‘Tatas don’t produce billionaires, much of our profits go back to society,’ says Tata Sons Director Gopalakrishnan

Mr R Gopalakrishnan

Mr R Gopalakrishnan, fondly called Gopal, has spent a good 45 years in the corporate world. This includes 31 years at Hindustan Unilever and the last 14 years at Tata Sons, where he is serving as Director. A product of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Mr Gopalakrishnan is also an author and has written three books so far, namely The Case of the Bonsai Manager, When the Penny Drops: Learning what’s not taught and What the CEO really wants from you: Four straight As. He is on his fourth book, which is not even remotely connected to ‘management.’

PaGaLGuY met up with Mr Gopalakrishnan. The Director spoke about his new book and also shared his views on MBA education in the country, its ills and why he never did an MBA.

The Tata Group has been recruiting MBAs for years. Any feedback on how they perform at the workplace?

India produces in the region of 1,20,000 MBAs every year, so called MBAs – those with MBA education. Whether they are PGDM or whatever else. So far as I am aware and this is more anecdotal – not more than 15% have work experience. And 85% if not 90% do an MBA after their BA/B.Com etc. At Tata, we recruit for the top end and in two ways. One, by looking at people with real experience, two, by taking fresh people and giving them real experience so that we make them real. We try to overcome their deficiencies. That is because it is also our job to take the product and fit it in. So I can’t comment if they are really bad or terrible as other people say so. I am just giving you a background to say it can be possible.

Has the global slowdown affected recruitments at Tata?

The job situation is bad everywhere. Harvard MBAs do not have jobs these days. There is a nexus between health of the economy and recruitment. Economies in Europe are not doing well. Actually, software is not doing too badly, manufacturing has slowed down, and companies are doing some amount of adjustment. The next two years is going to be tough. Careers are slowing down and there are partly global and partly local reasons for it.

Even an MBA degree will not help in this situation?

Management is an applied education, an applied science. It’s not theoretical. The theoretical underpinnings come from economics, science, and psychology. If I go to any other part of applied learning such as dancing or painting, I can’t do it if it is just theoretical teaching. Schools of applied technologies need enough of precept theory and practise. You have 5,000 management institutes in India and that is one of the reasons that young people see MBA as a passport. Management learning is what you make of it.

Education of any kind is an enabling device. People have studied far and not joined a corporate career and vice-versa. Yes, it helps if you are part of a good institute. In Mumbai, if you are part of St. Xavier’s, then yes it is a good thing but more than all this it is what you make of your education which is important.

Is that why you never did an MBA?

There was no MBA at my time. If I had thought of doing it, I would have been in the first batch at IIM-A. I have done an advance management programme from Harvard Business School and I am considered an alumnus but I have not done an MBA. It was not a very fashionable thing at that time. I would have rather studied engineering. MBA education is good thing to have but the criteria of taking people with 3 year’s experience should be in force. In the Indian sociology, you have to finish all your education and then start working, with all family including grandparents waiting to clap. In fact, studying in bits is considered something wrong and that the person does not know what to do, is what family will say.

And then management institutes are also closing down.

The demand for education in India has attached to it quite implicitly, a rider of quality, same holds true for MBA courses too. It is like the less well-off people pay money to send their students to English medium schools rather than free municipal schools. There are lots of regulatory bodies, either attached to the government, MHRD, AICTE, UGC- but there is no quality effective supervision. Ten years ago there were 1600 institutes; the people saw the money coming in and more came in. Some will eventually close down.

What is your new book about?

The book is not on management. It is on changes that happened in society and the country at large, through the eyes of my ancestors. Changes I mean by sociological, historical and economic ones mainly. I have traced my family for generations. I have gone to the year 1824 which is G-minus 6. Traced how the family started in the village. What happened in the country at that time? What influenced them socially and historically and how they changed. The book is not on my family but on how the changes affected them. For instance, I have discussed Tippu Saultan, the Vellore uprising, 1857 revolt and how my family heard of it and how it changed them. The effect of the first steam engine, first newspaper, first post card… Have got it all till my children. I have finished the manuscript. It is on who the people I have met in my life etc. what lessons did I learn from them.

Your earlier books touched upon management, not this one? You have fancy titles also.

If you are the literary type you will like the titles but if you are management type, you will not. Management people like to read books on ‘how to impress your boss.’ But the third book was about how to impress your CEO. Actually, even publishers have a say in the title – if you have a title like One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, people will fly over your book.

I have written books in 2007, 2010, 2012 and though they are management books, they are on life. They apply to every kind of a person. The first book on Bonsai Manager was about intuition. We all have to be intuitive. Be it a policeman, doctor, we all have to be intuitive if we have to do something better. The second book was about self-awareness. The most difficult person to know is oneself. If you think you know yourself, you know your body, do you know your brain, your physiology. Even a doctor does not know.

Third was treating your boss like a customer – if you notice, we never treat our boss like a customer. But if you realise that if given a choice, the boss would have done the whole job himself. A employee often thinks of a boss as an exploiter for getting work done out of him. But try looking at your boss as a customer, you will take his instructions better and actually understand him.

So you provide stereotypical solutions in your book?

Most management books are written by academics and after doing much research. They have interviewed some 5000 people and they want to say something profound, and they should. I am not an academician and I do not offer formulae as there is no formula. I will never buy a book which says how to score a century in cricket all the time. There have to be failures. Am saying I have walked in the streets for 45 years. I have learnt a lot. I will not tell you how to do it. I write experiential books, what an older person will tell a younger person.

You won’t find Martin Luther King writing about management or Peter Drucker on how to lead your life. But there is a space between management and life which I am drawn to. What is the use of all cosmetics if you have not made yourself up internally?

Why so much of philosophy?

At my age, what do you do? When you get older, you look at things dispassionately. When you are younger you want things more involved – it is more like hurry up, I want a job, hurry up, I want a child. At 25, you cannot be philosophical and 55 you have to be philosophical. I have a dhobi box and I keep tossing my ideas into the box. I keep rummaging my dhobi box for ideas. I get my ideas from the box. I like story telling which not a good thing in management.

If you can convert your learning, it will be the best MBA, you don’t have to be an MBA. I try to write about experiences from real life. I am not Martin Luther King, I am not Mandela. I am an ordinary person. You get books on them, but when I read the books, I feel I am far away. But when I meet my father or my friends, I can relate better as they are normal people. All my stories and experiences are true.

The Tata group has maintained a very ‘social’ image for years.

Yes, Tata cares about doing for society. About 2/3 of Tata’s profits go back in measures that help society. So if you notice, no Tata person can ever be a billionaire, we don’t want to be one, we don’t claim to be one. We don’t want to be number two either. People look for deeper value than money and that is why they work for us and our attrition rate is not bad. No, am not saying we are perfect at it but employees are important for us.

What plans with Goa Institute of Management since you are on its board?

GIM was unstable for a while but now we should be on course. There is a new director who is academically inclined. We have recruited people who are also heavy on the academics side from places like NITIE, Mumbai. We want to produce socially and ethically-aware MBAs.

Any goals to reach, any dreams?

At 67-68, I look at others’ dreams, cannot have my own anymore. Future of other younger people be it my children or others is what I look forward to.