Managing Top Talent – Lessons from Indian Politics

I have now been in India for the last couple of weeks. Even though I am a US citizen now, I have followed Indian politics with great interest all my life . I have always stayed away from political party affiliations all my life – both when I lived in India as well as when I moved to USA .

Needless to say , all these thoughts are expressed purely in my personal capacity , while looking at the world through the eyes of a management consultant . I make no judgement of what these parties stand for etc in this commentary .

When I read the news of Jyotoraditya Scindia leaving INC and joining BJP, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels with classic top talent management in the corporate jungle I am familiar with .

The common factor you see in top talent in any field is Ambition – be it for the pure thrill of winning , be it for money , titles , social status or whatever else . When channeled carefully , ambition works in favor of the organization . When ignored overtly or covertly, the effects could range from extremely low value add to outright sabotage .

1. You can’t act if you don’t know what they want

When you spot such high talent – you should take the time to understand their ambitions and then keep up with it over time since people evolve their ambitions . I have personally been confused many times about my own team when someone asks for promotion when what they really need is a raise – but can’t separate the two without an honest conversation . If I reject the promotion because that’s all I heard directly (and I think the person is not ready to operate at a higher level yet) – I might lose the talent from my team . If I had the conversation and understood the real ask is more money – I might have a chance to retain the talent . But few years later – money might not be the big motivator for the same person – it might be the title , or public recognition or something else . As a leader – you need to know what is the ambition of your top talent at all times !

It’s not clear to me what Scindia Jr wanted ( I can speculate) – and it’s not clear if Sonia Gandhi knew exactly either . But clearly he ran out of patience after a while and walked away . His resignation letter that I saw on twitter was pretty straightforward .

2. There are always organizational antibodies , and top leaders might unwittingly enable them

Tenure is a double edged sword in every organization. Once people get comfortable being kings or kingmakers , they may find it harder to let anyone else too close to power that they don’t care for personally . Merit and potential all tend go for a toss . If the top leaders surround themselves with the same advisors for a long time – it’s inevitable that their ability to spot top talent (or know details of their plans ) will start diminishing .

When top talent sees a leadership vacuum above them, their instinct often is to see if they can fill that vacuum . They enjoy strong leaders they can learn from . It’s one of the difficulties with matrix management systems that talented people might find it odd to see inconsistent quality of leadership . When it gets to a degree they are not comfortable with – they start planning their exit .

In MP politics – it’s possible that Digvijay Singh and Kamalnath perhaps acted as the antibodies preventing Scindia’s growth . They both enjoy the support of the first family .

From the outside, I cannot divine who holds power in INC anymore . In theory it has to be Sonia Gandhi and her two kids . But Rahul has clearly said he is not in charge . So I am guessing it’s some combination of the old guard war horses like Ahmed Patel and AK Anthony who are holding the fort together . That might have at least partly convinced Scindia that the juice is perhaps not worth the squeeze to hang on much longer

3. Top talent might not even make a big fuss when they don’t get what they want

This is a big problem – a lot of high caliber people do their work and wait for their leaders to reward them for it . They may very gently raise it with their leaders from time to time – but generally stay away from getting a reputation of being aggressive . They have the confidence that they can easily get what they need outside their current organization and that is why they don’t create the fuss .

Leaders who ignore this aspect usually realize their folly only after the proverbial horse has bolted from the barn . These are not the type of people who will stay for a last minute counter offer – unless perhaps it’s earth shatteringly good !

Scindia did everything he was asked for but never got a proportionate reward . And when he left – perhaps the only offer to make him stay would have been to offer INC president’s job . And that’s unimaginable in INC – considering an ailing Sonia Gandhi has to take up the role when Rahul Gandhi walked away !

4. They build strong knit teams and take those teams with them

There is an exponential effect when you can’t retain top talent . They are natural leaders for whom their teams love to work . And when such people leave – their teams tend to be quite demotivated and will try to leave with them as well . You cannot hold people against their will for very long – and the price to pay is high . I have often seen this with sales leaders in corporate world where the best sellers generally follow the VP from company to company .

Scindia has a loyal team in MP and will naturally take his people with him to BJP .

5. While you are ignoring, competitors are watching

This is one of those strange things in life . You have extremely talented homegrown people that get taken for granted at a certain point . You might salivate looking at the talent at your competitors and worry about how you can poach them . At that point – the competitors are also plotting strategies on how to get your best people . It’s very very hard to get senior people to move when they are happy and content . But when they feel continually overlooked – it’s relatively easy to convince them to jump ship . Most competitors keep contacts warm with top talent in the industry for this reason . They wait for the right timing to make their case and force a decision in their favor .

BJP – even on a foggy day – could have seen from a mile that Scindia was not getting his due from INC . His own aunt is a senior BJP leader and CM . So they made it work and INC should have totally seen it coming .

6. Reputations are hard to win and easy to lose

Organizations that can’t hold their good people lose their reputation steadily . Then it evolves over time into a self feeding frenzy where the remaining top talent starts to wonder whether they are being stupid to hang around any longer , and start jumping ship . This is hard even when times are good . But when times are bad – this could become a real nasty problem .

That’s why in both good times and bad , organizations need to make room for people to grow . This often needs removing some from the top to make it work especially when times are bad . Those are hard decisions without a doubt . But if that’s not done systematically – the old guard will stay and not add additional value , while the up and comers will find a low ceiling and they leave .

INC (also other parties) has a long history of their leaders leaving them because they run out of runway – Scindia Sr ( who once even best Mr Vajpayee in Gwalior ) , Sangma , Pawar … there are lots of examples from the past . But when the party was in power, they could live with it . Now INC is in trouble and they can’t handle attrition that easily . If they don’t mend their ways – others like Sachin Pilot maybe the next to look for greener pastures .

So who is doing good talent management in Indian politics ?

Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi both come to mind upfront . Rao brought it talent like Manmohan Singh as his FM and that was brilliant for INDIA and INC . Rajiv brought in young talent of the time like Gehlot , Pilot and Scindia to prominence and largely those moves worked well too . But somehow INC lost that muscle after Rajiv’s and Rao’s time .

BJP seems to be doing a fine job now ( of course like INC , they also deserve some criticism on a few choices ) in building talent from the ground up . Modi , Naidu , Rajnath Singh etc all grew up the ranks and gained valuable experience before getting their current jobs . Some (though not Modi himself) were party presidents for a bit before getting cabinet postings . That investment in systematic and long term talent management seems to help them grow their influence over time .

I hope INC addresses its talent problem pretty soon in a comprehensive fashion. India needs at least two strong national parties to be an effective democracy . A democratic INDIA is an absolute must for its citizens and for the world at large .


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

2 thoughts on “Managing Top Talent – Lessons from Indian Politics

  1. Great blog Vijay..The current congress leadership is blind to talent. In Andhra, it let go Jaganmohan Reddy whose father, YSR Reddy is very close and owes his success to Rajiv Gandhi. There is no system of merit in the party and more importantly the party is pursuing wrong and bad talents…I thought Sachin Pilot and Scindhia will be made CMs of Rajasthan and MP considering all the hard work they did in the state elections.


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