India's Leading Export: Ceos

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What on earth did the Banga brothers' mother feed them for breakfast? Whatever it was, it worked: Vindi Banga grew up to become a top executive at the food and personal-care giant Unilever, then a partner at the private-equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. His younger brother Ajay, after heading Citigroup's Asian operations, was last year named CEO of MasterCard — all without a degree from a Western business school and without abandoning his Sikh turban. When Ajay took over at the credit-card company's suburban — New York City headquarters, the Times of India crowed that he was the first "entirely India-minted executive" at a multinational's helm. The Banga brothers are two of a growing roster of global Indian business leaders, a roster that includes CEOs such as Citigroup's Vikram Pandit and PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi as well as the deans of both Harvard Business School and INSEAD. Yes, ArcelorMittal's Lakshmi Mittal had the advantage of growing up in the family business, but now the family business has grown into a global powerhouse under his leadership. What factors account for the rise and rise of India-trained business minds? "Our colleagues in our Asian offices are asking the same question," laughs Jill Ader, head of CEO succession at the executive-search firm Egon Zehnder International. "Their clients in China and Southeast Asia are saying, 'How come it's the Indians getting all the top jobs?'" It could be because today's generation of Indian managers grew up in a country that provided them with the experience so critical for today's global boss. Multiculturalism? Check. Complex competitive environment? Check. Resource-constrained developing economy? You got that right. And they grew up speaking English, the global business language. It's risky to generalize about India, a subcontinent of 1.2 billion people, just as it's simplistic to stereotype the Western executive or the Chinese business leader. Motorola's Sanjay Jha or Berkshire Hathaway's Ajit Jain, one of those tipped as Warren Buffett's successor, succeed due to talent and drive, not because they're Indian. And bosses like Nooyi spend most of their formative career years outside the country. Is it that they may just happen to be Indian? As Ajay Banga notes, "You are who you are because of what you do, not the color of your skin." The data suggest Indians are scaling corporate heights. In a study of S&P 500 companies, Egon Zehnder found more Indian CEOs than any other nationality except American. Indians lead seven companies; Canadians, four. Among the C-suite executives in the 2009 FORTUNE 500 were two mainland Chinese, two North American Chinese and 13 Indians, according to a study by two professors from Wharton and China Europe International Business School. For multinationals, it makes good sense to have leaders experienced in working with expanding Asian markets. And India is already the location of many of their operations. "If you look at companies like Pepsi or Hewlett-Packard or IBM, a huge chunk of their global workforce is sitting out in India," says Anshuman Das, a co-founder of CareerNet, a Bangalore executive-search company. "India and China are also the countries of future profits for the multinationals, so they may want their global leaders to come out of them." Competitive and complex, India has evolved from a poorly run, centrally controlled economy into the perfect petri dish in which to grow a 21st century CEO. "The Indians are the friendly and familiar faces of Asia," says Ader. "They think in English, they're used to multinationals in their country, they're very adaptive, and they're supremely confident." The subcontinent has been global for centuries, having endured, and absorbed, waves of foreign colonizers, from the Mughals to the British. Practiced traders and migrants, Indians have impressive transnational networks. "The earth is full of Indians," wrote Salman Rushdie. "We get everywhere." Unlike, say, a Swede or a German, an Indian...
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