Each year, the World Economic Forum selects 100 leaders from both the corporate and public space based on an impartial, global selection process to be recognized as Global Leaders of Tomorrow. The Global Leaders of Tomorrow (GLT) recipients hold positions of considerable influence and responsibility, and have demonstrated their capacity to shape future agendas in their communities and countries as well as the world at large. Other GLT’s in the past have included Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, and Arundhati Roy. Among the GLT class of 2003, there is an HBS student, Srivatsa Krishna (OI). Srivatsa topped the Indian Civil Services Examination in 1994 and joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). This is considered to be one of the toughest examinations in the world, and each year about 500,000 compete for 50 positions. He is currently also co-authoring a case study as part of an ISR with Professor Michael Porter on technology clusters and economic development in India. He was most recently part of the core IT team of the Government of Andhra Pradesh and was responsible for some of the key investment promotion and e-government initiatives there. He is also a noted columnist and writer, and is currently working on a book on Leadership and e-Government Strategy.
Srivatsa made time among his numerous interviews to meet with the Harbus and talk about India, his experiences in government, and what it means to be a leader. He also talked about his experience at HBS, only shadowed by the fact that his mother, who came with him to the US, is critically ill. It has been tough for him to be a good student and son at the same time, but his gratitude for all her support, thanks to which he has accomplished great things, is more prominent now in light of this international award.
Let me start by congratulating you on your nomination as a GLT, and ask you what are the highlights of the career that has taken you to this position.
Thank you. My career has been varied, and rather than take credit, all I will say is that I’ve been blessed with having been at the right place at the right time. I would start with being selected for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). This is a very rich experience because from very early in your career you are given positions of significant public leadership, which can be anything from heading an economic sector to a whole geographic area. More recently I was working as part of the core strategy team of Chandrababu Naidu, the elected Governor of the State of Andhra Pradesh (AP). He is considered probably the most progressive government politician in India for the last few decades, and he is often looked upon as the future prime minister for the country. I was fortunate because he saw some of the work I had done in Delhi and called me to come and work with him. I would say that the four years I spent in AP are equivalent to twelve years elsewhere! We would start in the morning at 3 AM and work to 11 PM every single day for four years. We had a sense of destiny guiding us, that we were doing something special.
The most exciting part of my career was being involved in the team that created CYBERABAD (India’s emerging Silicon Valley), a fancy name that is meant to resemble Hyberabad, the State Capital. We created this new municipality of about 5,200 acres, using in part our only roadmap, Prof. Michael Porter’s cluster framework, of which we had seen some successful examples around the world like Malaysia and Singapore. So with this compass and very little history to guide us, we almost created history. In 5 to 7 years we created Asia’s largest and fastest growing technology cluster. Every major IT company in the world has a presence there, including Microsoft’s only offshore development centre outside Seattle. So you can imagine the achievement for a state that previously was nowhere at all in the IT maps of the world! But I’d say we still have a long way to go.
Given the relative attractiveness of joining the corporate versus the political sector in India, why did you decide to go into public space?
I am not in politics. I am a civil service officer in the permanent executive (as opposed to a politically elected executive). I stay in office irrespective of which party comes or goes. In this respect, India follows the British model, which is different than the US one. It is true that during the past 5 to 7 years, the bigger allure of the private sector has proved to be a major competitive threat to recruitment for the IAS. However, the IAS is still considered to be one of the most challenging careers in India today, attracting the best and the brightest, and it is a big challenge to get into it for it has an acceptance rate of 0.0002%!
What attracted me to it is the fact that I fervently believe that bringing about change in the public space is infinitely more difficult than bringing about change in the private sector. The order of magnitude and the complexity involved are not on the same scale. Doing change in the public space is one of the greatest challenges in any society.
Let’s take a step back and talk about India’s broad situation. In the past WEF Summit, a target of 8% growth for the next 20 years was discussed, but it will not be achieved without prior implementation of economic reforms. What are the most important of these?
India is today coming at the vanguard of the information revolution, and the seeds of our future lie there. The most important reforms are needed in several areas, first and foremost building world-class infrastructure through private / public partnerships. India needs critical infrastructure: telecoms, roads, and ports in order to develop.
Other investments are needed in social infrastructure, mainly healthcare and primary education. Investment in our people is basic if we want capitalism to show us its “magic”, because it will not work unless these basic institutions are in place. And finally, we need to build and manage the “India Inc.” brand, which is now coming onto the world stage thanks to the IT revolution. My favorite joke is that the ICs of the Silicon Valley are not integrated circuits; they are Indian and Chinese engineers…so managing this brand over the next several years and to be the global leader in this sector is a challenge for the government.
Of course, there are rules and laws that need to be changed. If we manage to get these four right, we will have solved 70% of our problems. The other challenge is to remain a vibrant democracy, amidst various fissiparous forces. Growing at a pace slower than what we can otherwise do is the price we are paying for being a multi-ethnic democracy. Societal discipline is important for growth but there are great benefits in the long term to being a democracy.
Along with economic growth, there is much concern about the social changes that need to come with it. How do you go about making such a difficult change?
I personally believe that jingoism of any kind is wrong, and those who hold fundamentalist views will not go very far. The real value of life lies in finding the middle part among always-conflicting views, which are present in every doctrine. Our job as leaders is to find that middle point that draws upon the best of each strand.
Having said that, India is a very diverse country in terms of languages, religions, and communities. The challenge is to enlarge the pie rather than to fight for slices of it, which is what has happened up to 1991. At this point we unleashed a set of economic forces which infused dynamism in the economy, and have enabled the pie to enlarge. This is what we should aspire for, so that it becomes inclusive with more and more disadvantaged people being a part of the growth. To serve as an example, the reforms we implemented in AP have lowered the level of urban poverty by 10% in the past 6 to 7 years, which applied to a population of 76 million people is a huge achievement. The key lies in the quality of the growth, which needs to be inclusive.
What is the role that private corporation
s and NGOs can play in India’s development?
Their role is huge and we have seen it happening in the last ten years where the private sector has risen to the challenge of being at the forefront of wealth creation. I don’t believe governments create wealth; they can facilitate the process or destroy it.
Until 1991, the private sector was sheltered from all forms of competition. They were happy under the protectionist umbrella and were not willing to innovate or be more productive. This changed with the reforms, but there is still a long way to go. I don’t believe that we have reached the destination or that there is a destination at all, but rather it is a journey. Once exposed to the cold winds of competition, the private sector firms have shaped up and are doing well. Similarly, the government has started to partner with NGOs in areas where it is not flexible enough to deliver development.
As part of your job in AP you were involved in the design of the vision for 2020 with McKinsey & Co. How did you communicate this ambitious message to the people in order to get them motivated and involved in the project?
My job was twofold. First, it involved in managing the AP brand and attracting foreign investment from IT firms into the state. The second part was crafting the IT blueprint for the state, for which I was seconded to work with McKinsey. This was the first time they had contracted to work for a sub-national government in the world. The project involved multiple sectors, and how the state could leverage its strengths in all of them, IT being a common thread. It was the first time in India that the government was looking outside itself for answers. It was an extraordinary moment and signal to the world that AP was arriving.
The buy-in was not so much our job as civil service officers, but the political masters job, especially the Chief Minister, whose political genius made it all happen. I believe Chandrababu Naidu is a seminal point in Indian Politics as well as in Indian development. He combines the best of focusing on development and yet managing the political dynamics of it. I don’t think any political leader in independent India has brought about so much reform in such a short period of time. Whatever success I have achieved, it would not have been possible without his political leadership. When people ask why it happened here and not in some other state, to me it is like asking why is Magic Johnson the best basketball player or Joe DiMaggio the best baseball player in history. There is a certain genius to these people. And that is what Chandrababu Naidu is – sheer genius.
Can you comment on the key success factors of an e-government initiative in a country like India, where the penetration of computers is so low?
We have this vision that IT has to be a means to leveraging development, and not an end in itself. This means is defined threefold: IT as a tool to attract investments and raise the standard of living; IT in intellectual capital formation; and IT in government. We are world leaders in this third category. The government is committed to delivering anytime, anywhere, anyhow services. We have separated the decision making point from the delivery point for various citizens services. The first one will always be inside the government, because it is a statutory function, but the second one can be anywhere where you can bury a piece of silicon and fiber.
The internet revolution in India is happening through community centers and kiosks located all around the country, where people have access to a telephone line and a computer. So these are the points of delivery, which implies a change in dynamics because now they are in the private realm and subject to competition. If one guy does not deliver, there are a hundred others next door who will. I admit that the low penetration is a problem, because our definition of e-government is to capture every single interface with businesses and consumers. We are changing that, albeit slowly, for AP is now the home for the world’s newest, fastest terabit cable which is going live soon.
What is the value of your HBS degree for a civil service career compared to other Masters degrees in politics or economics?
I chose HBS because I believe this is God’s own business school. The reasons are four: its learning model, which has consistently produced leaders for generations, not just a decade or two; the God-sent set of classmates who are so amazingly accomplished – the Japanese have a word which I use to describe them -Amakudari – ‘of heavenly descent”; its global brand and alumni network; and its unique intellectual and human capital. Let me also explain with an analogy: leadership is in one sense like a golf shot. Depending on which shot you have to take, you choose the club accordingly. And HBS equips us with the set of tools, and by putting us in real life situations and expecting us to make decisions.
The second part of leadership is the adaptive challenge. We need to distinguish between the immediate technical problems at hand, which can normally be fixed through various competencies, and the adaptive problem, which is usually much more complex and fundamental. What lies at the viscera of a particular dilemma? Why do people see things differently when the facts may be similar? I’m not saying technical questions are not important, but the adaptive part involves changing people’s behavior and mindsets, and that is the real challenge. I believe the HBS education will help me mould my adaptive skills.
Can you share with us any key lessons about leadership which are particularly relevant to developing countries?
I think the greatest challenge for any leader is to be good and successful, both at once. And what I mean by good is to have a set of values and a sense of character which can be the bedrock of every single judgement call. I believe initially institutions produce individuals and later, individuals must produce institutions. The latter is breaking down in the developing world and leaders alone can correct that now.
In your opinion, is India’s model applicable to other countries? How can you leverage the GLT network to implement these changes?
I think India is one of the world’s richest and most progressive civilizations. There is a lot that India can offer to the world, especially when the world is going back to basics, and being at the vanguard of the information and knowledge revolution we have several lessons to share. I think the WEF and GLT networks are very influential, and can be leveraged to fix institutional voids of various kinds that abound everywhere. I also believe that these networks can be used to build trust. I see the world divided into high-trust and low-trust societies. Those that have not done so well are usually low-trust societies, so fostering trust is really important.
Srivatsa has a strong wish for his future: to have the courage and the wisdom to make the right choices in life, no matter how tempting other paths look. He also wants to live up to the expectations of his country and HBS, a community that he truly respects. The Global Leaders of Tomorrow award is surely a head start in accomplishing these goals.