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(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Family-owned Business Goes Global

India was a very insular economy for a long time. Most people from India still think in terms of local GDP; they don’t consider how a fire in an oil refinery in Iraq might have consequences for them. They are not used to that level of connectivity.

A global mind-set also has to do with the way we act as individuals. We are helping our employees recognize norms in other countries. Employees may see their counterparts in India working on weekends, with their boss asking them to do so. That’s new to non-Indians. As a company, globally, we are exploring a lot of different management issues involving centralization, decentralization, and empowerment. And we are encouraging more training in multiple languages. We have been overly dependent on English, and we think our executives should learn Mandarin, Spanish, or at least one European language.

S+B: What kinds of language-related issues have you encountered?
Some of our policies and branding use words of Sanskrit origin; we may need to change those. We also need to think about which aspects of our Indian corporate heritage may catch on with non-Indians, while finding ways to express our culture in more universal ways. For example, our traditional Birla corporate tagline was “Taking India to the world.” As we become a global corporation, that seems less relevant. So our latest slogan is, “Let’s reach for the sun,” to symbolize our company’s new frontiers of exploration. At the same time, it connects to our identity: Aditya in Sanskrit means “the sun.” A sun is part of the logo for the Aditya Birla Group, which is named for our late chairman and founder.

S+B: Day by day, what are some of the adjustments people are making as the company moves outside India?
We are learning to use information technology to coordinate work across regions and reduce travel. The time discipline required can be a challenge for Indians. Very few Indians are particular about time. A 2:30 appointment doesn’t necessarily mean 2:30 sharp. But when you have a videoconference or teleconference with seven people, and you are the only one not there, you cannot catch up later. You have to be on time.

The Birlas have always been vegetarians, and for a long time, vegetarianism was a core part of food preparation in our cafeterias. At company functions, we never served anything non-vegetarian. Three or four years ago, I discussed this matter with our chairman. What people eat is a very personal habit. We agreed it was time to serve different kinds of food. We started by serving cuisines from other countries — some Asian, such as Thai, some Western, such as Italian — at corporate functions.

S+B: But the accommodations must go both ways.
Absolutely. I think the globalization process has created a tremendous learning culture in the organization. People take the attitude that, “These are new colleagues, with new systems, so what can I learn from them?” I think we have all been able to learn from one another.

Yet when we have acquired companies, we have felt the burden of learning is heavier on us. You expect employees from the acquired company to learn your ways, but the fact is that you acquired their company, so you need to be even more prepared to understand, accept, and include them. Language is an interesting example. The vast majority of people in India believe they speak English, but people speak English differently in different parts of the world. This has required us to be much more conscious of differences in our oral and written communications.

S+B: What are some of the most pronounced differences in management styles and operating philosophies you have found between Indian and U.S. companies?
The way we look at corporate governance in India is very different from the way it’s looked at in the West. In India, when we talk about a “promoter-driven” organization such as the Aditya Birla Group [in which initial capital is raised through limited partnerships or direct investments rather than through an exchange], we are usually talking about a company controlled by its founding family, with values that are a legacy from them. This is very different from corporate governance in the Western sense. When we acquire a company, we run courses about our values — first for the top 200 leaders of the incoming company, and then for the rest of the organization.

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