Friday our delegation attended and participated in a conference as high powered and as rich in content as any I’ve ever been to…and I've been to more than a few.
The 1-day meeting, Leadership Next, was produced and managed by SHRM’s India staff. It was promoted as a summit on leadership for business and HR execs and 150 very senior managers were in the room. Included among them was the new head of GE Capital, Anish Shah and Arun Nando of Mahindra & Mahindra (who, I was told by several conference attendees is considered the “Jack Welch” of India).
As far as I could tell from a glance at the list of attendees and confirmed during my networking discussions between sessions, this was a representative sample from the country's top for profit, public and foreign businesses as well as a few of the deans of the country’s top B-schools.
Arun Nando, who gave the opening keynote really caught my attention when he described the current migration of rural Indians to the city saying “more people [350 million] will be added to our cities in the next decade from this migration alone than there are people in all of North America."
As he ticked off the litany of global, business, social and community challenges facing his nation, he ended with a clear message to the leaders of HR and Business that if they want young people to follow them they need to "walk-the-talk."
Even before Arun took the stage the Head of SHRM India introduced the GM of the Tridant hotel where we were staying and where we were holding the Leadership forum. He, in turn, brought up 8 staff who stood quietly on stage while he related his personal experience from November 26 of last year when terrorists attacked several famous hotels in Mumbai. Turns out he was the GM of one of them, also a Trident property and residing at the time on the 25th floor when the attacks occurred. He emphasized in his story the actions of his people during the 3 days it took to fully resolve the event. He introduced each of the 8 staff who ranged from a secretary and a chef to the head of marketing. All were working today in our hotel. Thunderous applause.
The design of the day was around two case studies detailing how leadership had changed the nature of the environment for the employees and customers and two “fishbowl” events where a large table was filled on the floor of the room and the attendees, raised up in the “stands” could watch the discussion or jump in with questions and comments. Never saw that before.
The most interesting case study to me is the [continuing] transformation of the railroad, a go0vernment owned and operated business, which was nearly at a standstill only a few years ago. It is huge- 1.6 million workers. 18 million people travel on it every day. To support the employees they have to feed them, provide schools their children (600 schools), train them etc. They have built hospitals, homes and even vacation homes and clubs for workers. Last year they made 5 billion Rps which may not sound like much (about $100 million) for its size until you think about our post office. Yeah, I know nothing is comparable but, let it go.
The “fishbowl” sessions were a hoot. One included an equal number of Corporate Business heads and HR leaders discussing first, what they expect from HR and, second, were challenged to come to consensus on 1 single challenge where HR should lead. One participant who also happened to be from our delegation, Joan, used the phrase “Steel Magnolia” in describing the need to exhibit toughness. You could see a moment of reflection at the table but they “got it”. In the challenge phase, the most impassioned comment was made, I believe, by an ex pat working in a European multinational when he argued for sustainability as the core area for HR leadership saying, “if we don’t get that right there won’t be anything left to sell.”
The other fishbowl was about leadership for women and was honchoed (some would describe it as hijacked) by a well-known lawyer and economist in India who was alternatively cajoling, challenging, strident, provocative and downright nasty. In the 60’s, she would have eaten male “pigs” for breakfast.
She was definitely treated with kid gloves and her litany of obstacles women as leaders in India face was not really challenged. The panel in the fishbowl was lively and entertaining. Whether she can be effective as a leader herself in promoting the issues of women was hotly debated during the tea brak after her fishbowl. God, how I love a disruptive influence.
We finished the day with dinner and networking and in the several conversation with business leaders about the tools, policies, and investments they considered critical; sustainable practices, social networks, relevant education and training surfaced over and over.