In India, and increasingly in some other parts of the world, a Tata calling card evokes instant recognition and respect. The quality and values that the Tata marque stands for, are also the characteristics of a true-blue Tata person.
The Tata name evokes trust: trust that the person who is connected with this name will be honest, fair, and ethical in all his or her dealings. In the public mind, the ethics and commitment to certain values associated with the Tata name become synonymous with everyone connected with it.
Working with the Tata group is a cachet anyone would be proud of, but we must remember we carry the weight of a 100-year-old heritage. On us who are now spreading the Tata name far and wide over the globe, rests the responsibility of adding lustre to this rich legacy.
When I joined the Tatas in 1968 it was easy to get assimilated into the Tata way of life. The pace of life was unhurried and mentors had the time to guide young managers. I gratefully remember the mentoring I received from within the group in the course of my career. Two names stand out: JRD Tata, with whom I shared a warm relationship, and Mr Vishwanathan, my boss when I started out in operations at Tata Steel. What I learnt from them has been a source of inspiration throughout my career.
Mr Vishwanathan is no longer around, but there's a truism of his that has remained with me down the years. On the day that I joined operations, he called me over for dinner at his place. "We all know you have been working for a more efficient company (British Steel)," he said, "but don't try teaching our workers here how to make steel; they'll feel offended. Try to win them over by making them change from within."
I've found this advice invaluable. You have to make changes from within, because people want it, rather than from without, because you want it. (By the way, today, Tata Steel is a more efficient producer of steel than British Steel!)
This sensitivity to people's needs and feelings is an essential quality of a Tata person. Even today, when we have people from diverse cultures and countries in the Tata group, we never try to impose anything on them. In all our recent acquisitions abroad, we have taken great care to reassure the employees of the company, involve them in decision making, and making them feel an integral part of the Tata group.
Our challenge now is to speed up the process of induction even as we continue to expand and grow at the searing pace of the last few years. We also need to ensure our new members of the family understand and imbibe our values and the Tata way of doing business.
Perhaps it would help new recruits if we elaborate on what we mean when we talk of "the Tata way" and call someone a "Tata person". Top of the list is of course a strict adherence to fair and ethical business practices. This is something we have inherited from our founders and carried through more than a century of doing business in circumstances which were sometimes not conducive to such an approach.
There's a passage in RM Lala's book, Creation of Wealth, where JRD is quoted on this point. "We all believe in a certain way of operating," he says, "and I know that if I had done business the way some business houses do it, we would have been twice as big as we are today. So what we have sacrificed is 100 per cent growth, but I would not have had it any other way."
This credo we carry wherever we go. If the climate in a particular industry or location does not allow us to do business ethically, we prefer not to be there even if it means a loss of opportunity. Despite all that's said about ethics, or the lack of it, in Indian business, I haven't found it difficult operating within our values. That's the advantage of the Tata name: people don't expect you to offer bribes or do unethical things.We expect this strict adherence to principles in all our people.
Enshrined in the Tata Code of Conduct tenets which every company or individual associated with the Tata group has to follow. Even the Tata Steel workers union in Jamshedpur knows there is no point taking up the case of a person dismissed for dishonesty or corruption because we will not compromise on this issue. Our values are non-negotiable.
An essential element of the Tatas' value system is commitment to the community. What comes from the people goes back to the people many times over. This means we work hard and wisely to generate wealth, then use it to enrich and improve the lives of the communities in which we live and work. This is a sacred duty ingrained in the Tata group from its inception.
Some of our newer members may not be aware that over generations, our founding fathers have crafted and sustained a tradition of bequeathing much of their personal wealth to the many trusts they have created for the greater good of India and its people. The bulk of the wealth created by the group is thus ploughed back to fund initiatives that improve the quality of life of the community at large. It is a reflection of this approach to business that none of our directors is in the super-rich category; our leaders are known for their contribution to society, not their personal wealth.
In consonance with this commitment, all Tata employees are encouraged to volunteer for community work. Global companies have only recently started talking about corporate social responsibility or the triple bottom line, but for us in the Tata group, it has always been a way of life.
People often ask me why I have chosen to spend my entire working life with the Tatas. The answer is simple: I don't know of any other organisation where I could have got the peace of mind that comes from never being asked to deviate from my principles and the satisfaction that comes from working for the community.
That in essence is the magic of the Tata way: it appeals straight to your heart.
*Dr JJ Irani, director, Tata Sons, is a member of the Group Corporate Centre and also serves on the board of directors of Tata Industries, Tata Motors and Tata International. He is chairman of Tata Quality Management Services, Tata Refractories and TRF and chairs the board of governors of XLRI in Jamshedpur. Dr Irani joined Tata Steel in 1968 and has been with the Tata group ever since.