Happy Independence Day! From a Proud American Indian
That’s right, today is Independence Day in India! 69 years ago today, India achieved its independence from the British, something the US did 169 years prior! In those 69 years, the US and India haven’t always had the smoothest relationship, but in the past 20 years it has grown to one of strength, mutual admiration, friendship and a sense of shared best interest between the world’s largest democracy and its oldest continuing democracy. I’ll be writing more about this relationship, but today, some thoughts on my experience working for Indian companies and Indian leaders.
There was a terrific article a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times by Paresh Dave, “Indian Immigrants are Tech’s New Titans.” A couple main points I took away from the article about these titans are that the very upbringing of these leaders is what propelled many into top roles, and that as a result “executive culture” is literally that. Much of it is about humility and respect.
I’ve had the tremendous fortune the last few years of working with Indian companies and executives and it’s been incredible, but of course not without a little frustration… but even those frustrations have been informative and an opportunity to achieve. Several years ago I was the lead outside PR counsel in advising tech giant Infosys in its dealings with the US Justice department in alleged irregularities with visa classification for its workers. While I saw firsthand the ugly side of racism and xenophobia in US politics and immigration policies (you can hear a pointed example of it here in a feature on NPR with Martin Kaste, where Malcolm Bales, US Attorney is Texas speaks dismissively of these workers. You can also hear a part of my defense.), conversely I experienced the remarkable ingenuity, work ethic and cultural ethos of an Indian company that before then was one with which I had little familiarity. And I was impressed.
KASTE: Infosys admits problems with the I-9 forms it filed for its workers. But despite the $34 million it’s paying the government, it denies it committed visa fraud. It says it didn’t use that many B-1s to begin with. This is the company spokesman, Ken Montgomery.
KEN MONTGOMERY: Just to give you some context on that, of all the work done by Infosys employees in the United States using visas, only .02 percent of the work done was under a B-1 visa.
On the eve of the US’s case against Infosys being resolved, I was on a conference call with founder Mr. Murthy, who passionately talked about the values his family instilled in him, that he then instilled in the company, that the employees should feel proud of the company and that he trusted employees to do what was right. His talk was extemporaneous, from the heart and was textbook of inspired leadership by example. This was a key in our ability to rally the Infosys forces to move forward (something they desperately wanted to do).
A little over a year ago I was asked to join Persistent Systems to head up its global communications. To be honest, as flattered as I was to work with colleagues from Infosys who had gone to Persistent, there were – as with any new job offer – concerns… The main one being the sometimes stiflingly collaborative process of decision making and change inside Indian companies… To be fair, this can be a plus, buuuuut, it can also be not so much a plus… The executives here were aware of that perception both with Indian companies and with Persistent so during my meetings with all the key stakeholders I was told what they wanted – in fact what they knew they needed – was change… and they needed a change agent. That would be me.
I’m old enough to know what my strengths and faults are; and just to make it tricky, sometimes those can be one and the same. To be sure I can be like a bull in a china shop so when I decided to accept the position I wanted to be sensitive to that… But not two weeks into the new job, our EVP of sales, and then our President and then our CEO/ founder – who is pictured above said in essence “Ken, we hired you to be the change, not to be a cog in the machine…” It was a really remarkable thing for me to hear and something that motivated me through some incredibly challenging times of change management (which I’ll discuss in future posts) and still does…
What I have found these past 15 months is a company FILLED with amazing, creative, smart people. I’ve made several trips to India, and our headquarters and campuses are just bursting with ideas on how we can help our customers transform and change the world. From marketing, to labs, to development… even legal, HR, finance, this company has a shared ethos of passion and innovation. It’s awesome to behold.
And that all starts at the top, but not in a brash do-it-my-way-or-else approach, but with leadership that is in-fact filled with humility and respect. That’s personified with our founder and CEO Anand Deshpande. Now lest you think this is me ass-kissing (you’d be forgiven for thinking that), it’s not.
Up at the top of this post is a photo of Anand and at the formal opening of our new US HQ in Santa Clara. I’m dressed in traditional Indian kurta, but that’s not normal attire (and in fact Anand gave me a jokingly bad time about it!)… This photo right here, to me, captures Anand… He and I happened to be in Singapore, serendipitously, at the same time. When he saw me tweet something out about being in Singapore, he asked me to come join him and a colleague for dinner! And the even better part is, where we had dinner… at a noodle place at the mall! And that right there is Anand, and in part what makes him such a great leader. I would say universally across the company Anand is held in an esteem I’ve seen few CEOs held (I have had one job in my life – years ago – I didn’t like, and even at that job I greatly admired the CEO for having a vision and making it happen). And that’s because of how he treats people. Anand founded Persistent Systems 25 years ago…
In a time and in an India where even in Pune, a city of 7M people, you couldn’t get an internet connection… He has seen it through the tech bubble crash of the early 2000s, and the Great Recession of 2008. He has built a company of more than 8,500 people, with almost 1,000 here in the US, others in France and Australia and Indonesia and yes of course India… and to me that is something marvelous… 8,500 people around the world who are paying their mortgage or rent, that are sending their kids to school, that are taking care of those less fortunate than them, that are living their dreams… because of one man’s vision, ability to execute AND to change, and to inspire people. That is leadership!!!
I’ve got a lot more to share about change management, bridging cultures, innovation, communicating… but I’ll leave all that for another post. I’ll close today by simply wishing everyone a HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY from a proud American Indian!!!