Barack Obama is the first American President to visit India twice while still in office. When he leaves New Delhi on January 26, the bilateral benefits of the time invested might flow for a decade or longer—but it will depend on how well both sides manage some of the barriers that have kept the two giant countries from working together well in the past. As executives with deep experience in both countries, we see at least three ways that the President—and anyone developing business in India—can improve the mutual understanding between the two countries.
Focus on Relationships: Business relationships between Indians and Americans, like political alliances, develop over time. Trust cannot be won quickly. While this might seem obvious let us look at the reality on the ground.
Many large American corporations send expatriate executives to India for one- or two-year terms. By the time these arrivals start to understand the textures of India, it is time for them to leave. We see some companies limiting their India offices to suites inside of upscale hotels. Sometimes for three years or more. A few companies locate their India-focused expats in Singapore, Dubai, or Hong Kong. While these are comfortable locations, many Indian customers assume these companies are not yet committed to India. While there is nothing wrong about developing a phased relationship with India, success will be limited if Indians perceive that the relationship is also tentative, not just phased.
Some years ago one of us (Bagla) took a top executive of a major agricultural company from California to India for his first business visit to meet distributors. At the time, many of the legacy distributors operated from tiny congested locations in the heart of the old walled city of Delhi and most offered to meet us at our hotel. We advised the client to accompany us to their place of business instead. While a few of them were embarrassed about their location in the short run, all were impressed by our client’s willingness to brave the dust and noise of Khari Baoli. This outreach started the relationship building on a proper footing.
Proceed with patience: Last September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama took the highly unusual step of writing a joint op-ed piece for the Washington Post. Many seasoned India hands chuckled at the line that pointed out “the full potential of our relationship is yet to be realized.” This is true since small countries such as the Netherlands and Taiwan have larger trading relationships with the United States than India does today. Lack of cultural dexterity on the part of American executives and diplomats is one key bottleneck in developing the relationship more fully.
There is a nuance in the final sentence of that op-ed piece: “Forward together we go — chalein saath saath.” Some Americans are getting impatient with the pace of progress in India already because they have interpreted this message as “Let’s run together.” We think that it is better construed as “Let’s walk together.” And you must walk in India before you can run. Such walking can build more durable and productive business relationships. One such enduring corporate relationship is a 50-50 joint venture between Tata Motors of India and the Cummins Engine Company of Indiana. Most advisors would propose a 51-49 JV in India to be clear who is in control. Co-equal shares imply and require the kind of trust that is built by walking together before you run or fly.
Adapt your communications style: In dealing with Japan, China or Germany, most Americans recognize that they need a translator or interpreter. But not in India. There is an illusion of full communication since most of them appear to speak English. There are two layers of fallacy in this assumption that lead to stress.
The first layer that becomes apparent to visitors is the use of Indian English. In India a hotel can sometimes mean a restaurant, a bullet can be model of a motorcycle that sells more than Harley Davidson, and a bisleri can mean bottled water. Someone might ask President Obama if he likes curd (plain yoghurt) with his Indian dal. If there are hoardings along Sardar Patel Marg to welcome him and his team at they drive in from the airport, we are just talking about billboards.
There may be talk about the loin (lion) represented in the “Make In India” logo, particularly if the Indian speaker is not convent-educated. The visiting Department of Energy team might be told, if they have earned the trust of their Indian counterpart that Mr. Modi hopes to eliminate load-shedding in India. The Education team may hear that some deemed universities want to collaborate with American community colleges. If a senior Indian aide confides, “My Mrs. is out of station so I am not bringing my tiffin with me to work this fortnight,” the Obama team needs to understand that his wife is travelling so he’s not bringing his lunch with him.” These and hundreds of other terms are explained, in the Indian English Dictionary, the busiest section of Bagla’s website.
The answer to the second-layer fallacy cannot be found in a dictionary, however. Sometimes the intent of an entire action is misunderstood. Like most Asians, Indians are indirect communicators, and the normal blunt American style makes them uncomfortable. It is hard for them to decline an unreasonable request, particularly from a foreign visitor. It is difficult, but important for Americans (and Western/Northern Europeans) to appreciate that indirect communication can be equally effective in delivering a message compared to direct communication.
This second layer fallacy creates mismatched expectations on both sides and can erode trust rapidly. One example occurred when, after a prolonged and turbulent democratic process in both countries, and at the high point of the 2008 financial crisis, both houses of Congress approved a landmark civil nuclear agreement between India and the United States. Almost immediately, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed up in Delhi to take the agreement to “the next stage.” But the Indian side wasn’t ready yet. They had more walking to do and Secretary Rice was trying to fly. Six years later Westinghouse Electric and GE Nuclear are still waiting to see business emerge from this agreement.
When presented with American bluntness, some Indians interpret it incorrectly as crudeness. Others have told us in confidence that many American appear to be “simpletons.” To overcome this barrier, Americans need to include team members who are adept at indirect communication. For example instead of asking,”Is everyone on board with our plan?” you might consider a less direct approach, such as, ” I’d like to hear from everyone about one area of concern you have before moving forward on this plan.”
It is good that President Obama’s team includes seasoned India hands such as Assistant Secretary of State Biswal, who served as Assistant Administrator for Asia at USAID, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce Kumar, who founded and ran the US-India practice for a Big Four accounting firm. Business people who travel without seasoned advisers on their team often miss key points; worse still, they reach erroneous conclusions about key issues.
Subtle but significant barriers have prevented the two largest democracies in the world from working together more closely. The openness and diversity of both India and America make it possible, however, for any open-minded and humble person in either country to learn about what drives their counterparts in the other nation. Workshops, articles like this one, and books can provide part of the answer. But the rest of the answer depends on what happens in the field, where companies must identify, nurture, and reward employees who want to be adept at both direct and indirect communication; or they must supplement their team with trusted external advisers. There is always room to improve mutual understanding between the two cultures, whether you are in politics or in business.
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