Ratan Tata’s legacy goes much beyond the Tata Group; much beyond industry in general. It is a legacy on which New India needs to be built.
Ratan Tata is one of the very few who have given concrete shape to the concept of a New India. Coincidentally, this modern, New India was squeezing itself out of the eggshell, as Ratan took charge of the Tata empire at Bombay House. I believe in his sketch book the specifications of New India were pencilled thus: contemporary, yet classic; audacious, yet humble; tough, yet humane, and yes, pervasively ethical.
New India personified
Ratan Tata no doubt believed that the Tata Group had an obligation to reflect, if not lead the creation, of this new persona of New India, at least in the industrial sphere. And, when he got the group to adopt these traits, he did so, without beating the drums — just naturally, simply.
Ratan Tata’s initiatives to contemporize the Tata portfolio, through jettisoning a few sunset industries and foraying into sunrise industries have been well documented. This he did, whilst the future of India was still hazy, although bright.
Precise industry segments that would exponentially grow were as yet unclear. But then, leadership is all about navigating through ambiguities. It cannot be anybody’s case that Ratan got all the bets right. An entrepreneur is considered brilliant, even if six out of ten bets turn out winners. Ratan Tata’s score is decidedly higher.
Even those companies that he retained in the portfolio were required to go through a massive change, comprehensively encompassing their products, processes and culture. I have personally drawn inspiration from the transformational story of Tata Steel. Indeed, there were other companies and groups which undertook sweeping changes from top floor to shop floor, which imparted a new sense of dynamism to Indian industry during the ember years of the last and the early years of this century but it is fair to say that the Tata companies were in the vanguard of this movement.
Keeping the faith
Yet, in the dazzle of modernity that the Tata group was embracing, history was not rubbished nor denied its honour. Bombay House, solid and sepia, and not some glass and steel skyscraper at Bandra Kurla, has remained the sanctum of the Tata empire. I have always been astonished by the pride of the Tata heritage that employees wear on their sleeves. There are few business groups that have achieved a happy synthesis of the contemporary and the classic as neatly as the Tatas.
New India is yet to figure out how to get the concoction of the old and the new right. Yet, I think, India has fared better than China. When you visit a modern Chinese city, you could be pardoned if you thought that someone took a giant wet cloth and cleared the place of all vestiges of its three thousand years’ history. Perhaps, India has too much of the ancient, too little of the modern — in culture, food, clothes, music, everything. New India could take some leaves from the Tata Group to achieve the right proportions in the cocktail of the past and the future.
Humble audacity or audacious humility sound like oxymorons. But that’s the character that Ratan Tata has managed to impart to the group. When Tata bid for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), it was decidedly audacious. There were many in the auto industry, including me, who thought this would turn out to be the fatal flaw in the auto business of the Tata Group. But even so, none failed to admire Tata’s guts. It should also be noted that the JLR conquest was devoid of triumphalism. I once heard Ravi Kant, then CEO of Tata Motors, describe how Ratan urged everyone to remain humble in their interactions with the Koreans when Tata Motors acquired the Daewoo CV business. Courage and humility both flow from the same springhead: self-belief.
When you meet Ratan Tata, it is difficult to think of him as a tough person. He is invariably gentle and courteous. Yet, in the very early days of his stewardship, he showed remarkable toughness, when he set about dismantling, what was referred to as the ‘Satrap’ structure. That structure of autonomous federalism, he figured out, was inconsistent with the concept of a modern business conglomerate. Business schools can debate the right structure for a group like the Tatas, but I doubt, if there is one correct answer. But then, the issue is not about structure, but the need for toughness to push one’s agenda in the face of opposition and challenges.
Organizational behaviour almost always mimics the character of the leader. While I have heard anecdotes of Ratan’s sense of compassion, it was the conduct of the employees during the terrorist attack on Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, that so eloquently articulated the ethos of not merely the leadership, but of the entire organization. That will go down in the global history of organizational behaviour, as an unprecedented water mark. Organizational values are not what you print and hang on the office wall. They are what show up, when under test.
Ethics, has, for long, remained a strong attribute of the Tata brand. There are many in Indian industry, who would argue that, given the political milieu it is indeed impossible for any business to stay lilywhite. I would, on the other hand, argue that there are not many leaders who would even attempt to set high standards of ethics whilst they constantly gripe about social decadence. Ratan Tata, I believe, was genuinely committed to business ethics being the anchor of all commercial pursuits. That in itself is worthy of emulation. The recent explosive expression of public angst against corruption, the ‘Indian Spring’, is a welcome proof of the people’s deep desire to see better probity in public life. Any national leader should see an immense opportunity to ride this wave to write a new script for an ethical society.
I might severely risk credibility if I hold out that Ratan Tata managed to impart excellence uniformly in all the attributes in all the organisations in the Tata empire. Even Divinity allows for aberrations. That he managed to raise the bar in the Tata Group is undeniable. That he set new benchmarks is equally unquestionable. That he did so, because of his larger vision about the emerging New India is my hypothesis. Here’s then the proof of concept; proof that change is possible; change to excel is feasible. It is for others to take this forward.
(R. Seshasayee, Executive Vice-Chairman, Ashok Leyland, had the chance to closely follow Ratan Tata as a contemporary, a competitor and a colleague in forums such as CII.)