People have often asked me to cite business leaders outside of Europe and the US whom I admire. I thought of this question last week when Ratan Tata stepped down as Chairman of the Indian conglomerate Tata Group, a post he had held since 1991. Of course, Mr. Tata is widely respected for achieving outstanding results during his tenure. He took on great challenges, turned Tata Holdings into one of the most successful entities in global business, while himself becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world.
Beyond these results, though, there are perhaps more important reasons to admire the leader and the man. Here are several:
One can truly say that Ratan Tata mastered the business environment both in his homeland and abroad. Thus, he was able to make some intelligent strategic and human decisions. After taking over from his uncle in 1991, he spent more than a decade redefining the company, turning a sleepy, entrenched national player into an adventurous global one. He succeeded in transforming a deeply entrenched corporate culture by taking on the cadre of barons who had been running the group’s larger companies, replacing them with younger and more dynamic leaders.
Realizing that future opportunities for growth and learning would come from expanding outside of his home nation, he next set the corporation on an aggressive course of international acquisition. In so doing, Tata distanced itself from the bureaucracy and pervasive corruption of the Indian market while taking advantage of the country’s new open economic policies. As a company, Tata was among the first in India to acquire substantial European holdings, including UK-based luxury car brand Jaguar Land Rover and the Anglo-Dutch giant steelmaker Corus.
Today, he retains a grand vision of possibility and an ability to put things in a larger context: In 2012, Tata Group became the first Indian company to reach $100bn in revenues, with more than half of it coming from abroad. But Ratan Tata is not smug or satisfied. Expressing his views on future development, Tata claims that the company should plan to grow far more, that they should shoot for annual sales of more than $500bn within the next decade.
Such a number is indeed a courageous target. To put it in perspective, if they were to achieve it today, Tata Holdings would be at the pinnacle of world business, with revenue larger than Walmart or ExxonMobil.
He also has a broad and optimistic vision for India. In his words, “I am proud of my country. But we need to unite to make a unified India, free of communalism and casteism. We need to build India into a land of equal opportunity for all. We can be a truly great nation if we set our sights high and deliver to the people the fruits of continued growth, prosperity and equal opportunity.”
A lifelong learner who cultivated long-term relationships with mentors: One characteristic I particularly admire in individuals is the ability to keep learning throughout a lifetime, and to maintain lasting relationships with people who aid that learning.
When asked about the people who shaped the way he thinks, Ratan Tata cites JRD Tata, who he worked with in varying degrees of closeness, and John F Kennedy, whom he never met but whose thinking influenced Tata in many ways.
His mentors include Professor Amar Bose, whom Tata describes a person with high ideals and a clear value system. Over many years, Bose had a profound impact on Tata’s approaches to management. Another is Jean Riboud, the former chairman of Schlumberger, a close friend with whom Tata maintained a dialogue about a wide variety of business and human issues.
According to Tata, there’s a common thread these people share: strong values. They all have integrity of a high order and a very forceful social consciousness in terms of what their corporations do. In addition, they are warm, thoughtful and caring human beings.
Clarity about who he is and what he stands for: Tata achieved great professional success without losing sight of his core beliefs, and without compromising his principles. He has always espoused the highest standards of ethics, integrity, social consciousness, and fairness. In India, he is one of the nation’s most revered individuals, enjoying a rare reputation for combining business acumen with irreproachable ethical conduct, in a nation often plagued by corruption.
Humility: Through it all, Ratan Tata has remained a humble man. In interviews, he finds it difficult to talk about himself and his successes in management or life. He describes himself simply as seeking to be fair and just, a manager who tries to be accessible to all the employees. Above all, he says, “I would like to believe I am operating honestly. That is something I am proud of.”