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Are Indian corporate executives out of touch?

June 25, 2015 08:30 IST

India's innately hierarchy-prone corporate culture produces its share of willing sycophants, says Kanika Datta.

Should Vishal Sikka have touched Narayana Murthy's feet? Take the poll at the end of the article.

Corporate India has progressed in many ways in acquiring a global ambience – the open office concept was one of the early signs of it, later came the slicker offices, designed to be more ostensibly more employee-friendly, the greater reliance on global best practices in systems and processes, including on the factory shopfloor, a growing number of women in the workplace, sweat equity, quarterly reporting and so on.

One significant aspect of Indian corporate life that remains firmly rooted in the last century, however, is the culture of overt sycophancy and servility. This is no surprise, perhaps, when India’s largest companies continue to be family-owned and – managed and, contrary to exhortations about encouraging professional management, ensure that sons (and increasingly daughters) eventually take charge. But the real wonder is the durability of this culture in so-called professionally managed firms as well.

It would be fair to say that these proclivities are not entirely demand-driven. It is true that many bratty scions of large family businesses may require obligatory toadying in various forms. But respected senior executives seem to have no problem pandering to it. In short, India’s innately hierarchy-prone corporate culture produces its share of willing sycophants.

Obviously some indulge in it for gain but many confuse outright obsequiousness as a display of respect. It is one of the most unedifying USPs of the Indian business culture and one would imagine it must be absent in the infotech industry, which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of one of the most dynamic global businesses in the world today.

So it was with some surprise to watch Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys, making a dash to touch the feet of N R Narayana Murthy at the company’s AGM in Bengaluru on Monday. It was, no doubt, Sikka’s way of showing his respect for one of the more charismatic founder-directors of one of India’s earliest IT companies.

But there was something undignified in the sight of the senior-most dignitary of a global organisation fawning in this way in public, no matter what the status of the recipient. Surely there are other ways of acknowledging his admiration. It was almost inappropriate, too, when applied to Narayana Murthy, who is scarcely known to stand on ceremony or demonstrate the artificial gravitas to which some former Indian CXOs may be prone.

In fact, after Sikka’s suo motu dive towards his knees followed by an arm around his shoulders (to demonstrate familiarity maybe?), the former CEO, who was attending as a shareholder and, indeed, sat in the shareholders’ gallery, took care to formally shake his hand. It was a gracefully subtle way of showing that the extravagant gesture was, perhaps, unnecessary.

Photograph: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

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