What India Can Teach Us About Running Multinational Companies

Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Ajay Banga of MasterCard, and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe Systems.

These are all leaders of U.S. multinational companies worth several billion dollars. They come from a wide breadth of experience, education, and industrial focus, yet they have a singular commonality: they were all born and raised in India. With the recent addition of Sundar Pichai as Google's new CEO, it's much more than coincidence. What makes these East-Indian leaders so uniquely poised to hold the helm of these global business giants, and what are leaders from other countries missing?

The Commitment to Lifelong Education
The role of education is significant, and it has less to do with the course of study and more to do with the cultural and competitive drivers that shape its foundation. While a formal education is valued in many countries, the reliance upon education is so deeply embedded in Indian culture that many parents start to work on their children's careers long before their first job. "Indian culture promotes knowledge and art to be imparted to a child in every household," says Priya Damle, head of HR (PITC) at Schlumberger in Pune, India. "Therefore a large part of imparting knowledge and education emerges throughout its culture."

India's higher education system is highly competitive, and the preparation for acceptance into the institutes of learning is almost as rigorous as the programs themselves. The educational and cultural framework in India prepares students for many things at a very early age, including the fact that they must compete--on their own--in an unfair world for their place in it. Because of this, very little is taken for granted, and some of the most resilient lessons are ones of hard work, humility, and self-discipline.

Intrinsic Cultural Awareness
India as a country is something of a global phenomenon in and of itself. It has 22 official languages and several hundred dialects and scripts, and each of its 29 states has its own distinct holidays, food, and communication preferences. Over 1.2 billion people call India home, making it one of the most populated democracies in the world.

"To an outsider, our cities are very populated and chaotic," says Gaurav Bhardwaj, co-owner of Hitech Surfactants Ltd, which partners with Unilever. "However, it is growing up in these diverse and busy backgrounds that have allowed Indian managers to be at ease with working with several types of people, belief systems, and cultures in very different environments and habitats."

"Given the constantly changing and evolving government policies, poor infrastructure, and red tape, a CEO from India learns to navigate and operate in a complex, volatile environment," adds Damle. "It is this experience in finding ways around constraints and obstacles while still meeting the core objective that separates a CEO from India from his or her counterparts throughout the world."

On top of this, it is typical for Indians to speak from two to four languages, and one of them is nearly always English, the global language of business. Being multilingual prepares them to communicate their ideas throughout several levels of their organization and also on a worldwide scale.

In other words, the intrinsic culture awareness offered in India allows its leaders to see the value, strength, and potential of diversity and the various ways it approaches opportunities and challenges.

Creating an International Management Culture
Indian management culture is rooted in the benevolent patriarch who, like a father, is personally invested in the success and careers of his children. This hands-on model, which fosters a strong, two-way bond of loyalty and respect between a superiors and subordinates, creates an inherent set of rewards that goes beyond financial compensation.

While this micro-management style is highly effective in India, its native multinational CEOs have learned to adjust their style to fit the needs of U.S. companies and their macro-minded workforces. The result is global leadership style that is on trend with the world's business trajectory.

To be successful in the next decade, most companies with an international scope will need to work harder at promoting multiculturalism and global mindedness on several levels of their organizations.

Poised for the Future
The advent of the internet has introduced unprecedented rates of accessibility, change, and innovation. As the world gets smaller and the global conglomerates get bigger, there is a call for leaders who can acclimate to changing environments with agility and strength. "Business leaders need to be more and more relatable, which comes easier with individuals who are quick to adapt and embrace changing scenarios," states Bhardwaj. "The transition from 'National to Global' is the key."

It's clear global companies need global managers, but where a leader is born is only a part of what makes him or her successful at guiding a multinational company. To keep pace with the increasingly global marketplace, companies and employees alike would do well to take a note from India and increase their international exposure and education on several fronts; this means incorporating more short-term international assignments, recruiting multilingual and multicultural talent, investing in global mindset training, and creating vertically integrated organizations that allow local autonomy while still adhering to a global corporate objective.

Achieving this delicate balance will not be easy, and some multinational companies will crack under their own weight; however, those companies who educate proactively, incorporate locally, and develop talent internationally will have enough internal support to take on the world.