Are Indian and Chinese Leaders Up to the Job?

Are Indian and Chinese Leaders Up to the Job?tcbrPDF normal

Research suggests: Not yet.

By Rich Wellins

Are Indian and Chinese Leaders Up to the Job?

Rich Wellins is senior VP for Development Dimensions International.

China and India each has a population of more than a billion people. Their economies are poised to grow two to three times the rate of the United States', and up to five times faster than Europe's. And neither country expects to rest on past success—they are striving to move their products and services up the innovation value chain, realizing gains not only in export markets but in serving the rising needs in their own domestic markets.

Future success is hardly guaranteed, though—it depends on the quantity and quality of talent in the top ranks of the companies driving the countries' growth. And that quantity and quality vary widely in China and India—more widely, as it turns out, than in many other countries.

It's no surprise that all over the world, organizations today are desperate for heroes—or that, all too often, the people promoted or hired to top positions prove unprepared for the challenges before them. Worse, their shortfalls are rarely seen coming until it's too late. Human capability, though, is only one player on the stage; context is the other. New evidence from over a decade of executive assessments is shedding fresh light on how, and why, executives respond when thrust into new assignments, and what can be done to better prepare and place leaders into the roles, and contexts, in which they will succeed.

In DDI's recent Global Leadership Forecast, we sampled HR executives and line leaders from more than two thousand companies. Results were illustrative of self-perception as much as preparedness. Compared to China, leaders in India are 100 percent more likely to report they have a sufficient leadership pipeline to meet their future business challenges. And Indian leaders rate themselves as far more effective in just about every major leadership skill area.

At the end of the day, India's leadership quotient appears to be a bit higher than that of China. However, neither country gets bragging rights.

Of course, survey data, particularly self-reported data, tells only part of the story and can be influenced by cultural values. We have discovered that in some countries (including India, Mexico, and the Philippines), survey participants may inflate reality (they are more optimistic), while other populations (such as Japan and China) may deflate reality (they may be less likely to “publicly” assign a high rating to certain types of survey questions). By contrast, data from our Assessment Center—the basis for this piece—is far more reliable and valid. It is based on observations of real behavior exhibited in the same set of assessment-center simulations used across both countries. And center outcomes have been shown to predict leadership performance in countless studies.

What does the data show about Chinese and Indian leaders?

  • In most of the competencies, one-third or more of the assessed leaders have development needs. Regardless of country, there is ample room for significant improvements.
  • India's leaders have significantly more development needs than do their Chinese counterparts.
  • Indian leaders tend to think more strategically, and entrepreneurship, which is strong, is the foundation of success of many Indian corporations. They are also likely to look at the bigger picture in determining the talent required to grow in the future.
  • On the other hand, Indian leaders underperform their Chinese counterparts (by 10 percentage points or more) in many key areas, including coaching, business acumen, driving execution, passion for results, customer focus, leading teams, and global acumen.
  • Chinese leaders tend to be good at bringing people together to execute an established strategy and meet the needs of their customers. But their inordinately strong drive for results leaves them less successful than their Indian counterparts in establishing strategic direction, entrepreneurship, building organizational talent, and selling the company's vision.

Chinese leaders tend to be reasonably self-confident. They will accept leadership roles without being overly competitive. Interpersonally, they will appear somewhat outgoing but may retain an argumentative style. They tend to be conscientious to a fault and to stay relatively current and up-to-date; they can be open to others' ideas but very slow to implement those ideas; they also may be highly volatile and quick to find fault in others. Finally, they may micromanage tasks and demand they be done a certain way—more than likely, the way they have been asked to do so by their superiors.

Indian leaders are also relatively self-confident, competitive, and ambitious, seeking out leadership roles. Interpersonally, they appear more outgoing and open to others' ideas, and more willing to consider changes. They are keenly interested in staying up-to-date and place a high value on formal education. On the other hand, they too are likely to be critical of others; at times, they will seem out of tune with colleagues' needs. They tend to micromanage tasks and demand tasks be done a certain way, but they are less dependent on superiors' guidance than are Chinese leaders.

At the end of the day, India's leadership quotient appears to be a bit higher than that of China. However, neither country gets bragging rights. Their stellar business success over the past decade appears to behave happened in spite of extraordinary leadership rather than because of it. As one Indian CEO put it to me, “High-growth economies can cover up a multitude of sins.”

This analysis leaves us with three key concerns:

  • Leaders at all levels and in both countries will face a continuing need to operate in a high-growth global environment where cost of labor may no longer be a competitive advantage. It is an area that is relatively weak. We expect the challenge will be tougher for Chinese leaders, where there are fewer examples of best-in-class multinational operations.
  • Tomorrow's currency of competition relies on innovation. The profiles (both behavioral and personality-based) paint a picture of leaders who are risk-averse and not overly open to change—not good innovation signs. And many lack the skills to foster a highly innovative work environment.
  • Finally, Indian and Chinese CEOs who participated in The Conference Board's 2013 CEO Challenge survey ranked human capital at the top of their list of concerns. Indeed, nearly all of the top challenges listed are highly dependent on companies' ability to attract, develop, and retain highly capable people. And a highly capable workforce, is, in turn, largely based on highly capable leadership. For both China and India, having the right leaders in place at the right time remains both the biggest barrier and biggest threat.


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