R Srinivasan

Modi the CEO in action

R SRINIVASAN | Updated on January 17, 2018

Cabinet conductor: Narendra Modi's clearly calling the shots - Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Is the Prime Minister finally implementing his ‘mann ki baat’? The Cabinet reshuffle's a well thought out exercise

The size of the new, improved version of Modi Sarkar has prompted immediate comparisons with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s so-called ‘jumbo cabinet’ during the UPA regime. Numerically, the two are nearly identical, reaching close to the constitutionally-mandated maximum size for any council of ministers. In reality, though, the two couldn’t be more different.

While the Manmohan mega ministry was the result of a desperate attempt to keep an ideologically disparate coalition going by distributing loaves and fishes of office, Modi’s exercise is a far more calculated one, aimed at not only improving his party’s prospects in crucial States due to go to polls in the future, but also ensure that his own agenda is pushed forward.

In fact, the single biggest takeaway from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet expansion and reshuffle of portfolios is this: Modi the politician may be alive and well, but Modi the CEO is getting serious about his job. In fact, in this exercise, he has displayed the key attributes that actually differentiate great CEOs from the host of equally competent aspirants gunning for their job.

Making the cut

Let me explain. While CEO lore is the staple of all management writing, there has been little quantitative research into what actually separates great CEOs from the herd. Global talent search and management advisory Russel Reynolds analysed over 4,000 executive assessments — appraisals, if you will — to figure out how CEOs are different from the rest. They came up with a list of 60 traits that all leaders display — but found that successful CEOs differ from other executives in only a handful of them.

They eventually listed nine attributes where CEOs differed markedly, including, importantly, a willingness to take calculated risks, a clear bias toward action over plans, and the ability to efficiently ‘read’ people. In behaviour terms, it translated as being generally ‘forward thinking’ — the ability to plan for the future —, being ‘intrepid’ — the ability to perform effectively in complex and difficult environments — and, of course, they were all great team builders, with the ability to achieve success through others.

With good reason

Behind every decision in the current reshuffle and expansion, one or the other of these broad traits are clearly visible. Take the biggest headline-grabber in the current exercise, for example — the shifting of Smriti Irani, known to be close to the Prime Minister and equally known to have the confidence of the RSS — to the textiles ministry from the high-profile HRD ministry. This reflects a classic CEO trait, that of constructive tough-mindedness. Great CEOs are actually sensitive to criticism, and even more so when such criticism can lead to personal fallouts. Where they differ is in how they react to it — with decisive action rather than emotional insecurity.

The controversy-prone and combative Irani had become a liability for Modi precisely because of her perceived closeness to him. He has acted decisively in removing the source for controversy and placing adequate ‘distance’ between himself and Irani.

Or take the shifting of Ravi Shankar Prasad from telecom and IT to law and justice. Prasad was actually one of the performers, having pushed through successful spectrum auctions, as well as the rollout of the National Optic Fibre Network, on which rests the success of Modi’s ‘Digital India’ plans. But Prasad had become known as the ‘call drop’ minister for his focus on this quality of service issue for mobile consumers.

Good move

This was not a bad thing in itself, and may have even led to payoffs in terms of public perception if Prasad had managed to pull off any noticeable improvement — but it was detracting from the messaging about the larger, IT and telecom-led changes that Modi was keen to project.

In moving Prasad to the law ministry, Modi displayed two classic CEO traits — the ability to ‘read’ people, and the ability to take tough, but fair decisions. Demoting Prasad would have been unfair, given that he hasn’t been a non-performer. But Prasad, being a lawyer by profession and training, would be both more comfortable and effective in the prestigious law ministry, rather than the ‘mission critical’ IT and Telecom beat.

Or take the turfing out of the equally efficient Jayant Sinha from finance to civil aviation, where the major policy direction has already been set, and is, therefore, of relatively less consequence.

Here, too, Modi has behaved like a typical CEO — comfortable with a variety of people, but not too trusting, particularly of overambitious juniors. In Sinha’s case, if Raisina tattle is to be believed, Sinha — an IIT and Harvard Business School alum and a former McKinsey man — was getting a tad too impatient for an enlarged role. That his father, Yashwant Sinha, is not exactly known as a Modi groupie also meant the trust quotient was low.

One could go on. The much discussed political bias in selections, reflected in the caste diversity of the council of ministers — the current government has the largest number of dalit ministers in India’s history — has been attributed to purely political motives, aimed at key election-bound States such as Uttar Pradesh.

Yes, that is true, but look at the kind of people Modi has picked to be caste ambassadors — lawyers, engineers, doctors, academics. He just didn’t want a dalit or a brahmin face, he wanted one which also exemplified the ‘Modi vision’ of the new India, those whose very lives demonstrated the ‘ sabka saath, sabka vikaas’ claim.

Modi just doesn’t have a plan for the future — he is convinced that he is on a mission to rebuild India. Most successful CEOs have a clear vision too — and are ruthlessly focussed on execution to achieve that mission. If Modi the CEO wins over Modi the politician — and this reshuffle shows that may be happening — it may be the best news for the economy yet.

Published on July 06, 2016

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