Is there a secret to the recent success of Indian CEOs appointed to the helm of some of the leading companies in the world?

Ganesh Immersionby Susanne Mueller Zantop and Waseem Hussain

Think of Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Sanjay Mehrotra (SanDisk), Rajeev Suri (Nokia), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), and most recently Sundar Pichai (Google) – what do they have that others don’t have? Is this an accidental clustering in the tech sector or is there a deeper meaning?

We looked at the more than 40 comments to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Commenters reactions were the following:

  1. Pride! (Indians commenting)
  2. “What’s the fuss?” The Indian population is 1.2 billion, no news that some make it to the top.
  3. “White skin – brown skin phenomenon”: we pay attention if more than 6 leaders appear with brown skin, because we are not used to it in the US or Europe.


We (Susanne, a German-born strategy and communications consultant to CEOs in the US and Europe and Waseem, an international relations cultural expert in Europe, originally from India), asked ourselves the following questions:

Question: Is it significant to us that some Indian people like Pichai or Nadella make it to the top of a handful of tech companies?

Answer: Definitely. Companies like Google, Tata, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco have huge influence on our work style, privacy, collaboration style and lives because we use their brainware to shape our daily activities.

Question: Is there a reason why those Indian guys make it to the top and others don’t?

Answer: India’s history and rich culture have fostered a mindset with a strong competitive bend. The idea that there is not a singular god but many deities suggests that there always are competing truths. This makes your mind quite nimble. What’s more, India’s society still is hierarchically organized. Clearly, making it to the top is a motivator.

Question: What do these Indian leaders have in common?

Answer: Indian leaders seem to be great number crunchers with small egos. Both these traits are supported by the fact that logical thinking and humbleness are among the key values cherished by the society. Moreover the Indian child, teenager and young adult experiences unconditional love from their family. The Indian parent will shower even more love on you when you failed. This seems to make you strong.

Question: Why are Indian CEOs good innovators?

Answer: Some of the most successful CEOs from India learned for their exams in the light of an oil lamp sitting on the floor. They learned to create solutions with a minimal input of resources but getting maximum output. When they were growing up there were hardly any sophisticated techniques or technologies in the modern sense. They had nothing to imitate and therefore no other choice than to innovate. In the absence of a saturated environment their mind has been trained to envision ideal results and a way to get there.

Question: Why are Indians so competitive when they grew up with unconditional love and understanding?

Answer: With unconditional love being the main constant in your life you are equipped with a conviction that you will persevere and achieve thanks to emotional security. This contrasts with the idea of the Asian Tiger Mom who squeezes you to perform, or the Prussian upbringing by love deprivation.

Also, the caste system seems to promote competitive behaviour. True, it can be limiting because it suggests that you are entitled to no social status or profession other than what you inherit from your parents. However, caste is equally defined by the individual’s potential to outgrow exactly that.

Question: What can we learn as non-Indian leaders?

Answer: It seems that the current economic climate seeks CEOs with small egos but strong cooperative leadership styles, who live hierarchy but include their peers into decision making.

Two learnings stand out in particular:

The first learning is to see the actual potential in people. It is not education alone that defines what we are capable of. Many of our talents become apparent only when given an opportunity. Focusing on the full potential, bringing it to light and acting upon it brings success. It lets you deal nimbly with risk, anxiety and insecurity. You leave the path of imitation and become an innovator.

The second learning is the ability to listen. Indian parents have a habit of listening attentively to what their kids say, and refrain from commenting or evaluating. They also gaze at their children and let them be. Obviously, the Indian child grows up with the experience of feeling appreciated naturally. When you grow up like this, you are more likely to pay attention to others.

This points to the probably most neglected skill of old-school Western-style CEOs. Think about Steve Ballmer, Jack Welch or Donald Trump. These guys are famous for shouting, not for listening.

Bottom line: If you listen more and tackle your hidden fear of innovation, you are probably part of a new breed of leaders, regardless of your cultural origins. Also, number crunching and computing skills don’t hurt. Different times need different leaders.

About the authors
Susanne Mueller Zantop, works with CEOs of international brands in positioning and strategic appearances. Author and moderator.
Waseem Hussain is a Management Trainer and Keynote Speaker.

Aug, 24, 2015