Executive dearth

Germany's Absent Asians

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Sanjiv Lamba of gas giant Linde is one of only a few Indians in  German firms.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Unlike other countries such as Britain, German firms have failed to successfully integrate many Asian businessmen and lack a global competitive edge as a result.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • German firms have traditionally viewed exotic markets only as export sites and not as hotbeds of talent.
    • Only a handful of top Indian executives work for German companies, such as Deutsche Bank’s Anshu Jain.
    • Asians often find it difficult to adjust to German business formality and directness.
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    Audio

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It isn’t easy for Sanjiv Lamba to engage in small talk about soccer, a classic pastime among German businessmen. The executive board member of Linde, a gas company based in Munich, is a passionate cricket fan – a sport few Europeans outside Britain know much about. “In the past eight years, I certainly learned more about soccer than my colleagues did about cricket,” he admited.

Mr. Lamba is one of the few top Indian managers in Germany. But this could be set to change. Despite some lingering concerns, German firms still consider the subcontinent to have potential for growth.

Many want to do business in India. This year it is a partner country of Germany’s Hanover Messe, the world’s largest industrial fair. Yet Asians remain an exotic minority among Germany’s senior managerial echelons.

There are also historical reasons for this, as Mr. Lamba points out. Ties to Great Britain are much closer due to the colonial past.

But that alone does not explain the phenomenon.

Michael Stuber, strategy consultant at Ungleich Besser Diversity Portal, a management consultancy, says that for a long time German companies saw faraway countries simply as targets for export.

“A certain laziness prevails that sees foreign language activities as a lot of work.”

Michael Stuber, Ungleich Besser Diversity Portal

He argues that Germans still have a prejudiced view of many cultures and are convinced that business is easier with Americans, the British or Swiss. “A certain laziness prevails that sees foreign language activities as a lot of work,” says Mr. Stuber.

Mr. Lamba is convinced that both sides could benefit. Asian managers would, for example, have a better knowledge of the region’s often complicated markets.

Born in 1964 in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, he worked for a long time for the British industrial gas company BOC until it was bought by Linde in 2006. This meant he gained much experience working for a global player and, according to insiders, integrated well into Linde and is well liked. Besides, English is the Linde board’s lingua franca.

What the Indian appreciates most about German companies is what he calls the three Ps. The passion (“Passion”) for business is great, he says. “The Germans always want to be the best.” This helps to improve performance (“Performance”). The third strength is being process-orientated (Process-oriented).

“Discipline is much higher than in Asia,” says Mr. Lamba, who directs Linde’s Asian-Pacific business from Singapore, but spends one or two weeks a month in the company’s Munich headquarters.

“It is very difficult to integrate an Indian executive who has never worked outside their country.”

Andreas Föller, Founder, Comites recruitment firm

There, he can get together with his countryman Arunjai Mittal. The 44-year old has sat on the executive board of the microchip producer Infineon for three years, and is responsible for marketing and strategy.

When he was appointed, Peter Bauer, the chief executive of the company at the time, said: “The markets in Asia are becoming increasingly important for Infineon.” He added that Mr. Mittal’s appointment was consistent with the firm’s goal of selecting a board member from that corner of the world for onsite customer support.

Recently, the unassuming Mumbai native wrapped up the biggest acquisition in Infineon’s history when it purchased U.S. rival International Rectifier. Many observers think he may one day take the top job.

The most prominent executive in Germany with Indian roots is Anshu Jain, the co-chief executive of Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest financial institution. After assuming the post in mid-2012, he was bombarded with questions about how good his German was. Despite the language barrier, the top banker has adjusted well.

 

jain
Deutsche Bank co-CEO Anshu Jain divides his time between London, New York and Frankfurt. Source: Laif

 

The cricket fan considers himself cosmopolitan and commutes between New York, London and Frankfurt. He and his wife are also fascinated by the metropolis of Berlin. But Mr. Jain has spent a lot of time studying what is unique about Germany. The success of the Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up Germany’s business backbone, has especially impressed him.

He even went to view several factory shop floors to gain an understanding of the procedures and motivations of Mittelstand firms.

But the three executives are the exception in German business.

While you can’t revert to stereotypes, it is very difficult to integrate an Indian executive who has never worked outside their country, said Andreas Föller, founder of the human resources consulting firm Comites. “And it often only succeeds to a limited degree, even with Indians who have already worked in America.”

Indian managers, he noted, often have a positive image of themselves and are therefore assertive, but this can sometimes be a hindrance in achieving long-term goals. One of the first Indians he recruited for a European employer refused to discuss strategy with the company’s works council. He wasn’t successful in the long run with this approach.

As a manager between two worlds, Mr. Lamba knows the differences. When he is in Asia, German directness is missing in discussions – Asians find it difficult to deal with. And when in Germany, he notices how formal companies are. In Asia, managers run around a lot in the office and speak directly with subordinates.

The result of the constant commuting is that he is always missing something. In Asia, it is the direct way of communicating, as well as German beer, he says. And after a few days in Munich he misses Asian cooking.

Perhaps Munich’s wide selection of excellent Italian restaurants provide some sort of compromise.

 

Axel Höpner is Handelsblatt’s Munich bureau chief, Joachim Hofer covers the IT industry and Peter Köhler heads the paper’s banking team in Frankfurt. To contact the authors: hoepner@handelsblatt.com, hofer@handelsblatt.com, koehler@handelsblatt.com

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