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Article Article April 3rd, 2017

Leading the way – in India and beyond

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After being tempted by the civil service, @ArunMaira first opted for life in the private sector

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After decades in business, @ArunMaira says he learned something new every day while in govt

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Compass-setting and collaboration are key tasks for any leader, says @ArunMaira

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Arun Maira's passion for India is unmistakeable. His every sentence is laced with a sense of optimism about his homeland, as well as determination that it should continue its forward progress. It was this innate patriotism which saw him, in 2009, accept a request from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to become a member of India's government, forsaking previous plans to step away from the world of work after a long and distinguished career in the private sector.

"The call came out of the blue," he recalls with a chuckle. "I felt it was time to slow down, and I was in Prague on the first day of a long-awaited holiday when he rang and asked if I would 'serve the country'. At the time I had had no plans or intention to work in government, but it's hard to say 'no' to a prime minister!"

First steps

India is unique in so many ways. Its high energy, growing economy and rising skyline may be akin to those of many other countries, but as a melting pot of religions, people and cultures, it has no peer. For Maira, though, it is more than just a burgeoning economic powerhouse - it is home, and a country where he has always sought to make a positive difference.

"I remember when I was at school and college in the 1960s," he explains. "It was shortly after India gained independence. As a country we were embarking on what we knew was going to be a very large and important transformation to govern ourselves. This meant that there was some romance about working in government - it was the place that might have large enough resources, as the private sector was very small compared to what needed to be done."

Keen to make their contribution, he and his classmates jostled for entry into the Indian civil service - "it was a very competitive selection process, to say the least" - but Maira was destined to go elsewhere. "While I was preparing for these examinations, I was invited to interview by the Tata Group, which had launched a new administrative service," he says. The approach gained his attention, particularly because it didn't just have a unilateral focus on the bottom line.

"It was made clear to me and the other candidates that industry, too, could provide jobs and help modernise the country," says Maira. "So there was a broader purpose than just profit. They pointed out that young people like me could work with industry and still stay true to their values about wanting to contribute to their country."

His acceptance of a position was the first step on what turned into a 25-year journey with Tata, one that took him to a variety of senior roles, including running its operations in Malaysia and serving on the board of Tata Motors. Following a brief sabbatical in the United States, he kicked off his "second" career in management consultancy - starting with 10 years at Arthur D Little and then serving as chairman of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in India.

Into government...

As a member of India's Planning Commission, with ministerial rank, Maira was responsible for facilitating the shaping of policies and programmes relating to industrialisation and urbanisation in the country, as well as its fast-expanding tourism sector. For Maira it was quite a culture shock.

"It certainly was very unusual to have people at the Planning Commission at that level who had never done anything in government before," admits Maira. "There had been people from the private sector serve in government commissions and committees, but I'd never done anything like that. And so I did say to the prime minister that he may have made a mistake in calling me, but he was adamant and added that he wanted me 'precisely because you are totally fresh and that is what we want - a totally fresh viewpoint and approach'."

So many people asked him about the move from the corporate world to government that Maira wrote a book about the experience, called An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning. He is keen to emphasise that the title really does reflect his time in the ministerial hot seat, as he learned something new every day. "For those five years, I was in something that was so different to what I had been doing in the rest of my professional life," he says. "It was like I was sitting in the cockpit of government just behind the pilot - who would be the prime minister and his cabinet - and I was able to see the direction of government and able to tap them on the shoulder and suggest the future direction of travel. It really was a wonderful learning experience."

There was, however, much to become accustomed to - not least the different way to get things done. "You have to manage your own expectations and understand what your job is," he points out. "Government cannot accomplish its goals by using private sector best practice. This is because they are two very different constructs. Private sector organisations operate in a far smaller field and are very clear about what their objectives are. By contrast, in government there are many things you have to put together to get positive public policy outcomes - and this takes time. And so if you expect to come into government and see results on the ground straight away, then you will feel frustrated."

Maira stood down from his role after five years when the government changed. The new government replaced the Planning Commission with the National Institution for Transforming India. Maira remains passionate about his government experiences and hopeful that more may follow in his footsteps. For future fellow travellers from the private sector, his words of advice are to listen and stay humble. "The more successful they have been in doing something else, and the more admired they have been as they did something else, the bigger the danger that they will fall flat," he says. "So don't go into government thinking you know all the answers - go in there with humility and listen to those who you will be working with."

Spotlight on leadership

Maira has now - finally - had the chance to slow down, but he remains much in demand: he is still a senior advisor to BCG, for example, and still works with clients in different sectors. One area where his insights are greatly valued is on the topic of leadership.

"The world is becoming more and more interconnected and thus more dynamic," he says. "This means it is harder to predict what will happen. One function a leader is expected to perform is to set a strategic direction. A second major function is to coordinate the many people who need to work together to produce results in complex situations.” In both cases, the task facing today's generation of leaders has grown far harder, he believes.

"You can't set directions and make strategies in a traditional way, because so much is changing. And today, many of the resources that are now necessary to produce the intended result may not be under the authority of the leader himself or herself - they can be outside the boundaries of their own organisation, and so leaders cannot directly incentivise them. This makes it much harder to get the collaboration with people not in your direct control, and yet you are still expected to do so."

It can be done, however - but only if a leader harnesses the talents and skills of all the people.  "What I found when I worked in government was that, though we talked of public-private partnerships, there is a whole 'people' sector which is about the participation of people themselves in delivering things like educational reform and improvements to local infrastructure," he concludes.

"A leader has to take strength from all three of them - the public, private, and the people sectors - and bring them all together to get the system as a whole to move forward and achieve the desired impact." Given that's something Maira has himself achieved time and time again, we'd be well advised to follow this formula...


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Written by:

Abhishek Gopalka Principal at The Boston Consulting Group, New Delhi
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