Indian bosses in China – how they fare?

Corporates consider a posting in China a challenging job and most candidates tend to have accumulated some global experience elsewhere before moving in. A graduate of IIT-Delhi and IIM-Kolkata, Sachdev was earlier posted in Sao Palo, with Unilever Brazil, before being transferred to Shanghai. MY, Director of Enterprise at Dell Computers, China, spent several years with Proctor & Gamble Japan before moving to Shanghai, and he believes Indians make for successful MNC executives in countries like China because they are prepared to implement organisational values.

But how do the Chinese take to Indian bosses? One thing is for sure — degrees from Indian business schools count for very little in China, since few here have heard of the IIMs, ISB or XLRI. It is the American universities that the Chinese hold in high regard. They do not expect Indians to have quite the same degree of professionalism. Most MNC CEOs in China are still Americans or Europeans and the acceptability of Indians as bosses is still developing.

Meanwhile, there is another category of Indian that is vying for the Shanghai posting — the American PIO (Person Of Indian Origin), a graduate of IIT-Madras and IIM Kolkata, with a second MBA from the University of Southern California.

Pendyala bagged the job of sales head for Hewlett Packard’s monochrome laser jet printers in China against competition from several European colleagues. His Indian experience helped him a lot in building relationships in China. After all, both are two strong ancient cultures.

Pendyala is now back home after his stint in Shanghai, as is Manishi Sanwal, who spent two years there as the CEO of Tag Hauer. He diligently learnt to speak the language, with the help of his Chinese colleagues and two-hour daily lessons from a tutor who would come to his apartment at 6 am. There are so many expats in Shanghai, language tutoring has become a big industry there.
And why did he return in two years? Because he learnt a lot there, including what India can be like in the future. But he also realised if he could do 100 in India, he could do only 40 in China. That’s why he came back.

Three years ago, when TK first went to China to research his book Billions Of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are reshaping their future and yours, TK was given a Chinese name. The new name closely appoximated the sound of his real name, but it also meant something in Chinese and could consequently be written in the Chinese script.

The Harvard don had never had to modify his name in his many years in the USA, so this was quite a significant experience. On a practical level, it facilitates communication but it’s much more than that. In an Indian-owned pharmaceutical company in China, he found the same thing in reverse. Workers there had voluntarily taken on names like Ram and Laxmi, in acknowledgement of the fact they worked for an Indian management.

TK has maintained that India and China have never made enough of an effort to understand each other — both countries have been more focused on Europe and the USA but he is glad it is changing. During his stay in China he met quite a few from the IIT IIM network and they’re very well organised. One of them even took him out to a Udipi restaurant in Shanghai, a place he never knew could have existed.

Can Indian managers fill China Inc’s current talent gap at the top? It is possible within limits. Indians are unlikely to be found running indigenous Chinese companies, but MNCs, yes. A lot depends on the sector. There are already a fair number of Indians in the top management of MNCs regionally head quartered in Hong Kong and they will move to mainland China as more MNCs set up offices in Shanghai. Global Indian managers should be able to leverage the fact that the way of doing business is very similar all over Asia.

While traveling around rural China one Indian writer found his ‘Indianess’ to be quite useful. When he was talking to the villagers, he thought his background helped him relate.
Like India, the Chinese market is far-flung and large, but it differs in one important way it is fairly homogenous. In that, it is much like the USA, which is why American managers are comfortable there. But rural China is much like rural India, which should mean that Indian managers will be comfortable there.