Structure and tenets
There are two reasons why the Tata group has been able to, over the 140 years of its existence, continually produce outstanding leaders. One is the structure — born of traditions and culture — of the group. There is a centre and then there are the states. The states have always been powerful, autonomous and independent. The leaders of the states have a huge amount of accountability to deal with and the responsibility of delivering to different sets of stakeholders. And this contributes to the making of an environment where leadership talent finds the canvas it needs to blossom.
There is nothing particularly paternalistic about the relationship between the Tata group, the entity that is the centre, and its constituents. It is about nurturing rather than meddling; it’s about supporting and empowering rather than imposing and demanding. This broad-based and benevolent approach allows for the seeding of leadership development and the emergence of leaders from across the Tata organisation.
The Tata model of leadership creation is in contrast to business houses that have a structure where the centre is more powerful than the states. In such organisations, the parent companies are listed and the children are unlisted. In the case of the Tatas, the parent is unlisted and the children are listed. This has resulted in the transferring of a huge amount of responsibility from centre to state, and it has resulted in leaders emerging from a smorgasbord of different business milieus.
The second reason why Tata has had an abundance of standout leaders is the value systems — the cultural and traditional moorings — of the organisation. The people who join the Tata group are drawn from the same talent pool that other corporate houses tap, but the path the Tata leaders take tends to be different.
My own journey
My value systems when I joined the Tata organisation were, perhaps, not too consistent with those of the group; my thought process was not too consistent either. But, over a period of time — and I cannot pinpoint when this transition took place — by interacting with others, by imbibing the ethos and mores of the group, by appreciating its principles and worldview, the way I behave and the way I think have become one with those of the group.
When I consider Tata leaders, I see some common characteristics in them, traits that make it seem as if they shared the same genetic stock. Most of the well-known leaders in the group are driven by a strong sense of ethics. Their personal beliefs and the organisation’s canons are in harmony and, consequently, they are able to walk the talk, to do the right thing in good times and, especially so, when the chips are down.
I think there are three significant learning opportunities for leadership. The biggest is when you are given a chance to work alongside a great leader. I had the chance to work closely with Dr JJ Irani and a few other extremely successful leaders. The amount of learning that I gained from these leaders was far, far in excess of anything a business school could teach me.
An important factor in leadership development is mobility, having the opportunity to move from one function to another, one company to the next. What is important here is to get out of your comfort zone from time to time and explore your potential. I had the chance to move across a lot of functions: I was trained as a mechanical engineer; from there I went to business excellence, to marketing, to human resources, and back to business excellence. It’s rare and rewarding to be given the chance to explore the world and find your place in it.
Adversity can be an ally
Leadership development is also about handling adversity. If you have not failed then you have missed out on a vital aspect of learning. As you are successful, you think that the strategy that made you successful is the only strategy. That’s a philosophy that creates closed minds, not the open intellect and curiosity about the yet to be learned that exemplify the best of leaders.
Another point I would like to stress is about the passion Tata leaders bring to the job. More often than not, this passion is leavened and lifted by empathy, for communities, for people. These leaders often have had to compromise on something to remain empathetic. This translates into Tata leaders being more compassionate and having a better understanding of human strengths and frailties.
There is yet another dimension to the Tata leadership matrix and that is humility. While humility may be part of our core, it plays out differently in different companies. I grew up in Tata Steel and I had great difficulty in breaking free of the company’s mindset (there are people who think Jamshedpur sits in the centre of the universe). But you learn, because you have in your midst standout personalities such as Prasad Menon and Bhaskar Bhat, two great examples of leaders loaded with humility, and no one demonstrates this characteristic more than Ratan Tata.
Last but not the least, leadership has to go beyond designations and gilded chambers, to build bridges with the widest spectrum of stakeholders: employees, for sure, but just as critically, shareholders, partners and civil society.
A Tata kind of culture
The story of leadership at Tata is about nurturing leaders all the time. These leaders come from every kind of background, from the rank and file, from middle and senior management. This means that leadership values are inculcated at all levels in every Tata company.
Tata Steel is one example of a company that has a well-established and well-oiled leadership pipeline; Tata Chemicals, especially with its record over the last 10 years, is another. Such companies want to provide exposure to their senior people, and they trust the next rung to take over when the time comes. Tata Motors and Tata Consultancy Services, too, are doing well on this count.
There is something called Tata way, for sure, but Tata leaders are not clones of one another; they are very different personalities and of very different dispositions. One trait that is common is that all of them are honest communicators. Another is the regard they have for the Tata way of business. The first is about connecting with the world outside, the other is about finding what’s inside of you.