An insight into the institution that gave birth to the rulers of Tata

In the 1950s, when JRD Tata was looking for versatile officers for the leadership structure of the Tata Group, he quickly spotted a gap. There were no management schools in India from where he could choose the right candidates who could then be groomed. This gave rise to the Tata Administrative Service (TAS), much like the Indian Administrative Service, which had by then become very fashionable. TAS officers were encouraged to take leadership positions within the group and further the legacy of the group. Some stayed, others left. In their latest book, Tata’s Leadership Experience: The Story of Tata’s Administrative Departmentauthors Bharat Wakhlu, Mukund Rajan and Sonu Bhasin made these TAS officers the central characters in Tata’s larger 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 the Briton’s executive assistant planted the idea in JRD’s mind that the Tatas needed something akin to an ‘ICS for the Tatas’.

An executive-based system like the ICS, or the IAS as the service was renamed after independence, called on the JRD. He had spent his early years in France and had also served in the French army. In French society, executives had come to represent a kind of social reference. Some cadres also had military backgrounds, but their collective identity had crossed the gap between purely professional status and mainstream social status.

In French society, executives had become ambitious social groups and were part of the French elite. Moreover, the social esteem enjoyed by executives was not superficial, simply based on titles. Instead, it was tied to a rigorous educational system; the largest educational establishments (the Grandes Écoles have been able to attract the best students) and the most reputable companies have chosen to come to these establishments in search of brilliant managers. Over time, a virtuous circle was set up: institutions would select the best students, and the best French companies would recruit them, making these Grandes Écoles the destinations of choice for more bright young 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, speaks of a large and complex bureaucracy as a remarkable feature of the governance structure within the Mauryan Empire. It was a well-organized, hierarchical, cadre-based administrative system that allowed the government to regulate the economic life of the kingdom. It was hugely ambitious for ordinary people to be part of this elite cadre. Kautilya has established guidelines and qualifications for people who could be part of this framework. The framework envisioned by JRD had characteristics of both the French and Indian systems. JRD and the Superior Staff Recruitment Committee have proposed the recruitment of young people from the best universities in the world, including Oxbridge. The importance of choosing officers for the cadre from “good families”, with the right work ethic and values, was stressed.

The Committee’s desire to recruit from renowned universities was also linked to the fact that there were no management institutes in India in the 1950s. Most people started working right after graduation. and climbed the corporate ladder. But JRD was clear in his direction at the Committee. He was looking for future leaders – people who would not only grow within the Group into leadership positions, but also people who would carry on the values ​​of Tata across all Group companies. JRD envisioned that members of the Tata cadre would be encouraged to move between different companies and functional areas of Tata before settling into a company. JRD was also aware that the IAS was the most ambitious civil service framework in India. It attracted the best and the brightest from across the country. Officers of the IAS, immediately after their enthronement, were given positions of considerable responsibility and power, and regularly moved between various departments/ministries of the Government of India. Those selected were seen as men and women of caliber and integrity by others. The administrative framework has been described by India’s Prime Minister of Home Affairs, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as the “steel framework” of governance in India.

In 1956, JRD had before him the recommendations of the Senior Staff Recruitment Committee, together with the myriad of contributions he had gleaned from various 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 the JRD was convinced that the time had come to put such a framework in place.

It was JRD’s vision that the cadre members would become the mobile superglue that would harmonize the work of the growing Tata Group. They would serve as a cohesive force that would quietly compel Group companies to fully align with the Group’s broader values ​​and goals. Executive members would work with Tata companies in different industries, but would not be confined to staying at single companies for their entire careers. Their mobility should be an asset for the Group; wherever their intervention and expertise would be needed within the Tata Group, they would be sent to work with senior leaders and make a healthy impact.

JRD has appointed the executive the Tata Administrative Service (TAS).

(Excerpt 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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