIT Kharagpur alumni is Arun Sarin, who has taken over at the helm of Britain's fastest growing company Vodafone. Sarin, now almost certainly holds the crown as the top Indian in the global corporate world. His appointment came as a shock to the hidebound British establishment, which still isn't really used to having Indians in the top jobs.
Cross the Atlantic and the story is entirely different. Indians have climbed to the top rungs in the banks and the consultancy firms and they've been a driving force in the software revolution.
Star venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, for instance, was one of the first to crash through the glass ceiling when he became head of Sun Microsystems back in the early '80s.
Amazingly, Khosla was still in his late 20s at the time. He retired in his mid-30s and then returned in a new avatar as a venture capitalist after a break of a few years.
Rajat Gupta, who has just stepped down as chief of McKinsey & Co, the world's top consultancy company, followed a much more traditional route to the top. In his 50s he was elected to head McKinsey's operations and he stayed for a record three terms before quitting in June.
Certainly, the Indians abroad have their ups and downs like anyone else in the corporate world. Citibank president Victor Menezes was long considered a potential successor to Travellers Group chairman Sandy Weill but he fell out of the race in the last one year and didn't make it to the top job.
At a slightly different level, 42-year-old whizkid Arshad Zakaria was considered a future chief executive at giant investment bank Merrill Lynch. But Zakaria has been forced out this week after a particularly nasty power struggle in the boardroom of Wall Street's Raging Bull.
But there are other new faces constantly springing into the limelight. One such is Dinesh Paliwal who will soon become the CEO at engineering giant ABB. Paliwal has risen steadily in the corporation.
You could scoff at these managers and say they had the benefit of the best education that money could buy. But don't underestimate their achievements. Until the late '60s, Wall Street was a closed shop that had almost no African-Americans.In the mid-'80s there were only three Indians in banking jobs in the City of London. It is a new century but change has come faster than anyone expected.