The Rise and Rise of Indian Leaders in Global Technological Companies

But, accompanying them were lamentations of ‘brain drain’ as well.

5 min read
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Last month, as Parag Agrawal joined the ranks of eleven other India-born CEOs heading global technological giants, the social media went abuzz with congratulatory messages praising Indian grit and talent. But accompanying them were lamentations of ‘brain drain’ as well.

Some commentators thought there was not much to celebrate since this would not change the lives of Indians in India. Some also expressed that it would be worth talking about only when Indians innovate their way up to becoming top global entrepreneurs, not just occupy the corner offices.


What Is the 'X Factor' That Separates Indians From Others?

The flurry of reactions to it though has led to curiosity as to why Indians in America are excelling over other immigrants when it comes to occupying the top management positions in the technological sector.

One major reason that has been widely discussed in The Other One Percent: Indians in America by economist Nirvikar Singh and his co-authors is that Indians arriving in the US come carefully selected and already have advantages like coming mostly from affluent families and being equipped with STEM education from the best technical schools in India. That helps them get their foot in the door in tech companies.

But what aids them to soar to the top?

Years ago, when I first read Jim Collins’ seminal work, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, I was drawn to the level five leadership qualities discussed, a combination of personal humility with an utterly indomitable will. This happy paradox is the X factor separating great leaders from just good.

While the world confused leadership with personality and indulged in a misplaced celebration of charisma and star qualities, the big global organisations’ needs and ambitions ballooned into a complex mesh requiring more than ego-driven leaders who are good at inspiring people to follow them. There grew a need for leaders who could inspire others to follow a cause instead.

Indians ascending to top positions in global tech companies are being chosen for this X factor.


How They Attained Top Positions in Tech Companies

But how did they attain this? It’s not an overnight success story. Indians have come a long way from being perceived as backend experts with funny accents to company heads orchestrating the future of technology.

It has taken a lot of hard work and technical prowess but tossed into that mix is also a philosophical worldview that has taught Indian leaders not to take their ego to work with them.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa in his book From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation discusses the journey. He points out that when Satya Nadella became the Microsoft CEO in 2014, he chose to first focus on changing the company culture from the hardball "know-it-all" approach to a "learn-it-all" curiosity. He made the workplace more comfortable by refusing to tolerate yelling in executive meetings and by never raising his voice or writing an angry email.

When Sunder Pichai took over the reins of Google in 2015, its "too lenient" culture was creating internal tensions. Pichai with his gentleness and humility steered the company towards calmer waters.

Leaders like Nadella and Pichai bring to the table a certain degree of caution and a ‘gentler’ culture of leadership, which makes them ideal candidates especially at a time when big tech’s reputation plummets amid Congressional hearings and rows with foreign governments.


How Does IIT Alumni Network Help Indians?

A factor that goes in their favour is the IIT alumni network most Indian tech CEOs are part of. It is a dense, close-knit network and is rather effective in connecting the right people with the right positions in big tech organisations. "The networks they have built [in Silicon Valley] have also given them an advantage, the idea was that they would help each other," states Wadhwa.

A commonality among those who have made it to the top is that instead of hopscotching their way through their career in pursuit of immediate perks and short term benefits, they have worked their way up in the same companies for at least a decade, which has given them a sense of humbleness that distinguishes them from founder-CEOs.

Another simple but obvious reason why Indians are taking roles of responsibility is their good communication skill. Their grasp on English and their ability to adapt and assimilate with Americans comes from their simultaneous familiarity with eastern and western cultures and the ease with which they can accommodate both. Effective communication is the key to good leadership especially in companies that are scaling up.

The lopsided representation of Indians in the technological field is somewhat explained by the numbers as well. Indians make up only 1 percent of the total American population but they represent 6 percent of the workforce in Silicon Valley. Of the 4.2 million Indians in the US about a million are engineers and scientists.


'Indians Have a Natural Resourcefulness When Dealing With Obstacles'

Trying to decode the X factor further I got in touch with a friend from my alma mater Kinshuk Jerath, who is now a professor of business at Columbia Business School.

He said over a phone call, “Growing up in India makes one comfortable with diversity. Indians are very accepting and that helps in large tech organisations with employees from diverse cultural backgrounds.”

He added, “Coming from middle-class families, they are used to uncertainty and learn to deal with them creatively.” The big tech companies constantly fight ambiguities and need leaders who can maintain a steady stance faced with curveballs. “Indians have a natural resourcefulness when dealing with obstacles.”

They all grew up in cultural chaos among scarce resources in India in the 80s and 90s, and learned to adjust, adapt, and navigate through thorny corridors. It has given the top bosses a level of dynamism and agility, which has become an asset to sprawling tech companies that are going through rapid changes and right now it has become a trend that is difficult to resist or ignore.

(The author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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