Written with rare humility and candour, Dr Ashok Ganguly’s autobiography (Afterness – Home and Away, Penguin, 2022) tells us much about his life and times and Hindustan Unilever (HUL), the organisation he headed with so much distinction. The book could be bench-marked against the account by Prakash Tandon, another eminent HUL CEO of an earlier generation, whose trilogy, The Punjabi Saga, comprising Punjabi Century, Beyond Punjab and Return to Punjab (Rupa and Co 2001), has become a literary classic in its own right.
Both stories have much in common. Both men spent many years abroad but were intensely proud of their origins – Punjabi in the case of Prakash Tandon and Bengali – in the case of Ashok Ganguly. They were at home in almost any culture, were good conversationalists and could easily establish rapport with all kinds of people – businessmen, wholesalers, retailers, stockists, customers etc. But it was Prakash Tandon, who faced the greater challenge in his working life. He was the first covenanted Indian manager in the company. After eight years in the U.K. where he took a degree in Economics and did his chartered accountancy, he found that it was not easy to work at Unilever in India where discrimination against Indians was rampant. Despite his personal dislike for such boxwala attitudes, Tandon focussed on his work and soldiered on to break many glass ceilings. He became the CEO of the company in 1961. The credit would also be due to his English superiors who encouraged talent wherever they spotted it, regardless of their own biases.
Both Tandon as well as Ganguly would agree with Peter Drucker that because of the complex nature of decision-making in modern organisations – irrespective of whether they are governmental, semi- governmental or private – the person helming them has to be good listener. Besides, he needs good inter-personal and conceptual skills and needs to believe in team work. This means that he has to often forget that he was once a marketing, sales or finance man and look upon the business as one organic whole. If he is heading a ministry in the government, he should be able to perceive a larger national interest which may go beyond the specific interest of his ministry. There are not that many people who can do this: good organisations therefore, need to spend a lot of time in succession planning. Hindustan Unilever did this and built a pipeline of competent CEOs starting from Prakash Tandon himself!
This is also precisely where the GOI is currently weak. Selections are determined politically and ministers are loath to give up their prerogatives – particularly in selecting officials for leadership roles. The nation pays a heavy price for this sense of entitlement.
This was, however, not always so. The erstwhile British GOI, writes B.K. Nehru in Nice Guys End Second (Penguin India, 2000) had an establishment officer who toured the length and breadth of the country to identify GOI material. On his recommendations, the GOI regularly groomed officers for top leadership roles from an early age; appointed them as secretaries by the age of 45; and held them accountable for the good and bad work which they did till they retired at 55. Others, often competent ICS officers in their own right, were made to seek their fortunes in provincial governments where they were never in want of creature comforts. Most observers would regard this approach as totally Utopian and impractical in present times. But this reform is precisely what is required if the system is to improve. Assured promotions, irrespective of performance, have been the bane of our public management systems since independence.
What does Ganguly think about success? It is not a piece of cake which you can bite when you are hungry. Rather than obsessing about it, you should bother much more about how you can develop members of your team, he says. This is also what HUL has always believed. When Prakash Tandon was asked whether he was bothered that so many Lever executives left for greener pastures soon after their initial training, he replied. “Let this be Lever’s contribution to Indian industry.” Gurcharan Das confirms that he too recruited more than the needed number of trainees for pretty much the same reason when he was heading P & G. The company never promoted a key manager till he had prepared a successor.
All these leaders grappled with the inefficiencies of the frustrating licence permit raj. During that period, on one of his annual holidays to Kashmir, Tandon saw an enterprising young man set up a petrol bunk at a lonely site on a national highway. Gradually this site attracted others – a puncture repair shop followed, then a dhaba and later still, a kirana shop. Gradually, the site grew into a bustling settlement – messy but vibrant. Tandon asks wistfully: wouldn’t the country have benefited much more had the government supported such entrepreneurship rather than banked upon its flawed socialist policies?