FORTY-FIVE YEARS after Mr Stephen Turner handed over to Mr P. L. Tandon as the first Indian Chairman of Hindustan Lever Limited, the top job in India in the Anglo-Dutch multinational has gone to a non-Indian, Mr Douglas Bailee. This must be seen as a symptom of a trend, not just for HLL but for Indian management. The appointment of Mr Arun Adhikari as Chairman of Unilever Japan is indeed another affirmation of the giant's well-considered policy of internationalising top management. Other Indians have already occupied leadership positions in Unilever elsewhere in the world, besides contributing to leadership at the headquarters in Europe. So too with many much-admired global corporations such as Pepsi, Stanchart, Microsoft, and Citibank. In Unilever, the consistent policy of grooming its future leaders from within, through long-term exposure to diverse markets, situations and functions, has now taken on a far wider, global meaning. For observers of the Indian business world, therefore, to read anything else into the return of the foreigner to leadership positions of Indian companies would be ill-informed and unjustified.
In the past, the induction of a foreigner at board level was naturally treated as an indicator of the caution of the major shareholder wanting to keep a watchful eye on the India operation, while representing the latter's viewpoint and interests. There was a subtle but clear sense that the natural inclinations of the Indian and his tendency towards too much intellectual debate would stand in the way of his being a truly global manager, working for world-wide shareholder interests. A major obstacle that stood in the way of companies in India employing foreigners in senior management positions was the severely restrictive laws which kept top management remuneration in India unrealistically low, and completely out of line with Western economies, even after allowing for purchasing power differences. Added to this was the perceived (and real) gap in creature comforts and lifestyles between, say, Mumbai and London or even major Asian cities.
Thanks to the resurgent interest in a fast growing Indian economy and the recent decade's economic turnaround, however, all that is now water under the bridge. Today, the very nature of the interface between India and the rest of the world has become sophisticated, multifaceted and more a two-way process. India no longer provides merely technologists, software experts and specialists to the world, but outstanding thinkers as well, as the list of professors in Ivy League universities in the West would show. On the contrary, a new generation of Indian managers, midnight's children, cosmopolitan in outlook and culture, educated at leading institutes of technology and management, is clearly blazing a new trail. They are breaking the mould of the Indian stereotype, demonstrating an ability to think local but act global, or vice versa, as needed. This mental flexibility and maturity is bound to prove a fresh, new Indian gift a contribution to the world in the years ahead.