The Problem of Managing Talent

raghuram_rajan_facts_modiSo all the speculation over Raghuram Rajan’s (RR’s) 2nd term ended in an anti-climax. The man in question declined to continue in his role in an early evening announcement on a Saturday. I am not sure if anyone spared a thought for the timing of the announcement – Saturday early evening when every possible market is shut and Indian markets are some time away from opening. His hope would’ve been that knee jerk reactions will not occur and perhaps that fund managers can drink their depression away over the weekend. In most ways, this defined RR – subtle, always mindful and doing what is needed.

The list of his achievements is long and his credentials impeccable. So no point reiterating all of it. The broader problem of managing talent, in the current and in the general corporate context, seems a more interesting topic.

Why do some people have this great difficulty in cultivating people far smarter than themselves? Modi’s abilities as an administrator are proven. But then, he has proven himself as only that – an administrator (many would say he has more dubious distinctions to his name, but we aren’t going there today). By definition, an administrator requires people and a machinery to administer. For a country as complex as India working in an integrated world that is even more complex, RR was the perfect volatility antidote. So why wouldn’t the GoI worship the ground he walks on? The following attempt at an answer assumes (very reasonably) that RR’s decision was a political one and not personal.

One answer is the type of boss the PM is. When it comes to managing talent, there are 3 types:

A) Who cultivate candidates far smarter than themselves as trophy candidates meant to be showcased but put to little other use;
B) Who cultivate candidates far smarter than themselves recognising with full humility that luck, chance, and only a bit of talent (and a dose of Karma, if you will) has got them into a leadership position. This recognition leads them to optimise the contributions of subordinates, leading to a Win-Win; and
C) Who have a great sense of belief in their own abilities and knowledge (displayed overtly or not at all, depending on the situation and context) and are distinctly uncomfortable with having subordinates who are distinctly more intelligent, popular and articulate than themselves.

Appointments to the Union Cabinet are obviously the prerogative of the PM. It is a fact that the PMO dictates appointments within ministries as well as other government and quasi-government agencies. A look at some of the most unpopular and inappropriate appointments that the PM has lorded over:

i) Gajendra Chauhan, an ex soft porn actor, will teach students movie making as FTII head. The FTII students and alumni do not want him.
ii) Pahlaj Nihalni, a maker of voyeuristic, front bencher cinema is head of CBFC. The movie industry and his own panel do not want him.
iii) Chetan Chauhan, a mathematically challenged ex-cricketer of limited repute will teach students fashion design as NIFT head. Too fresh to say who all do not want him.
iv) Dinanath Batra, an avowed RSS worked who opposes sex education and an alternative perspective on Hinduism is appointed to a new committee of “educationalists” to lead changes in education content in Haryana. Who could want him?
v) Smriti Zubin Irani, a semi-literate ex (or is it current?) TV soap actress with a penchant for melodrama and twitter trolling is in charge of education. The IITs/IIMs/educationists do not want her.
vi) Mahesh Sharma, who judges people by the color of their skin and/or on the basis of their professed religion, is minister for tourism and culture. Last heard, no one wants him.

These are just the colorful ones. There are various yes men and women throughout the cabinet, bureaucracy and government machinery.

This seems to indicate a taste for the mediocre in the PM. Of course, liberals would say that it is indicative of the obvious lack of any kind of smarts in the political right, but we aren’t going there today. How could RR fit in into this scheme of things? Bullocks to those who were speculating that he would move out of RBI and be appointed FM. That could happen only if Modi was a ‘Type A’ leader as defined above.

The frustration with crony capitalism is what brought about the Modi wave in 2014. Manmohan Singh (MMS) as PM was perhaps guilty of that infraction and one could say that bringing in RR into RBI was his way of addressing this malaise. At the very least, MMS and RR were at opposing ends in the fight on crony capitalism and yet with this fact in mind, the latter was not just brought in and retained but also given a free hand on regulation and inflation management. Since curbing crony capitalism has been one of the very few genuine achievements of this government, and that RR has been one of the key operatives in this, many wonder where this fight will head now. The ones inclined towards conspiracy theories would say that it was not despite but because of RR’s pressure on crony capitalists that he was out of favour with the GoI.

Genuine capability is when despite having the track record and credentials (MMS, an economist of great repute who had a stint as RBI Governor, FM and 10 years as PM) you get in the best person for the job (RR as RBI Governor), acknowledging the fact that you can’t be everything to everyone. Idiocy is when you can’t even retain anything good given to you in the misplaced belief that you are the non existent God’s gift to India.

Goodbye RR; your motherland India brought you here, Bharat didn’t deserve you anyway.

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