Subroto Bagchi is a child of the information technology revolution in India. No surprise, then, that he has a revolutionary bent of mind on matters that concern the industry, in particular, and business, in general. That, to an extent, might explain how he has come to bear the designation ‘gardener’ at MindTree Consulting, the company he founded along with nine colleagues back in 1999. Mr. Bagchi, who is explains in this interview what that quaint designation he holds actually translates into, the challenges confronting the industry he is tethered to, and the changing topography of business in modern-day India.
What does gardening, in the corporate context that you use it, involve?
Organizations are living entities. Whenever I think about leadership in the organisational context, it occurs to me that we all try to mass produce leaders. You pick up hundreds of them and send them for leadership development programmes. In a sense it is like sheep-dipping in New Zealand: you take flocks of sheep and put them through vats of dye and they come out at the other end. That’s how leaders get made.
Leadership development, however, is a far more personal and intense process; in the organisational context, it is also about individuals. It is akin to a gardener tending to individual plants, as against a farmer in a field. A farmer does not have a personal relationship with each member of the crop. You tend to consider the entire field of rice or mustard as one patch, but if you look at the work of a gardener, there is a certain amount of diversity; the gardener has an individual relationship and knows the needs of every plant. That’s the difference between a gardener and a chief executive.
This, then, leads us to the question of growth for the leader. That happens only when the leader is serving somebody with the mindset of a gardener. This is how the idea of the gardening metaphor originated, and that’s been my life’s work for the last four years.
In today’s day and age, when corporations are evaluated from quarter to quarter, how can leaders keep this balance between being a gardener and a chief executive?
I think the constraint of financial stakeholding is a self-imposed one; leaders themselves create that imposition. If they are not true to the commitment to develop human capital, it is because they are not comfortable with the idea. But if you want to build anything that is sustainable, then there is no running away from focusing on people. If you look at the current century, we are moving from linearity to non-linearity, from reason to feelings and emotions. We are now living in a creative economy, an experiential economy, a real-time economy in which we have to treat the customer truly as an individual.
What was the experience of founding MindTree like? Why did you give up on the conventional role at the company?
Well, I did not. People are comfortable dealing with the traditional, with designations like chief executive officer, chief financial officer, etc; this tends to define who we are. But if you look at the post-modern organization, hierarchy and heterarchy must coexist. The organisational pulse here is not actually in the organization’s structure but in the white spaces; that is the heterarchy. People who don’t show up in the organisational chart are the people who are going to define the excellence of the organization.
When we are overtly focused on the idea of hierarchy, we get nonplussed when we see roles like mine and wonder whether I am some sort of a corporate missionary. No, I am not. I have a regular job, I measure my effectiveness and am accountable to myself and to the people I serve. I chose to give up on the conventional role because it was critical for the future of the organization.
We were 10 people who came together to start the company and nine of those founders are still with the company, which is now into its 13th year. If I look ahead to 2020, the company should be run by the next generation. I am 54 and so are two of the other top founders. We have decided that none of us are going to be around after we turn 60. Given that we are building a legacy here, an organization that will outlive us, it’s vital to focus on the next set of leaders and treat them like plants in the garden.
The development of an individual happens when you take a holistic look at the personal and professional space. There is no Chinese wall between the two and the process of opening up can happen only in an intense, one-leader-ata-time kind of way. So that is what I did; I am happy I did it and I think it is going to make a hell of a lot of difference to the organization.
You have written extensively about management and business. What has been the motivation for doing that, and what have you learned from it?
In the beginning I am certain there was ego involved. People talked to you about what you wrote and that was important. But later on I realized there was this responsibility to create content for another generation. I don’t want to sound lofty here but I would like to draw attention to the poverty of management literature in India. Barring academic writing or eulogies of industrialists, there hasn’t been writing that in India that engages professionals and potential entrepreneurs. I thought that, coming from where I did, if life has taken me through all these experiences, I have two responsibilities: one, to do my work the best way I can and, two, to write about it.
When you write you are creating content and content outlives its creator. Can you imagine the spread of Christianity without the Bible, or Hinduism without the Bhagavad Gita? Leaders must have an affection for words. In a global world that is becoming increasingly virtual, how do you build on ideas unless you put it down somewhere?
What’s your view of the troubles — political, institutional and economic — that India is currently besieged by? What could be the way forward for this country?
If you look at the period up to 1947 and the role of our leadership, it was essentially to deliver political freedom. The generation that I represent — I was born in 1957, a decade after independence — worked towards giving the country economic freedom. Close to 1990 was the time that I went to the United States to start operations for Wipro; that was about when India had 15 days of foreign exchange left to buy oil.
We were on the verge of defaulting on our loans. So 1947 to, say, 2000 was the period of India’s struggle for economic freedom. What India is struggling for now is freedom of the intellect. This is freedom from ourselves, from age-old traditions and narrow considerations. Character is what the country needs and character is about freedom of the intellect.
It is said that corporate India is out of touch with the real India, that it has given up on the half of the country that struggles to survive. Is that so?
Not really. I think it is a clichéd statement because if you look at, for instance, the work the Tatas have been doing for over 100 years, few governments have done that. I recall the time when my mother, who lived in a small district in Odisha, had to undergo eye surgery; she had it done at the Tata Steel hospital and she was an ordinary citizen.
Take the information technology industry. More than 35 percent of our annual intake comes from rural India, from small-town India. A good 13 percent of our engineers come from families where the only material possessions of note are a radio or a cycle. This is an industry where to succeed you don’t have to know someone, but you have to know something.
Then there are companies such as Unilever that have been building rural supply chains. Companies have gone where even the government hasn’t. Look at the disenfranchised parts of India where governance is nearly absent. Children are being delivered in these places, medicines being consumed, food being supplied. How is this happening? It’s happening because business is there, because business is doing its bit. More than corporate India, it is political parties and the bureaucracy that, I believe, have drifted away from heartland India and its causes.
Business is not just big business. There are a thousand flowers blooming in the India of today, small businesses and medium-sized businesses. Obviously, we have much to do still, much more in areas like empowerment and sustainability. But you have to realize that business is intelligent; business recognizes that if society does not exist it cannot exist.
How do you see the Indian information technology industry evolving in the years ahead? What kind of challenges does it face, and is it up to meeting them?
Today we are a $90-billion industry and the expectation is that by 2020 this figure will reach $300 billion; it’s a growth-bound industry. The three challenges that we face — speaking from the top of my mind right now — are: one, the trivialization of the education system in India; the information technology of the future is not about mass-produced engineers. The second challenge clearly is that of diversity. If the Indian information technology industry is to be meaningful to the rest of the world, it has to have a more inclusive view of that world. The third challenge is the challenge of confines. This industry has so far been an island. We have had poor infrastructure but the industry was not touched by; we have had instances of poor ethical behaviour, but we remained untouched by it for some time. This is not a tenable situation.
Critics have said that successful entrepreneurship in India is as much about having connections in the right places as it is about foresight and business talent. Do you think that’s a fair reading?
No, it is not fair, though it may have been true until the 1980s and the 1990s. We are breaking out of that mould; I meet entrepreneurs all the time and they are rising above that. What you know is becoming increasing more important than who you know and who you are. Today if you have an idea you can start a company.
I’ll tell you a fascinating story of two geeks, two guys who were school friends in Bengaluru. One studied civil engineering, the other mechanical engineering. One went to work for Intel, the other for Motorola. They eventually returned to India. One of the two had learned about micro-brewing in America, so he came up with this idea of starting a micro-brewery in India. The government wouldn’t give them a license, partly because it had no idea what micro-brewing is, so these guys created the formula and took it to Belgium. They made the beer in Belgium, imported it to India and sold it here. It’s true they had to pay heavy duties, but there were no other micro-brewed products available. Then the government woke up and micro-breweries were set up, but by now these two geeks already had their brand. Today, their brand — its called Geist — is selling in five-star hotels and boutique outlets. They have persisted and innovated and created something out of an idea and followed it through.
There are people who will blame the system and say they can’t do anything because they have hit a brick wall. Well, entrepreneurship is also about people defying that brick wall.
Where to for you after the gardening years? Does information technology still hold any interest?
I see myself getting out of active involvement with the company at 60. However, I am curious to see the Indian information technology industry of 2020, and gardening is integral to who I am and what I do. I won’t be able to do what I am doing outside the industry; I am a child of the industry and I don’t think I could have an identity outside it. This is my world; I will kiss this world until I am gone.