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Kumar Mangalam Birla | January 06, 2005

Photo courtesy: The Smart Manager 

Few would argue with the statement, "It's tough being a Birla." Expectations are high, the stakes even higher. Yet over the past few years, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, one of India's largest business houses, has earned his kudos. He is both a chartered accountant and an MBA.

Kumar Mangalam Birla focuses on two pertinent questions:

  • We are a country of over a billion people, about one-sixth of humanity. Do Indians constitute the universe of talented people in equal proportion?
  • Are we doing everything we can to help people be the best they can be?

In this article, I want to share some thoughts with you on 'talent', given that it is a subject presently occupying the attention of managers the world over, given that it is in extremely short supply, and given that the need to attract it and nurture it in sufficient numbers, is very real.

It is a management problem that is immediate, here and now.

A key resource

In any attempt to define our times, words and phrases such as 'accelerating pace of change', 'discontinuity' and 'complexity' figure often. Everything however somehow boils down to change and speed, mixed with a generous dose of confusion and chaos. Conventional truths and guideposts are now meeting their nemesis.

In such conditions, business survival and prosperity are clearly not a function of capital resources alone. Nor are they as dependent critically on scale or technology or labour, in the conventional sense of the word.

Even the newer strategic models do not give us sufficiently clear bearings on how to run our business. The point is, that when everyone in a Grand Prix drives a Ferrari, it is clearly the driver -- and his skills, attitude, temperament and sense of purpose -- that make the difference!

The one, single dominant force that has then emerged is talent. Management means attracting talented people, nurturing them, developing them, and giving them space.

People no longer want to just work, but are equally engaged in a search for their own identity and for a holistic meaning to their life.

The sharp focus on talent today stands out clearly. Microsoft employs around 200 full time recruiters. A recent survey by a leading international consulting firm (Amrop) revealed that 40 per cent of top management's time is spent on HR or talent related issues.

Another survey by the Harvard Business School identified the ability to spot talent and develop it as being the third most sought after attribute for a successful CEO.

Customers, yes. Shareholders, yes. But businesses will also have to embrace this stakeholder just as well -- the employee, the talent pool, the intellectual capital, the resource that is the most fungible, the one that can easily walk out the door.

Every organisation has to create a sense of ownership among people who will not be owned. A business of any worth today has to grapple with this compulsion. Talent is, in fact, central in the new paradigm. Without 'people power' even the best of operational and strategic thinking will come to naught.

What is talent?

Let's reflect a bit about what exactly 'talent' means. I believe the term has become too complex to define. Instead, let me quote from the book Excellence, written by John W Gardner, the American social reformer. According to him, 'There are those who perform great deeds and those that make it possible for others to perform great deeds. There are pathfinders and path preservers. There are those who nurture and those who inspire. There are those whose excellence involves doing something well and those whose excellence lies in being the kind of people they are, lies in their kindness or honesty or courage.'

Going a step further, the term 'talent' has developed some broader connotations. Earlier 'talented' might have referred to a person with expertise in a given functional area or a given business, or even a person who had achieved a pre-determined objective.

Today, these 'talents' are almost taken for granted. We now take stock of a person's managerial and leadership potential, the ability to straddle different functional areas, businesses, cultures and geographic boundaries -- all in a seamless manner. We need to assess not only intellectual skills, but also softer skills such as emotional intelligence, values, creativity, the ability to work in teams, to think out of the box, entrepreneurial abilities, and also, importantly, the willingness to learn and share.

A recent study by Janice McCormack, Professor at Harvard Business School, aptly describes topnotch talent today as someone 'having the vision of an architect, the theoretical mindset of a physicist, the attention to detail of an engineer and the financial acumen of an investment banker.

In short, the ability to not get cowed down by 'competing imperatives.'

Why now?

People have always been important, so one may legitimately ask, why all this commotion now? Let us try to answer this question.

First, there is no doubt that the supply-demand imbalance in the talent area has become acute, not only in India, but also globally, and is getting more so. In India, a host of new industries -- information technology, financial services, media and entertainment -- are vying for the best people.

A flood of multinational companies is out to attract the best brains, not just for their operations in India, but for their overseas needs. The outstanding success of India's leading educational institutions, especially the IITs and IIMs, has drawn them to take a pick from our brains and capabilities. India has, in effect, become the world's scouting ground for talent.

Second, the desire to 'be one's own boss' is more common. More and more talented people want to strike out on their own, or work in a company which offers a significant entrepreneurial environment. So the pool of people from which to select is contracting, relative to the demand for them.

There is a third factor behind the scarcity of talent. Until recently, our preoccupation with talent was confined largely to the higher levels of an organisation. Today, every level of a company's operations requires talented people. In the wake of intense competition, and the consequent need for speed, the top-down approach to managing is increasingly proving ineffective.

Dispersal of decision-making is also being driven by complexity -- the sheer geographic spread of companies, the diversity of product lines and the need to be close to the customer. Decisions need to be made at every level and decisions need to be quick. So, we have to spot, incubate and groom talent at every level of the organisation, because more people need to be making high quality decisions.

And finally, much higher degrees of business complexity result in a much larger premium on talent. Complexity calls for an integrated approach, the ability to look at a problem from different perspectives, and a high degree of creative and non-linear thinking.

Coupled with that, there is the need for heightened cultural sensitivity as national boundaries are becoming hazy and business is becoming truly global.

India well placed to nurture talent

I have tried to identify some of the key factors driving the demand for talent, which has now come to be the strategic resource. However, despite the scarcity, we are fortunate that India has many of the right ingredients that help to nurture talent.

We just have to look at our present times to realise the considerable advantages we possess as regards talented people. I am sure we all must have been taken aback with the surge in the globalisation of Indian talent. We all knew it was there -- but today the entire world recognises it, and how.

As the joke in Silicon Valley runs, if a person's name is Shreedhar, don't bother checking his IT skills! Across a range of areas -- engineering, computer programming and financial services -- the Indian brain has begun to command the highest brand equity.

Indians are breaking the glass ceiling and staking their claim at the upper levels of global firms, in increasing numbers.

How did this happen? Unlikely as this may seem, India does seem to have some of the prerequisites that can be leveraged to nurture talent. We have the much sought after facility with today's Lingua Franca, the English language, as also a relatively high degree of numerical aptitude.

And, we have an innate capacity to adapt, without which it would not have been possible for Indians to strike roots overseas and become among the more successful of the immigrant communities, in a number of countries.

Of course, competition also does much to nurture talent. And we in India, work in a very competitive environment, pretty much from childhood. We even have interviews to get admitted to a nursery school!

Even leaving aside this extreme, we are constantly being graded, scored, evaluated and ranked. The admissions-to-applicants ratio at our premier educational institutes is more demanding than that of even the most elite universities abroad. The same is true of our Civil Service.

What retards talent in India?

On the flip side, we need to recognise and deal with some of the powerful attitudes and forces that not only retard talent, but also are hostile to it.

For one, there is the fear of failure. There is an almost indelible stigma attached to failure, much more than in the West. The family, the peer group, the society, the banker -- all still frown on failure -- of any sort, no matter how heroic and daring the effort that preceded it.

This attitude thwarts experimentation and stifles innovation. Better to be 'mediocrely' right than 'stunningly' wrong. The possibility of getting a second chance is rare.

It is difficult to think of the exploits of a Thomas Alva Edison happening here: the daring experiments, the failures, the bankruptcy, and then the success, the most well known of which is the electric bulb.

A second obstacle to talent is conformity. There is less acceptance of the offbeat. Dissidence is not looked upon too favorably: it's the nail that sticks out that invariably gets hammered down. Conformity is all around us: in the dress code, in the jargon of our times, in our patterns of strategic thinking, at a point in time.

The herd instinct is evident even in the way we invest, with everyone running after the same scrips, in the same industries, at a particular moment. Being different is difficult. Where are the contrarians?

Finally, I believe that our educational system contributes, in substantial measure, to our inability to draw out the store of talent latent in us. Students at the school level are overburdened with rote learning. Listening and being talked to is the norm.

Questioning, discourse, the spirit of discovery, curiosity and inquiry are rare. The curriculum is narrow and outdated and, to a large extent, 'memory-centric'. Unlike in the West, the options offered are few.

Talent issues in Indian organisations

At this point, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the critical talent related issues that we in Indian organisations need to address. No doubt, many readers are already working to tackle similar issues, and you would be having your own unique perspectives.

In my own organisation, although we have been putting in a lot of effort, in these and related areas, we are some distance away from having all the right answers. Perhaps, many of these are fuzzy issues and there are no definitive answers. Each organisation must chart out its own approach and course, given the specific context in which it operates.

Adrenaline: The first major issue is how to keep the adrenaline flowing in talented people. The game does not stop at identifying talent or inducting it. Talented people get bored easily and so they have to be kept constantly challenged.

In our organisation, we address this issue by fast tracking deserving talent, offering definite career paths, providing cross functional exposure across different businesses, and second-ments to our operations abroad.

The objective is to offer a high quality of exposure, faster, thus enabling the manager to increase his overall intrinsic worth and to take on higher responsibilities, much earlier in his career.

Integration: A second issue concerns how best one can integrate talented people into the organisation, in a way that there is no undue disruption. I bring this point up because, quite often, mediocrity tends to drive out talent or make it ineffective.

Integrating talented people into the organisation involves handling a host of sensitive issues and this is a task that will fully test the leadership abilities of senior management.

At the same time, as we move about with the process of integrating talent, we do need to subject ourselves -- and talented people -- to some kind of a reality check, every now and then. The best of talent has to operate, ultimately, within the boundaries of organizational objectives, and talent, no matter how highly regarded, cannot become dysfunctional.

Creating an ivory tower is not desirable. In the same vein, we have to keep in mind that talent means much more than 'white collar'. We cannot glorify a certain kind of talent, at the cost of talent in other areas. As always, maintaining the right balance is the challenge.

Compensation: The third issue I would like to touch upon is one very much in the spotlight today: the growing divergence in compensation and reward levels between the talented and those less so. This differential is widening by the day -- in absolute and relative terms.

How we handle this divergence is again absolutely critical to an organisation's health. Today, the clamour for stock options runs high. Incorporating a significant performance-based component in the compensation package is almost mandatory. Again, there are no clear cut solutions. It goes much beyond the criteria of affordability.

We have to look at larger and fundamental issues such as equity, value systems and organisational morale.

Until we find an answer to this dilemma, let me read out this very interesting text of an advertisement, which appeared in the London newspapers in the year 1900. Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer, inserted this advertisement when recruiting team members for the National Antarctic Expedition.

The advertisement read as follows: 'MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.'

Shackleton later said of the call for volunteers that, 'It seemed as though all the men in Great Britain were determined to accompany me, the response was so overwhelming.' Perhaps, taking the cue from this, the real challenge lies in striking the right balance between material rewards and the larger sense of mission.

What per cent?

In conclusion, I believe that making India talent-friendly will require actions at the macro level also. Nurturing talent and keeping it here and putting it to good use requires resolving some tough quality of life issues.

For instance, India ranks low in any human development or quality of life index. Talent cannot flourish if the enabling social and physical infrastructure is not in place. Only then can we reverse the brain drain decisively. This is a task that needs the involvement of all of us -- in business, in government, in our educational institutions, in our professional bodies.

Attracting brains is a lot more difficult than attracting FDI or portfolio investments. But then that is also what will make us really competitive.

At the end of it all, we have to ask ourselves not only whether we have talented people, but also whether we have enough of them; and whether we are doing everything we can to nurture them in greater numbers.

We are a billion Indians, about one-sixth of humanity. Do Indians constitute the universe of talented people, in equal proportion?

The author is the Chairman of Aditya Birla Group, one of India's largest business houses.

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