By Jonathan Kirschner, Psy.D. • July 8, 2013

India's Coaching Opportunity

AIIR: How is executive coaching historically and currently perceived in India?

Rajeev Raju: ‘Historically’ is an interesting term in the Indian context.  Coaching or ‘preaching’ dates back to the epical narratives from the Mahabharata and Ramayana where the Guru-Shishya (Teacher-Student) relationship was in many ways the turning point in the lives of many kings, warriors or leaders, in general.  This tradition continued through the centuries and many leaders relied heavily upon the guidance of their coaches for their spiritual or educational needs. Executive Coaching, per se, is still in its formative stages in India.  The significant entry and growth of global corporates in the last decade or more resulted in a continuous sharing of global best practices and coaching enjoys a sweet spot here. Organisations constantly worry that workshops with multiple participants are no longer very effective, at least not for their senior leaders.  The higher RoI from coaching makes a compelling case. However, tight L&D budgets continue to be an impediment and businesses cannot totally do away with facilitated roll-outs that also address needs of a wider population.

Another pertinent point is the resistance shown by leaders to being coached.  Unlike their historical counterparts, leaders often do not feel very comfortable being coached and at times consider it a diminutive step.  They would rather rely on unsolicited and pro bono advice from friends, mentors and communities than be enlisted for a formal and monitored coaching programme.  With a majority of the clientele I engage in, the HR function or Line Manager express their difficulty in convincing the coachees to participate in the coaching initiatives.  A coach therefore needs to articulate the entire coaching process and expected outcomes in a convincing manner without making the participant feel intimidated.  To me personally, the Chemistry meeting is the most important point to build trust and set the tone for the rest of the coaching journey.

AIIR: What are some of the leadership challenges business leaders in India face today?

Rajeev Raju: With higher economic growth and investment over the last two decades, most organisations across sectors have grown at a rapid pace.  To maintain such growth, skills to manage projects, processes and people have received greater focus than on the need to create more leaders.  An understanding of what makes a leader is only peripheral or theoretical at best. Challenges around transparent communication, efficient decision making, clear succession planning and collaboration across cultures or generations are rife.

Leadership challenges therefore, hinges on both the leaders themselves realising what it takes to be a good leader as well as on the realisation that leadership is also about making efforts to create more leaders.  Following my stint at GE, I am compelled to quote Jack Welch as an example; no other organisation is applauded as much as GE for its ability to create such a wide span of leadership across the globe.

AIIR: Are there any key leadership competency areas that you believe are uniquely critical for leaders in India today?

Rajeev Raju: As a leader of some very ambitious and energetic professional teams that I have managed in my various roles, I have repeatedly heard that the individuals were motivated mostly because of the emotional connect I brought to my leadership style.  Over the years, having gained experience both as a leader and as a coach, I further believe that apart from traditional EQ, a leader critically needs what I call TQ viz., Tolerance Quotient™.

TQ is a leader’s capacity to supplement his/her executive decisions with sufficient doses of ‘tolerance’ or, in other words, giving the decision sufficient time to play out, sufficient room for debate by others, sufficient flexibility to course correct, and so on. On many occasions, I have seen this key element lacking and leading to disgruntlement, passive or submissive attitudes by subordinates, autocratic leadership and insecurity at both the leadership and subordinate levels.

I have since found time to pen these experiences into a brief research paper that I hope one day will grow to resemble a book filled with very practical solutions and applications.

AIIR: Having spent 20 years as a corporate leader across APAC, what are the key business drivers for executive coaching?

Rajeev Raju: If I were to respond to this with one word, it would be Differentiation. The bar is constantly being raised, expectations and perceptions continue to grow and businesses are often unable to influence change in mindset using traditional techniques. Added to this, amongst the global players, benchmarking leaders is not restricted to the domestic pool alone but are compared to their regional/global counterparts thereby increasing the level of complexity and scrutiny, likewise.

In many cases, this complexity gets more prominent as leaders inch closer to the glass ceiling. While typical developmental needs around competencies and skills continue to exist, the growing business demand is in distinguishing true leaders amongst many high potentials. Coaching helps make a deeper and more sustainable impact on individuals and enables them to outshine the crowd.


AIIR: What cultural factors, if any, are important to keep in mind when coaching business leaders in India?

Rajeev Raju: As I mentioned earlier, the idea of being formally coached versus say, mentoring, is still at a nascent stage with most leaders.  Where the leader or the organisation is exploring global

best practices and such experiences have some awareness locally, leaders in such businesses are relatively at ease with having a coach.  Amongst my clients here, those in the offshoring business tend to imbibe best practices more easily, and sometimes mandatorily, as their global counterparts feel more reassured when the offshored processes and assignments are in the safe hands of people who demonstrate mature and confident leaderships skills.

I also find Indian leaders very conscious of hierarchy and so tend to get more passive than assertive while interacting with their seniors.  They also take pride in using their authority over their direct reports but are unable to distinguish between aggressive and assertive behaviours.  The global stakeholders of such leaders wonder why their views are readily accepted without much deliberation or thought put into it by the leaders thereby leaving room for doubt over the maturity of the local leadership at the helm.  It is very pertinent for leaders to put forth their opinions, welcome critique, assert themselves, be open to new ideas and give their stakeholders, global or local, assurance that the management is in good hands.

Another common mindset issue seen amongst leaders here is to resist, or not experiment with, diverse opinions.  I have worked in organisations where peers believed that they had all the solutions and felt insecure to seek thoughts and ideas from their subordinates.  As a result, such leaders resorted to a more directive style and subordinates in turn were happy doing what they were told rather than questioning them logically.  As one can imagine, this sets off a vicious cycle with little room to groom young leaders.

AIIR: What do foreign expatriates need to know in order to be successful leaders in India?

Rajeev Raju: Do not adopt global strategies straight away.  Be curious and spend quality time with your customers, stakeholders and employees.  Relatively speaking, the younger generation is more comfortable working with foreigners as the cultural tastes and ideas seem to blend in a lot more easily.

Invest time in understanding the local culture and dynamics.  During my own travels across the length and breadth of the country to coach clients, I noticed that, along with the landscape, the culture, habits and perceptions (of fellow Indians) varied extensively. Within the same organisation, but across different States or locations, the maturity and confidence of leaders showed very contrasting levels on many occasions.

On a lighter note, it’s fashionable to describe Indians as out-of-the-box thinkers, viz., being creative in almost every situation in life and at work.  But for many structures or behaviours considered basic in the West, there is no ‘box’ at all out here!  We are constantly looking for short-cuts and can suffer from a ‘we are like this only’ syndrome which, to many foreigners, is simply baffling!  Expatriates will need to quickly come to terms with such scenarios and leave room for flexible approaches while maintaining the ethical or governance fabric all along.

AIIR: How can a Coach succeed while working with Indian businesses?

Rajeev Raju: Indian businesses strongly believe in ‘bang for the buck’!  They do not want to dabble with complex RoI calculations and prefer straightforward and tangible results delivered as early as possible.  It’s very important for coaches to define their processes and give some indication on the likely outcomes based on past experiences.

Clients don’t want to engage coaches who are only good with their theory and practice, but prefer those who have spent time in the trenches and understand business and organisation dynamics.  Demonstrating your knowledge with analogies directly applicable to the business environment and reassuring clients on the positive impact are usually key winners while negotiating proposals.

While clients do enquire about my ICF certification and other qualifications, what they are usually attracted to is the wealth of experience I carry, viz., worked across cultures in APAC region and with global firms, played roles in consulting, banking, private equity and strategy, knowledge on multiple sectors/industries across the region, led highly professional teams in many complex situations, etc.  Since becoming a Coach, I have also facilitated workshops for senior leaders in global corporations across South Asia and the learning I have derived from these engagements have substantially deepened my understanding of authentic leadership.  It’s remarkable how interconnected coaching and facilitation are to derive an experiential learning.

Jonathan Kirschner, CEO of AIIR: If I am in Mumbai, only have 1 day for leisure, and you are footing the bill, what do I do and where do I eat?

Rajeev Raju: An entrapping question that I shall take the bait on happily! I would drive you around the Fort area and show you sights of South Mumbai, take you on a wild and sweltering taxi ride through some very congested streets and get you to experiment with some street food near the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. To enjoy Indian food using your bare fingers is an experience worth remembering and I cannot think of a better cuisine than a fattening, spice-rich vegetarian Thali meal from Rajasthan.

And if you have the time to visit our home, I would treat you to a cup of South-Indian ‘filter’ coffee, our very own version of the ‘French Press’!  I look forward to welcoming you on your first visit here, Jonathan. Thank you.


To Learn more about AIIR Consulting's practice in India or any of our global coaching and development solutions, contact us today!

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