Saturday, May 26, 2012

2 Open Letters and 1 Open Issue

An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes

By Mohit Chandra ||

The author is a partner with KPMG, and these are his personal views. This was published in the NY Times Blog.

Dear Graduates and Post-Graduates,

This is your new employer. We are an Indian company, a bank, a consulting firm, a multinational corporation, a public sector utility and everything in between. We are the givers of your paycheck, of the brand name you covet, of the references you will rely on for years to come and of the training that will shape your professional path.

Millions of you have recently graduated or will graduate over the next few weeks. Many of you are probably feeling quite proud – you’ve landed your first job, discussions around salaries and job titles are over, and you’re ready to contribute.

Life is good – except that it’s not. Not for us, your employers, at least. Most of your contributions will be substandard and lack ambition, frustrating and of limited productivity. We are gearing ourselves up for broken promises and unmet expectations. Sorry to be the messenger of bad news.

Today, we regret to inform you that you are spoiled. You are spoiled by the “India growth story”; by an illusion that the Indian education system is capable of producing the talent that we, your companies, most crave; by the imbalance of demand and supply for real talent; by the deceleration of economic growth in the mature West; and by the law of large numbers in India, which creates pockets of highly skilled people who are justly feted but ultimately make up less than 10 percent of all of you.

So why this letter, and why should you read on? Well, because based on collective experience of hiring and developing young people like you over the years, some truths have become apparent. This is a guide for you and the 15- to 20-year-olds following in your footsteps – the next productive generation of our country.

Read on to understand what your employers really want and how your ability to match these wants can enrich you professionally.

There are five key attributes employers typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your colleagues.

1.You speak and write English fluently: We know this is rarely the case. Even graduates from better-known institutions can be hard to understand.
Exhibit No. 1: Below is an actual excerpt from a résumé we received from a “highly qualified and educated” person. This is the applicant’s “objective statement:”
“To be a part of an organization wherein I could cherish my erudite dexterity to learn the nitigrities of consulting”
Huh? Anyone know what that means? We certainly don’t.
And in spoken English, the outcomes are no better. Whether it is a strong mother tongue influence, or a belief (mistakenly) that the faster one speaks the more mastery one has, there is much room for improvement. Well over half of the pre-screened résumés lack the English ability to effectively communicate in business.
So the onus, dear reader, is on you – to develop comprehensive English skills, both written and oral.

2. You are good at problem solving, thinking outside the box, seeking new ways of doing things: Hard to find. Too often, there is a tendency to simply wait for detailed instructions and then execute the tasks – not come up with creative suggestions or alternatives.
Exhibit No. 2: I was speaking with a colleague of mine who is a chartered accountant from Britain and a senior professional. I asked him why the pass percentage in the Indian chartered accountant exam was so low and why it was perceived as such a difficult exam.
Interestingly (and he hires dozens of Indian chartered accountants each year), his take is as follows: the Indian exam is no harder than the British exam. Both focus on the application of concepts, but since the Indian education system is so rote-memorization oriented, Indian students have a much more difficult time passing it than their British counterparts.
Problem-solving abilities, which are rarely taught in our schooling system, are understandably weak among India’s graduates, even though India is the home of the famous “jugadu,” the inveterate problem solver who uses what’s on hand to find a solution. Let’s translate this intrinsic ability to the workforce.

3. You ask questions, engage deeply and question hierarchy: How we wish!
Exhibit No. 3: Consistently, managers say that newly graduated hires are too passive, that they are order-takers and that they are too hesitant to ask questions. “Why can’t they pick up the phone and call when they do not understand something?” is a commonly asked question.
You are also unduly impressed by titles and perceived hierarchy. While there is a strong cultural bias of deference and subservience to titles in India, it is as much your responsibility as it is ours to challenge this view.

4. You take responsibility for your career and for your learning and invest in new skills: Many of you feel that once you have got the requisite degree, you can go into cruise control. The desire to learn new tools and techniques and new sector knowledge disappears. And we are talking about you 25- to 30-year-olds – typically the age when inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge in the workplace is at its peak.
Exhibit No. 4: Recently, our new hires were clamoring for training. Much effort went into creating a learning path, outlining specific courses (online, self-study) for each team. With much fanfare, an e-mail was sent to the entire team outlining the courses.
How many took the trainings? Less than 15 percent. How many actually read the e-mail? Less than 20 percent.
The desire to be spoon-fed, to be directed down a straight and narrow path with each career step neatly laid out, is leading you toward extinction, just like the dinosaurs. Your career starts and ends with you. Our role, as your employer, is to ensure you have the tools, resources and opportunities you need to be successful. The rest is up to you.

5. You are professional and ethical: Everyone loves to be considered a professional. But when you exhibit behavior like job hopping every year, demanding double-digit pay increases for no increase in ability, accepting job offers and not appearing on the first day, taking one company’s offer letter to shop around to another company for more money — well, don’t expect to be treated like a professional.
Similarly, stretching yourself to work longer hours when needed, feeling vested in the success of your employer, being ethical about expense claims and leaves and vacation time are all part of being a consummate professional. Such behavior is not ingrained in new graduates, we have found, and has to be developed.

So what can we conclude, young graduates?

My message is a call to action: Be aware of these five attributes, don’t expect the gravy train to run forever, and don’t assume your education will take care of you. Rather, invest in yourself – in language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically. This will hold you in good stead in our knowledge economy and help lay a strong foundation for the next productive generation that follows you.

Together, I hope we, your employer, and you, the employee, can forge an enduring partnership.

These were the responses on the NYT site to this open letter:

And here's the rebuttal:

An Open Letter To Prospective Indian Employer

Published on in India

NYTimes India Ink carries a lot of nice things. Sometimes though, it does not. As an example, this hectoring “An Open Letter to India’s Graduate Classes” delivered from a position of moral, ethical and overall-I-am-awesome-and-you-are-not superiority. Here is my response.

Dear Prospective Indian employer,

This is your prospective/current employee. We are your Indian workforce,the worker-ants who build the vaunted “brand name”.You make us work 12 hour-work-days day in and day out. Weekends, for you, are just weekdays with different names. You call us at one in the night and if we do not pick up, you write in our annual evaluation “Does not go beyond the call of duty”. Our low hourly rates are the givers of your dividends. We are asked to guarantee our employment by signing bonds while you, as the company, retain the right to fire at will. And finally, we are the ones who are supposed to feel blessed that you have given us the opportunity to build India’s economic might by writing Java code.

Life is good—except that it’s not. Many of us don’t know it yet though. Having freshly graduated, we are kind of naive. Plus that presentation your HR lady gave us during campus recruitment, the one that had taken-off-the-Net stock images of smiling happy white people, was rather impressive. “Growing together with the company”, “work-life-balance”, “family”, “we reward performance” . Nice. We should have been gearing ourselves up for broken promises and unmet expectations but then as we said, we are naive. If we were not, we would put greater faith in “I am a Nigerian widow with 10 million dolllars to give you” emails than in that corporate presentation.

Today, we regret to inform you that you are spoiled. You have been spoiled by the “India growth story”, by an illusion that you can continue to make money by relying on cheap Indian skilled labor forever. You have been spolied by a subservient work-force historically conditioned to tremble in front of authority.You have also, it seems, started believing the PR you peddle. As a great man once said “Never get high on your own supply”. So a bit of detox is needed.

So why this letter, and why should you read on, seeing that I am making gross generalizations about “Indian employers”, affixing stereotypical labels on a heterogeneous group. Well if you can make generalizations, so can we. And we are after all 15-to-20-year olds (or have brains like them), so we are sure we can be excused for a bit of counter-ranting.

Well, because based on collective experience of working for Indian employers, some truths have become apparent. Read on to understand what your employees really want, besides leeching office supplies.

There are five key attributes Indian employees typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your fellow Indian companies.

1. You treat your employees like human beings.
A rather basic requirement really. And yet you are unable to satisfy even this. For starters, kindly get rid of the whole “going above the call of duty” thing. No one should be expected to “stretch yourself to work longer hours”. When a large number of people are expected to work over-time, it means that proper allocation of tasks to resources has not been done. Which means a big fail for you, dear Indian employers. It is not ok to call us while we are having dinner or sitting in the hospital waiting room at one at night. Understand the concept of “work-life” balance. If you cannot, take a good look at “global” employer practices, like those in the US and Europe. There people come at 9, go home at 5 oclock and stay home.

2. You pay your employees on time.
Another rather basic requirement isnt it? Someone works for a month and gets paid at the end of it. Except Indian employers do not exactly believe in that simple, time-tested global model. That’s why we hear of big corporations not providing salaries for months and then deriving positive PR when they actually do settle accounts of the lowest-paid of their workers. A friend recently left a job with another big “Indian employer”. They withheld a few days of her pay. Why? Cause they could.

3. You allow people to ask questions, engage deeply and dissent.
If you want to have your employees be original, encourage that activity. Instead what you do is pat on the back the yes-men, those who pitch in to help when boss’s son gets married or drive him to the airport. If you want “out of the box’performance, first of all come up with a word that is more “out of the box” than “out of the box”. Once that is done, kindly devise a corporate strategy that focuses on innovation. Because you see, if you bid for “by-rote” jobs, then you cannot expect your employees to express themselves creatively while still following “processes”. Not that they don’t do so, performing 80 hours of work in 40 does require a lot of intelligence, focus and brains. But if you want Google and Apple-type employees, change your business model first. Maybe, then perhaps maybe, the employees shall follow.

4. You devote resources to building skill-sets rather than “training”.
Dogs get trained. People develop skill-sets. If you really want “great” employees, and yes our educational system does do a lousy job of making graduates, then why don’t you do things right? Exhibit: A friend who, working for a major Indian IT firm, was kept in “training” for a year. This constituted mostly of sitting in meetings where he stayed silent cause he had only a vague idea of what was going on). For variety, he would be asked to read prescribed books and manuals (ramp-up module was what HR called it). He quit a year later, went to the US, got a Masters and now works at a Silicon Valley start-up “thinking outside the box”. The same dumb kaamchor Indian employee. The benefits of good training, I tell you.

5. You are honest and professional.
If you expect your new employees to be honest and professional, set the standard yourself, dear Indian employer. That means no Satyam Shivam Sunderam, no immigrant visa hera-pheri, no cooking of books, no housing five developers in one single room in New Jersey, and other assorted kindly-adjusts that we know happen. If you want to say “Everyone does it” then don’t single out your employees.
So what can we conclude Indian employers?

We, the Indian employee, do not want to send you a message. After all who are you, Indian employer? You are also, individually, Indian employees. Also a product of the same system, with your strategies and ways of doing business mirroring the system’s faults and limitations.

No problem there. Just stop the sanctimonious finger-pointing claptrap.



Blame it on the system

Graduates must take Chandra’s message to heart. But so must parents, teachers and the recruiters themselves

Cubiclenama | Sidin Vadukut |

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at


Earlier this week, many of the Tweet-sending, blog-reading, link-sharing and overall nation-building masses went into a tizzy over a post on The New York Times India Ink blog.

Titled ‘An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes’, the piece by a partner with professional services firm KPMG pointed out a number of shortcomings in the legions of fresh graduates that India produces each year.

“There are five key attributes employers typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your colleagues,” says Mohit Chandra.

The substance of Chandra’s blog post is hard to disagree with. A number of times in the past, this column has talked about the ‘unemployability’ of the vast majority of our fresh graduates. Many of them, including most of those from our top-flight elite institutions, graduate with little more than the ability to pass examinations. (Which ability, I cannot emphasise strongly enough, has no correlation whatsoever with actually possessing knowledge or understanding the subject of evaluation.)

Chandra broadly points out five key shortcomings: poor communication skills, poor problem solving, low engagement, a lack of interest in continuous learning, and a lack of professionalism.

All these are, no doubt, crippling problems for any individual in any walk of life, leave alone fresh graduates. And yes many, many Indian graduates suffer from them.

The post ends with a call to action: “Be aware of these five attributes, don’t expect the gravy train to run forever, and don’t assume your education will take care of you. Rather, invest in yourself—in language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.”

But if Chandra is talking to fresh graduates, he is perhaps talking to precisely the wrong constituency. Because, while I agree that our graduates are hardly manna from heaven, I also believe that they don’t choose to be that way. They don’t transform into shallow, hierarchical, unethical, non-professionals 15 minutes before they graduate.

They don’t sit up and think one day: “You know what? The Indian economy is booming. I am entitled to awesome things. I think I will become a complete tool now.”

I am sure there are some genuine, wilful jerks in our colleges. But the vast majority? Merely products of a system that crushes them repeatedly, year after year, for exhibiting precisely the skills Chandra wants to see more of.

Let us start with hierarchies. A culture that puts elders on a high pedestal, demands unquestioning obedience from children, and shoots non-conformity at first sight, even in companies themselves, has no right to expect its young people to magically blossom into non-hierarchical whiz kids come graduation time. And no business school or graduate college can undo in six years the conditioning that society has done for the first 18.

‘Thirst for knowledge’ must be seen likewise. This thirst cannot evolve independent of schools or homes that encourage inquiry, experimentation and scepticism. While a brief glance at CBSE textbooks indicates that this is changing, we have an educational system that still obsesses with method rather than meaning, and theory rather than practice. And because we are petrified of any subjective evaluation at any level, we equip our young people to deal with a barrage of objective evaluations. This means answering standard questions with standard answers. Where does the issue of non-standard answers, creativity and originality even arise?

Similar observations about professionalism and communication skills can be made. But here colleges and business schools have a greater role to play: skills can be taught and ethics can be imparted.

(I am not even going to get into the issue of what locus corporate India—or corporates anywhere—has to lecture about ethics. That would be too easy, lazy and beside the point. Recently Ernst and Young asked executives all over the world if they would pay a bribe to retain business. Globally, 15% of surveyed executives said they would. But in India, 28% said they were ready to bribe for business. India performed worst.)

But even if you account for social conditioning, poor schooling and inadequate training in college, there is still one step in the graduate employment process that should push back and help unsettle the entire chain: the hiring process.

Simply look at the process of campus placements, where companies can hire in a highly controlled environment. They have access to all the students they want, all the resumes they need and often don’t have to negotiate salaries at all: campus jobs usually come with standard pay packets.

Unless things have changed drastically in the last decade, I recall companies picked resumes and prepared short-lists primarily on the basis of academic performance. The toppers always get picked. Indeed the factors that Chandra mentions—communication, professionalism, ethics—figure, if at all, only at some later stage.

In other words, where are the incentives for graduates to turn away from books and try other things?

Graduates must take Chandra’s message to heart. But so must parents, teachers and the recruiters themselves.