Indias Military an Ideal Training Ground for Business

By Jeremy Smerd

Aug. 30, 2007

Velichati Satyanandam runs his office with military precision.

As head of corporate services at business process outsourcer Nipuna Services Ltd., a subsidiary of Satyam Computer Services, he must ensure that 250 cars and drivers carry 3,000 employees from their homes to one of three offices in Hyderabad, India, every day.

Every week scores of people quit while new employees are hired to work the nine-hour shifts for the U.K. market (start time: 3:30 p.m. local time) and the U.S. market (start time: 6:30 p.m.). On a recent day in late May, two rows of chairs for potential applicants outside Nipuna’s offices all were filled.

Satyanandam is well-equipped to deal with this ongoing logistical crisis because like many executives in India’s new economy, including some human resource executives, he cut his managerial chops in the Indian armed forces. He retired in 1998 as a wing commander after 21 years in the Indian air force. He now brings a can-do attitude to his work running the logistical end of a BPO, which includes managing the company’s facilities.

“Running a BPO is more like crisis management,” Satyanandam says. “You can’t hide behind bureaucratic rules and say, ‘It can’t be done.’ “

With India’s economy on a tear and companies hiring thousands of people a year, the armed forces have become a logical and bountiful place from which to hire employees, from the entry level on up. Approximately 60,000 army personnel retire every year; 3,000 are officers, most of them in their mid-50s, according to numbers provided by the Indian Ministry of Defence. This means many are in the prime of their working lives, retiring with an abundance of experience that they can ply in the private sector.

“In society, all the main management principles are developed by the armed forces,” says S. Raja Gopal, a retired army colonel who lives in Hyderabad. That was the case even in ancient times, he adds.

Gopal, 48, spent 25 years in the army, beginning with three years of training at the National Defence Academy, the Indian version of West Point. Eventually he became a “Black Cat” commando, part of the army’s special forces. He served in hot spots like Kashmir, where the country has fought a protracted border war with Pakistan. He says the leadership skills he learned during more than 20 live operations, which included the capture of 400 Islamic militants, helped him start a private security company.

He now manages more than 500 employees, many of whom are security guards who also got their training in the Indian army. Gopal says his experience helps him know how to motivate employees and develop loyalty secured by more than just receipt of a paycheck. He has been able to retain 99 percent of his employees during the past three years, though he says his is not the highest-paying security company in Hyderabad.

A man prone to understatement, Gopal recalled one mission from his army days, when he and his men were airlifted into the Himalayas on an eight-hour mission that stretched into five days. With only enough food for 24 hours, Gopal had to keep his troops motivated as they crossed the rugged terrain.

“Have I eaten? No. Am I moving? Yes,” he told his men. “So move with me.”

So how does this translate to the private sector?

“It makes you realize, ‘I can do anything,’ ” he says. “If the work is there, you don’t go home and go to sleep.”

The government has institutions, such as the Directorate General of Resettlement, to help ex-servicemen find training and employment. But one Indian headhunter has found a niche placing retired military personnel in private-sector jobs. Appropriately named Bridgehead Consulting, the year-and-a-half-old company that was started by former military personnel has found upper management jobs for about 40 former officers.

Venkat Ramana Rao, a former captain who served under Gopal, helped launch Bridgehead after completing a six-month course in human resources management at the state-run Indian Institute of Management in Lucknow in 2005. Rao says the new economy’s high demand for managers has made it easier for officers to penetrate a company’s upper management.

“Earlier, for officers to start above the vice president level, it was not possible,” Rao says. That’s because jobs were scarce and promotions were based more strictly on hierarchy, not merit, he explains.

Now that some former officers have reached the management ranks, they say they prefer hiring ex-military personnel like themselves. At his previous employer, Satyanandam hired 10 employees with a military background; seven were senior managers. Since arriving at Nipuna, he’s hired 10 people from the military, five of whom are in senior positions.

C.K. Veeresh, vice president of business operations for Computer Associates in Hyderabad, says he learned discipline during the five years he spent in an artillery regiment. Veeresh, 45, went from the army to the private sector in 1990 and was later hired by the public sector to promote economic development. Now he is in charge of business development and external and government relations for Computer Associates.

Ravi Babu, a retired colonel, has been in the corporate world since he left the army in 1996 after 22 years. During his tenure in the army, Ravi, 53, completed a master’s degree in computer science and taught computer science. While looking for a private-sector job in 1996, his future boss said to him: “We need a guy who can manage things.”

Until the recent private-sector tech boom, the army was the center of technological innovation in India, and those who served in the service were the sources of that innovation. Today, Ravi says: “Indian companies want to create wealth, they want to innovate. They don’t just want to provide services.”

Officers, he says, have the management and people skills to do that.

“You get fresh guys from IITs to do programming,” Ravi says, referring to the Indian Institutes of Technology. “But you need people who can deal with client relationships. This is more important.”

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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