Indians can lead. Can India?

India celebrated lustily early this year when Satya Nadella was anointed chief of Microsoft. Indians in global leadership positions are causing no raised eyebrows anymore. So if India can consistently produce global leadership, why aren't we on the business map of the world.

A decade ago, corporate India cheered when TATA Tea snatched away Tetley in a fiercely fought acquisition bid against no less an adversary than Nestle AG in 2000. Was it a flash in the pan, or could we really grow our global footprint as a country?

Jet Airways was the first Indian airline since privatization to go international in 2006. Many analysts wondered whether they would survive, let alone make it,in a cut throat global environment.

Much investment has flowed under the bridge since these. And Indian business has an enviable footprint today in the world. But making it work? Ah that's another ball game. From Amtek to Zain most of our international capers are struggling for traction. Look at how Corus is placing a drag on Tata Steel or Algoma on Essar.

Is it just another Indian rope trick that refuses to perform ?

Toyota was the first Asian brand to break into the top ten of Businessweek's most valuable brands table. But they, and other Japanese automakers, struggled throughout the 70s and a some part  of the 80s. Up until the 90s, Hyundai was the butt of many jokes in the Western world

Did anyone make it?

To really understand the challenges of succeeding in global mature markets, it might be worth looking at the Indian companies who made it and how they are different from the ones who struggle, chronically.

What did a TATA Motors get so right with a dead duck like JLR? Firstly, they were considered a trusted acquirer. Secondly they didn't take an Indian view on the future. Or even an English view for that matter. They just decided to go out and create a kickass new product (the Evoque) for the most attractive automobile market in the world viz. China. The Evoque, single handedly, turned the company around.

Worth considering
From available experience and material there seem to be three broad themes that could influence our globalization efforts: they can be summed up as engagement, standards and compliance. Let's consider each of these.

1.   Engagement: In spite of all the debate around it, global branding is not our primary issue.

I just got off the phone with a CEO friend of mine who runs a very successful healthcare business in India. He has since set up profitable units in Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai. His next stop is the US. He informs me he can't find any Indian food in Singapore that he likes!

This is a man who has very high EQ and IQ. Hes very open to others' views, and has a friend list that looks like an electoral roll.

My point is that once we cross the immigration counter, we become completely insular. One Chairman told us point blank, after acquiring an $800 million unit in the Far East, "I am very clear. I want one of our people there to run it"

To be a truly global company, our leadership first needs to develop a truly multinational mindset. Then set the tone for others down the line.

2.  Standards: Decades before TQM and ISO became fashionable, JRD used to personally check the quality of the meals served on board Air India flights. His letters to the catering department are well documented in Russi Lala's tomes on the man. How many Indian CEOs are this particular, even at home?

3.  Compliance: This is one area in which Jugaad does not and should not work. Ask Ranbaxy or Rajat Gupta. Respecting each of your operating environments in letter and spirit is fundamental to being respected in that market. Looking like a good corporate citizen is only a byproduct.

The English and the Missionaries taught us centuries ago that conquering new lands is not always about annexation. It is a good lesson to keep in mind while harboring global ambitions