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Bookmarked: A Peek Into The Institution That Birthed Tata Leaders

In their latest book, authors Bharat Wakhlu, Mukund Rajan, and Sonu Bhasin have made the TAS officers, the central characters in the larger Tata story

Tata’s Leadership Experiment: The Story of the Tata Administrative Service

Back in the 1950s, when JRD Tata was looking for all-round officers for the Tata Group’s leadership structure, he was quick to spot a lacuna. There were no management schools in India from where he could pick the right candidates who could then be groomed. That gave birth to the Tata Administrative Service (TAS), much like the Indian Administrative Service, which had become quite a rage then. TAS officers were nurtured to take up leadership positions at the group and take the legacy of the group forward. Some stayed, some left. In their latest book, Tata’s Leadership Experiment: The Story of the Tata Administrative Service, authors Bharat Wakhlu, Mukund Rajan, and Sonu Bhasin have made those TAS officers the central characters in the larger Tata story.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

JRD had been deeply influenced by John Peterson who had worked for the ICS (Indian Civil Service) before joining the Tatas. His own experience as an Executive Assistant to the Britisher planted the idea in JRD’s mind that the Tatas needed something that would be akin to an ‘ICS for the Tatas’.

A cadre-based system like the ICS, or the IAS as the service was renamed after Independence, appealed to JRD. He had spent his early years in France and had also served in the French Army. In French society, cadres had come to represent a kind of social reference point. Some cadres also had military antecedents, but their collective identity had jumped the divide from being purely professional to commanding social position and status. 

In French society, cadres had become aspirational social groups and part of the French elite. Moreover, the social esteem enjoyed by cadres was not shallow, merely based on titles. Instead, it was linked to a rigorous education system; premier educational institutions (the ‘Grandes Écoles’ were able to attract the best students) and the most reputed companies, chose to come to these institutions to look for bright managers. Over time, a virtuous circle developed—the institutions would select the best students, and the best French companies would recruit them, leading to these Grandes Écoles becoming the destinations of choice for more young bright students.

The concept of a cadre-based administrative system has also been part of Indian society for thousands of years. Kautilya’s famous text, Arthashastra, talks about a large and complex bureaucracy as a remarkable feature of the governance structure within the Mauryan empire. This was a well-organized, hierarchical, and cadre-based administrative system, which allowed the government to regulate the economic life of the kingdom. It was hugely aspirational for the common people to be part of this elite cadre. Kautilya laid down guidelines and qualifications for people who could be part of this cadre. The cadre envisioned by JRD had features of both the French and the Indian systems. JRD and the Superior Staff Recruitment Committee proposed the recruitment of young people from the best universities around the world, including Oxbridge. The importance of choosing officers for the cadre from ‘good families’, with an appropriate work ethic and values, was emphasized.

The Committee’s desire to recruit from well-known universities was also linked to the fact that there were no management institutes in India in the 1950s. Most people started to work straight after their graduation and worked their way up the corporate ladder. But JRD was clear in his direction to the Committee. He was looking for future leaders— people who would not only grow in the Group to take on leadership positions but also individuals who would perpetuate the Tata values across the Group companies. JRD envisaged that the members of the Tata cadre would be encouraged to move between different Tata companies and functional areas before settling down in one company. JRD was also mindful of the fact that the IAS was the most aspirational civil services cadre in India. It drew the best and the brightest from across the country. IAS officers, immediately after their induction, were given positions of considerable responsibility and power, and regularly moved between various departments/ministries of the Government of India. Those selected were looked upon as men and women of caliber and integrity by others. The administrative framework was described by India’s first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as the ‘Steel Frame’ for governance in India.

By 1956, JRD had the recommendations of the Superior Staff Recruitment Committee before him, as well as the myriad inputs he had gleaned from a variety of sources in India, Britain, and France. He recognized the value of the equivalent of the ‘Steel Frame’—the Indian Administrative Service—represented for the Tata Group. The Tatas were not as complex or disparate as India, but JRD was convinced that the time had come for such a cadre to be put into place.

It was JRD’s vision that the members of the cadre would become the mobile superglue that would harmonize the working of the growing Tata Group. They would serve as a cohesive force that would unobtrusively compel the Group’s companies to be fully aligned with the values and the larger goals of the Group. The cadre members would work with Tata companies in different sectors, but would not be confined to remain in single companies for their entire careers. Their mobility was to be an asset for the Group; wherever their intervention and expertise would be needed within the Tata Group, they would be sent in to work with senior leaders and make a wholesome impact. 

JRD named the cadre the Tata Administrative Service (TAS).

(Excerpted from Tata’s Leadership Experiment: The Story of the Tata Administrative Service by Bharat Wakhlu, Mukund Rajan and Sonu Bhasin, published by HarperBusiness, August 2022)

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