In a career that has spanned over three decades and several exotic postings, Girija Pande, chairman of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Asia Pacific (APAC), has picked up unique lessons from each of his stints. Thanks to a childhood spent moving to new places, learning different languages and making new friends — his father was in the Indian civil service, which meant frequent postings to different places — Mr Pande has learnt to be at ease with change and fresh challenges.
After studying mechanical engineering at BITS Pilani, he did his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), and then joined Grindlays Bank (now ANZ Grindlays).
Having spent nearly 30 years in APAC — including Korea, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Thailand — he has a deep love for the region. “These countries gave me a very good sense of the region,” he says. “There were two key learnings: the first is that Asians are very pragmatic and the second is that social order is paramount for rapid development. Order is paramount in the Confucian way of thinking; it is very different from what I had seen in India, even though it is part of Asia.”
Off the beaten path
From the APAC region he moved to Bahrain, to head the investment banking operations in the Middle East of ANZ Grindlays. “It was a new role and a different region,” he recalls. “I experienced a stark contrast of cultures and work ethics.” He gives an example: in Korea, his driver of two years was never late. But in Bahrain, his driver, though a nice chap, was invariably late and usually had a plausible excuse. “India is somewhere in between,” he smiles. Apart from business, Mr Pande indulged in his love of historical places and eagerly soaked in the culture and history of the Middle East by travelling to Egypt, Jordan, Petra and other places.
Later, though given an opportunity to move to London, Mr Pande took the difficult but pragmatic decision to return to India. “My children were growing up and had moved many schools, just like me, and I felt it was time for them to be rooted in India. I was also horrified to realise that they did not understand cricket, and were more into the FA cup!”
But soon his two children grew up and left the nest, leaving Mr Pande with a feeling of restlessness. A bout of introspection brought about an unusual realisation: “I thought to myself that I did not want my grandchildren to know me only as a boring banker.” And so Mr Pande, at the young age of 50, ventured off the beaten path and away from banking.
“Age is not a factor in taking risks. You can take a risk at 20 and you can take a risk at 50. I felt I was getting complacent in one industry and wanted to test myself. I was always a dissatisfied entrepreneur.” Having created many new entities within ANZ Grindlays — his last role was as chairman, ANZ Grindlays Asset Management Company — he was inspired by the dotcom boom to take the plunge into the IT space.
He initially joined a financial group in Singapore, which created software for wealth management. A few months down the road, in 2001, then TCS head S Ramadorai approached Mr Pande to set up the APAC business for the company. “I told Ram that I didn’t know much about IT but was willing to learn. And he responded by saying: ‘We have 30,000 people in IT. We need business people who have a sense of the region’.”
Joining the fold
This was the second time that Mr Pande had received an offer from a Tata company — the first had been when Tata International offered him a job in 1975 after IIM-A as executive assistant to the managing director. He did not decline the offer this time. “I feel strongly about the Tatas because of the ethical values of the group; these are global values.”
Mr Pande was instrumental in pioneering TCS’s move into China, his earlier experience in that country standing him in good stead. Within two years of setting up the first office in Hangzhou in 2002, TCS was selected by the Chinese government as their strategic partner to create an offshoring industry for China. Soon TCS offices were set up in other APAC countries — Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, followed by the Asean nations Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. “It’s been hectic. Today TCS has business in 13 countries in the region with 7,500 consultants on the roll,” says Mr Pande with a sense of pride.
The importance of localisation
In all this, he never forgot an important lesson learnt at ANZ Grindlays — localisation or developing local talent and leadership. “A company is global if it has a global footprint, global capital and global talent. TCS has 20 nationalities working in APAC. Around 45 per cent of our on-site associates are Asians and senior managers are mostly local,” he adds.
Mr Pande loves working with young people at TCS. The average age of a TCS-er is 26 years, some of them younger than his children. “The first thing I tell them is that anyone who calls me ‘Mr Pande’ will be fired,” he laughs. “You have got to open your door, make yourself accessible, develop a team and think like them. Age should not be a barrier.”
While growing up, Mr Pande’s mentor was his father, a successful civil servant with immense strength of integrity. “If your structure and foundation are strong, everything else falls into place. These are the fundamental traits on which you build other qualities,” says the TCS APAC chief. He bemoans the fact that today’s parents spend too much time on teaching children skills when actually what they need to teach is values and fundamental rules of life. He feels that the focus on academic achievement can stunt development of other parts of the personality, a challenge faced by organisations as well. “We are so busy with metrics that we forget to focus on developing soft skills and leadership traits.”
Mr Pande tries to fill that gap by encouraging mentoring in TCS, so that senior people, who have learnt through experience, can give back to the organisation. “Ram, who has been a good friend, philosopher and guide, is a great listener, a key quality for a mentor.” He believes mentors must also have the ability to talk bluntly without being rude; to be able to have difficult conversations; to be firm but fair and patient.
With people and companies developing at a rapid pace, there needs to be that much more effort at developing leadership talents. His advice to freshers out of B-schools: “Have a very strong skill base and as you get more senior, develop strong leadership skills.” He lists the qualities that global managers require in today’s environment: a strong cultural sensitivity, an ability to look beyond the horizon and cross-industry experience.
Acknowledging that he has an impatient DNA and that he has more often been committed to corporate life than to his family, Mr Pande is now focusing on building the TCS brand. “Our customers know us and love us; that’s why we are doing well. But we want to build the brand in the region among decision-makers, government leaders and the corporate world. There is a need to be forceful about building your brand without being overt.” So he spends a lot of time talking passionately about TCS at forums and seminars as a thought leader. He was recently the recipient of the ‘Leading CEO’ award by Singapore Human Resource Institute, a government body.
Mr Pande is still on the lookout for new experiences. He has started learning Mandarin, even addressing an Indo-China conference in Delhi in that language. Blogging is another new passion. He is also an avid golfer (‘great for networking’), a veteran bridge player and a trustee of the Singapore Indian Development Association, a government-funded charity. Always seeking new pastures, he is now looking beyond the horizon for a new road to travel.