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BW Businessworld

Catching Them Young

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Amit Sreedharan, Tata Administrative Services (TAS) trainee, was 25 when Tata Motors asked him to head a highly demotivated team of over 70 members struggling to push sales of light trucks in Delhi. "I became a helping hand rather than the boss," recalls Sreedharan. "The experience taught me how to be a good listener." Growing with the team, he also established a base for the 207 DI pick-up trucks in Rajasthan, pushing its market share from 12 per cent to 25 per cent in six months.

Sreedharan is an apposite illustration of the shaping of a global manager at TAS — the 50-year-old leadership development programme deployed by the Tatas. Devised by J.R.D. Tata in 1957, TAS lost its sheen somewhere along the way; but since Ratan Tata launched his modernisation drive, TAS has undergone a major facelift. Not only is it now defined by a challenging entry process, Tatas' top CEOs are guiding TAS. At senior levels, the programme is looking more at people management and networking skills than domain expertise.

"The mandate was to programme it in sync with modern-day realities such as competition," says Satish Pradhan, executive vice-president, group HR, Tata Sons, who was asked by Ratan Tata to invigorate TAS.

In the past two years, TAS has become a serious campus recruiter. Ranked third last year, below McKinsey and BCG, it recruited a record 72 trainees, most of them in the current fiscal, as against an average of five since the 1990s. "During the recession, we had the largest-ever TAS batch of 40 managers," says Rajesh Dahiya, vice-president, talent acquisition and TAS, Tata Sons. "Attrition has been managed at less than 5 per cent and efforts are always on to ensure the pipeline for leadership stays full at any point in time." The biggest ongoing task, says Dahiya, is to create a buzz around the brand.

Getting It Right
Besides multi-layered contests of the Tata Business Leadership Award (TBLA) and the Tata Crucible Quiz Competition, the prospect of presenting ideas to top Tata echelons has lured over 250 students to have a go at the TBLA in the past two years. "Like the IIT entrance, cracking the TAS entrance has become a passion for many students," says Dahiya. High CAT/GMAT scores are a pre-requisite for TAS managers. Unlike curriculum-based tests, smart questions challenge a person's overall views on issues. TAS is presented as a career path with global opportunities and, like the IAS, a career as a TAS manager provides a wide cross-functional, cross-industry exposure.

Structurally, TAS mentor-managers arrive at the campus along with the students and follow their progress. On an average, 40-50 students get a two-month-long summer project at various Tata companies, and carry back stories to tell others. The group considers them its goodwill ambassadors.

TAS managers are considered ‘group resources' for the first five years. During this period they consider career paths both inside and outside a group firm. Their wages are also managed centrally. These managers' progress is carefully tracked, and they are promoted accordingly. On an average, an aspirant changes two jobs inside five years, after which TAS does not monitor their progress.

Former dean of IIM Ahmedabad, Bakul Dholakia, who started an executive training programme at IIM-A, says initiatives such as TAS can augment the leadership needs of growing Indian corporations. At TAS, one international assignment and the learning of one foreign language are mandated. The group is searching 600 B-schools across the world to recruit managers who can handle country-specific cultural issues. Refusing to discuss the money spent on TAS, Dahiya says the sheer effort — over 100 senior Tata managers are engaged in selection, mentoring and training — is invaluable.

The TAS BrassPreviously, the Tata Group was seen as a laggard plodder, but new group firms such as Tata Capital and Tata Auto Components have made the group more attractive in campuses. Tata Capital, for instance, offers strong competition to multinational banks, and has 11 TAS managers. A young face, Brotin Banerjee, 35, managing director of the Tata Housing Development Corporation, joined TAS only 11 years ago, but has handled tough assignments in Tata Chemicals as a brand manager for salt, and was the marketing head for the loss-making Barista. "TAS training is like learning swimming in the sea — you have to deliver immediately under tough circumstances, sometimes reporting to multiple bosses while keeping in mind the hard and soft aspects of a corporation," says Banerjee.

Flexing The Structure
Industry rivals, however, see less value in TAS now. J.R.D. Tata screened institutions such as the London School of Economics to pick up talent, against the current supply from 70 B-schools in India. Since the numbers are small, the sheer scale of effort also draws flak. "A smart executive will handle any situation, with or without diverse experience. That's what talent is all about," says the HR head of a major engineering firm. "Lack of visible growth prospects or direction is a major drawback of TAS."

"The TAS philosophy encourages an individual to develop competencies across a wide range of functions and sectors," says Ishaat Hussain, director of finance, Tata Sons. "My faith in TAS has strengthened over time, as I see many of the capable business leaders within the Tata Group are nurtured by TAS."

"Core competency is getting redefined with every growth cycle," says Dholakia. "Today, a CEO is expected to have certain skills before he learns more about the domain he is going to handle." Since B-schools have limited in-take to train managers, corporations are looking for other means to find leaders on a shorter cycle. L&T and Reliance Industries have started similar internal training programmes.

Sreedharan, already in the thick of action, has one line of advice for aspirants. "If you want long-term and diverse experiences, TAS is a good option. You must be able to appreciate the journey (the experiences), rather than the destination (designations)," he sums up.

s dot menon at abp dot in