‘Reflections from an Indian Village’

Last month I was lucky enough to be asked back to Mumbai to work with the leadership team of one of India’s largest and most successful companies. This was the 3rd consecutive year they have asked me to help design and facilitate their annual strategic retreat and it was heartening to see the progess they have made since I first started working with them back in 2009. Back then the business had just posted the worst results they had experienced for years and now they are three years into a five year transformation journey and are on course to profitably double the size of their business by 2015.

This year the aim of the session was to celebrate the success of the transformation journey so far and to ensure no complacency was allowed to set in as the challenges that lie ahead to reach their 2015 goals remain substantial. So the design of this years strategic retreat was a little different. We returned to Fort Jadhavgarh, an ancient Fort that was a symbolic place for this leadership team to meet as it reminded them of the heat of theReflections from an Indian Village 1 battle they faced in 2009. In addition we took the leaders deep into rural India to work and camp beside a couple of Indian villages that had won awards for their progressive development. This surprise addition to the strategic retreat had two effects on the leaders. Firstly it created a paradigm shift, the stark surroundings in the villages quickly took the leaders, who were expecting the relative luxury of the Fort, out of their comfort zones. This meant they could re-engage with the challenges and re discover their appetite for the need to make progress. The second was to see, feel, taste and hear the progress that is being made in rural India, which is a key growth market for their consumer goods business.

Coming as I did from the UK the impact of rural India was even more profound. I left the glitz of Heathrow airport with all the retail outlets preparing for the usual consumer driven Christmas and within less than 24 hours found myself in the heart of India where the issues of the latest electronic goods and designer fashions were replaced by more profound issues centered around basic nutrition, education, sanitation and health. The shock to the senses was very impactful and I came away thinking there is much we can learn from what I experienced.

Reflections from an Indian Village 2The village I visited was called Navlewadi and is headed by a female ‘Sarpanch’. One of the unique aspects of this village is that all the houses are owned by the women under the ‘Gruhaswamini’ program. Under this program the women are given ownership & title of their houses by the men and all major decisions of the village are taken by these women for their respective families. The men seem more than happy with this arrangement and it has clearly brought a lot of benefits to the village. In a country where less than 50% of the population have access to a toilet every house in this village had a toilet and a fresh water supply in their homes. They also have Government funded projects on bio-gas, solar and wind energy making the village almost self-sufficient in terms of energy needs. Impressively 50% of the houses had CLF light bulbs showing that energy conservation and sustainability are key messages that can resonate everywhere in the world.

After working in the fields during the day the Sarpanach and her small elected female team preside over the various committees that govern village affairs. It is mandatory for the whole village to take part in discussions that effect village life, non attendance is not tolerated and heavy fines can be used as a deterrent, but are rarely applied, the community feel in the village was palpable. The various committees reach decisions through consensus with everyone expected to contribute their views. One example is that each month they meet to decide how to spend the money each family pays to towards the upkeep of the village, money which is supplemented by regional and national government grants, and in this meeting they have to agree priorities. Right now they are trying to upgrade their sewage pipework to divert it away from the fresh water supply. When the priorities are that stark and the outcome is for the obvious benefit of all it somehow seems easy to reach a consensus. A lesson for all leadership teams…..

When we asked how the men felt being led by the women the response was fascinating. The Sarpanch replied that ‘women are the source of life and the stronger of the species, why should men be afraid of being led by us?’ Reflections from an Indian Village 3The men said ‘it is not common for this to happen in India but it seems to be working, so we thought let’s give it a go!’ We asked about the urbanisation and challenges of education in the village. I noticed that even though many of the villagers were without shoes and their houses were very basic to say the least, most carried a mobile phone and several homes had televisions. It seems that mobile phones are fast becoming ubiquitous and that a television is a ‘must have’ when power is consistently available.

They also discuss the problems of vice with the youth of the village at their community meetings. Many young people do leave the village for jobs in towns and cities they all continue to contribute to village life and return for key meetings that effect the future of the village life. Engaging the youth in the future of the village appears to keep them grounded in the realities of life.

Reflections from an Indian Village 4We repaid the village for kindly sharing their stories and insights with us by painting the water storage area and our client CEO gave the school children a fun lesson on basic hygiene. One simple but powerful lesson we observed is that when the school children went back to class they did so in a quick and orderly fashion placing their shoes outside the classroom in neat rows. When they came out for the soap demonstration they all knew where their shoes were and it took no time at all for them to be ready and assembled for the lesson, which we did outside in the shade of a tree. By stark contrast when we were asked to enter their community hall to eat our shoes were scattered around the entrance and it took us a lot longer to get ourselves organised afterwards.

I reflected that maybe we exaggerate the importance of individuality over discipline when it comes to implementing simple tasks. A lesson we perhaps all need to re-learn if we are to execute our plans effectively!

Malcolm Follos, November 2012