Head man in India: plant manager and village chief

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Take a stroll through one of the main bookshops in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, and it soon becomes clear that executive management textbooks written by global business gurus are among the biggest bestsellers in the country.

Titles such as Being The Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader or Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down are modern classics in India. But the demand for them perhaps reflects a scarcity of executive training courses for high-level managers, who are often looking for ways of building skills that will help them progress within their companies.

With very few exceptions, Indian management institutes do not offer specific training for executives, and existing courses often fail to address the challenges that the company chiefs have to face every day.

This was the case for Sunay Kamat when he became the unit head at a Birla Cellulose plant in a village so remotely located in the western state of Gujarat that it is not listed on Google maps. Birla Cellulose is the umbrella brand of a range of cellulosic fibres produced by Aditya Birla Group, the Indian conglomerate. The fibres are derived from wood pulp and used to produce clothing and home textiles.

The village, Kharach, was developed by Aditya Birla, and Kamat found himself not only head of the plant, but also effectively the village chief and ambassador for the company in the area.

“The challenges I faced working here in this community were completely different from anything I had done before,” he says. “The responsibilities I had to take on were much more challenging and entailed a variety of aspects I had never really dealt with before.”

The village houses the families of the plant’s 2,000 employees and includes a hospital, a school and other facilities for the members of the “Birla family”. Kamat’s job is divided between running the factory and administering the village as if he were its mayor.

“I act as an ambassador for the company here. If anybody has a problem, I’m ultimately the person responsible for sorting it out,” he says. “This is not your usual job. There’s much more to it.”

For Aditya Birla, the task of training 53 unit heads based in remote areas was not an easy one, says H.R. Shashikant, global head of human resources. A standard course would not address the unit chiefs’ unique needs. “We needed to come up with something totally tailor-made for our executives that would help them deal with very specific tasks and conditions they found themselves in,” he says.

Rather than outsourcing the process, the group’s executive and educational experts started putting together a course that would focus on the psychological and emotional aspects of being a leader of both a company and a small community.

“We wanted a course that would help the unit heads confront real-life situations,” says Shashikant. “Our goal was to intervene in a transformative way … we wanted to change people’s mindsets in a wholesome way.”

Aditya Birla sought the help of Duke Corporate Education, which specialises in innovative and flexible learning methods, to put together the five-day course.

“They [Duke CE] conceptualised what we had in mind,” says Shashikant. “They also helped us find the right educationalist and people needed to deliver the classes in the unconventional way we had envisaged.”

The outcome has been remarkable. “The course was life changing,” says Kamat. “Most executive courses try to cram in everything they can in five days. They overload you with homework and you have limited time to actually ponder on what you are learning.”

The approach conceptualised by Duke was less labour intensive and more playful. Real-life situations were recreated by actors, and the executives took part in role-playing games.

“The lecture was a voyage, and the actors who performed for us functioned as a mirror through which we could analyse ourselves,” says Kamat. “It was extremely deep and, for many people, touching.”

Shashikant says a key goal was to make the unit chiefs consider the difficulties they faced and find ways of overcoming them.

Kamat recalls an exercise in which he had to write a farewell letter to the company. The idea was to force the executives to focus on what kind of legacy they wanted to leave behind.

“Writing a farewell letter isn’t easy,” he says. “It is something very emotional … but it has helped a lot to set some clear goals. You need to sit down and think, ‘What do I want to achieve and how do I want to be remembered?’” In a year’s time, the unit heads will go back to their letters to see whether they are on track to meet their goals.

The focus on introspective analysis also helped Kamat discover that he needed to improve his communication skills. “By looking inside me, and not by reading a textbook, I realised that that was an area I had to work on, and things are already improving. The people that work under me know exactly what I want now because I make a special effort to be clear and concise,” he says.

The secret, according to Shashikant, is to give the unit heads the necessary mental preparation to improve in those areas where they feel they are weak.

“There is no standard problem,” he says. “We all have different ways of reacting to situations … the course equips you with the strength to face them, no matter how disparate the challenge.”

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