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The Challenge For Indian Executive Is To Become More Multi-Disciplinary: David Heckman

Wharton Executive Education’s Senior Director David Heckman speak about the challenges and possibilities that upcoming CEOs must embrace in order to scale in this rapidly moving and changing business world

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How must a CEO think? Wharton Executive Education’s Senior Director David Heckman, who was in India recently to launch two marquee courses — General Management Programme and Advanced Finance Programme — spoke to Clifford Alvares, Senior Associate Editor, BW Businessworld on the challenges and possibilities that upcoming CEOs must embrace in order to scale in this rapidly moving and changing business world.


What do you think of the Indian executive education market and where do you see yourself in that space?
Wharton Executive Education is the go-to place for someone senior to get global exposure and the intellectual knowledge that resides in the faculty in terms of the research that they have done, and cutting-edge practices that have been identified. The end outcome for all these executives is primarily intellectual capital, and the social capital of networking with people across the globe. It’s intended for someone to learn how to lead the organisation.

Since 98, we have offered the Advanced Finance Programme, which is a five-week residential programme. Our Vice Dean came up with this idea of segmenting the programme and breaking it into six discrete weeks that someone can complete over a two-year time frame, rather than step away from their workplace for six weeks straight.

The curriculum is set by the faculty. So if you want to be a CEO, there are sessions you need to attend to be able to perform that role. In the General Management Program me, there are core classes that you have to take based on what you select with the flexibility to take three programmes of your choice. So, for example, if you’re interested in innovation in organic growth, then after some initial classes, you can take classes on innovation and organic growth. If you’re more interested in M&A, you can take strategy and finance. So each of these courses has a different focus. So depending on what you want to do, where you want to go, you have the flexibility to sort of customize your experience.
How do you see the middle-level management quality in India? What must they look for?
Most people want to be CEO. They want to run the company and depending on what their background is most are looking to round themselves out. So if they grew up in marketing, and they don’t know much about finance and accounting, they may choose the finance and accounting major and really build up their finance and accounting skills to augment their marketing and sales skills. So the idea is, you know, as the enterprise leader, you’re trying to connect all the resources in the organization to deliver value for your shareholders, make your customer happy, and also make main-street happy. The programme enables you to actually define your own path on how to get there.
In this day and age, what would you say how must a CEO think?
The challenge for a CEO today is there’s a lot of new things at play that didn’t exist during the ranks. Being a CEO, you have to be a visionary, you have to have this gift of being able to see around the corner and know what’s coming before everyone else does.

You have to be able to inspire people to want to embrace the change that you have to drive to realize a new direction, and then as a manager, you have to be really good at execution and controlling costs and driving revenue growth. And that’s tough.

Now there is the added complexity of the new digital world of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity and deep learning and Internet of Things, and all these things that didn’t exist when they came up through the ranks. Now, they have to think about how do we use all that to further enable strategy, how do we do that in a way that’s going to create more value for services, create a better user experience and create wealth for our shareholders. I mean, it’s not an easy job.
What do you think of Jeff Bezos as a CEO?
I heard Jeffrey speak at the 2018 Air Force conference. A few things he said that struck were you should be an expert with a beginner’s mind. You should know what you are doing and should be always open to learning from everyone. I love that. This is the notion of lifelong learning. It’s the hallmark of future CEOs. You cannot say you are a CEO, therefore, you know everything. You have to be open to the fact that, every time you walk into a meeting, every time you face a group, that group may teach you something or maybe come up with a new idea.

The other thing he said that I thought was very insightful was about his growth rate at Amazon. On this notion of scale, he said, you know, you want to be big enough so that you can take a punch, but you want to be agile enough to avoid a punch. I thought that’s a great metaphor. He also likened decision-making to walking through a door. There are some decisions or doors where you can walk through and if it doesn’t work, you can go back and try something else. If it works, you can scale and do more of it. On those decisions, you can’t take a lot of time, or you will lose your agility.

On the other hand, there are decisions you make that once you walk through, you can’t go back. Like once you fry an egg, you can’t unfry it. So once you take an organization through that door, you better think long and hard before you open that door and walk through it. For those decisions, you should be taking a lot of time. The trick is to teach young leaders and your organization when do you need to make a fast-decision based on the data you have? And when do you need to be very deliberate and be very thoughtful and take a long time to really think through every implication of that decision before you walk through that door. And that art is a very hard thing to teach.

What is your experience with Indian management? What are the key takeaways for the Indian CEO that you can share? 
I will refer to work for my faculty colleagues Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Michael Useem who wrote a book called The India Way and one of its big takeaways is Indian executives are open to learning from anyone. A lot of companies and countries have this issue of only doing things that are invented in their own organisations, which is the ‘invented here’ problem. In other words, they only like it if they have invented it.

The Indian executive is really good at saying we don’t care where it’s invented, if it’s a good idea, we should do it. That’s a huge plus for India. Indian executives are disciplined. They are some of our best students. They’re the ones that read every page of the case study, and do all the homework and suck the marrow out of the learning experience, more than most executives. They have a high passion for education.
So what is the challenge for the Indian executive in terms of learning?
The challenge for Indian executives is that they tend to be centered on their core. So if they are in accounting and finance, they think more often like they’re in accounting and finance. And if they grew up in engineering, they think like engineers. The challenge for them is to think, How do I go around to the top to become more multi-disciplinary? Or, say, if one is from the humanities, How can I use algorithms to make better decisions? So no matter what your area is, you need to learn how to think like other disciplines, be more inclusive and bring that to your company.
Not many Indian companies have scaled, certainly not anywhere like Jeff Bezos in a short time. Why? 

I would like to think that you have some very big companies like Larsen and Toubro and Reliance. You have Biocon, which has scaled from a niche player to a massive drug company. You have pockets of success. I would say companies in the rest of the world struggle with the same issue. Scale is tough. To bang out anything more than 15, 20 per cent year over year is really hard. There are not many Jeff Bezos’ in the world that know how to do it. Jeff, I think, is the poster child of success because of that gift and there are  not very many like him.