The Club Of Clueless CEOs

Many Indian CEOs, led by the granddaddy of successful bucket-bath-only entrepreneurs and Britain’s best known Indian father-in-law NR Narayana Murthy, fail to comprehend ideas such as toxic workplaces or work-life balance. 

Murthy, we all know, believes that employees should work a minimum of 70 hours every week like the “less fortunate who work extremely hard”. I guess he’s never thought to examine why members of the latter group must work as hard as they do—and for so little pay.   

Britain’s four-day week experiments likely give such leaders the heebie-jeebies. Mental health is an alien concept for these CEOs—”young people are too fussy…in our days…” Except let’s not be ageist, it’s not just the septuagenarians who speak like this. 

Cred’s 40-something CEO Kunal Shah has weighed in on Murthy’s side too, offering the Chinese model of “9-9-6 culture—9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week”.

The same year he made it to Fortune India’s 40 Under 40 list, Shantanu Deshpande, CEO of Bombay Shaving Co., shared this gem on work-life bla-lance:

“When you are 22 and new in your job, throw yourself into it. Eat well and stay fit, but put in the 18 hour days for at least 4–5 years. I see a LOT of youngsters who watch random content all over and convince themselves that ‘work life balance, spending time with family, rejuvenation bla bla’ ’ is important…Don’t do random rona-dhona. Take it on the chin.”

After he body-shamed cricketer Prithvi Shaw last year, entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo apologised. Though he’s not a CEO, I’m sharing this story because the text of his apology revealed a basic truth: Just like the rest of us, the big boys have been brought up with that classic Indian parenting staple—shame. It’s so ingrained we don’t even recognise when we use it on others.  

“In an attempt to invoke my mom’s natural reaction to my fitness levels in my 20s, I made a horrible mistake,” Warikoo wrote. Who can forget former PepsiCo CEO Indira Nooyi’s story about rushing home to share news of a promotion and being told by her mother to go to the store to get milk. When Nooyi later protested, her mother told her to leave her CEO crown in the garage.  

Is it naive to expect our leaders—whether they manage companies or the country—to strive to be better than the rest of us? Have we begun to expect less from them? Or, even more worrying, have we braced ourselves to accept the worst from them?  

It’s hard to imagine Indian CEOs taking a stand and stepping down like many leaders in the US did during the Black Lives Matter protests, but a basic workplace sensitivity primer is a minimum non-negotiable starting point. I’m happy to write it for you, dear CEOs.

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