I still remember that day in early 1964 when my father, a high school teacher, was highly distressed at dinner. Dinner time was when the entire family listened to his weighty school-teacher-type pronouncements on the news of the day and the continuum of progress the country was making. He was a great fan of Jawaharlal Nehru and was very optimistic about the future of the country. After dinner, I went to my mother and asked why father was so sad.
She talked about Nehru's sickness and how it had upset father since he was worried about the future of the country. I, too, was distressed since we rarely saw our father in such a mood. That was when my grandmother, a hardly-literate but very clever woman, told her son not to worry - after all the country had survived Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Gandhi.
My grandmother's words are as true today for a corporation as they were then for our nation. Men may come and men may go but corporations should go on forever. Corporations should be designed to survive the loss of giants as well as the misrule of despots. GE has survived the exit of legendary Jack Welch and has, indeed, gone on to greater heights under the current CEO, Jeff Immelt. Goldman Sachs has become stronger under Lloyd Blankfein than it was under Hank Paulson.
My grandmother, a hardly-literate but very clever woman, told her son not to worry - after all the country had survived Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Gandhi.
Nearer home, Reliance Industries has expanded several times under the leadership of Mukesh Ambani after the demise of his legendary father, Dhirubhai Ambani. Ratan Tata has transformed the group of Tatas in a way not imagined. Kumar Mangalam Birla, the shy and self-effacing son of another corporate giant - Aditya Birla - has gone on to extraordinary achievements. Hindustan Lever has made rapid progress even after rare business leaders like Prakash Tandon, Ashok Ganguly and Vindi Banga have left that great institution. It was thought impossible to step into the shoes of N. Vaghul of ICICI but K.V. Kamath did such a brilliant job that only another star like Chanda Kochhar could even dream of emulating his success.
What is it that the departing leaders of these corporations did to ensure that their companies did not trip up when they left the scene? They realised pretty early that their success depended on how well they could create a cadre of future leaders to handle higher revenues and profits, more customers and employees, challenges of innovation and competition, and ever increasing expectations of the society. They created systems for recruiting the best talent from universities and for training these people to aim high, take tough decisions, handle dilemmas, pursue values steadfastly, get their people to reach for the stars, reach out to society, and handle the ups and downs of business with equanimity.