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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Enabling Young Professionals in India to Reach their Potential

By Joel Wright

This project grew out of the work of the Global Voice of Leadership (GVOL) effort at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to examine opportunities for “democratizing leadership development”. Through this goal, CCL seeks to make leadership development available to more people. The GVOL effort is exploring two areas of relevance to this report – Young Professionals, and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in India. Early research and conversations with Indian executives suggest that these two groups may be underserved in regards to professional and leadership development. We thus began a series of activities to answer three key questions:

1. To what extent do corporations and young professionals perceive a need for young professional leadership development?
2. Would new leadership initiatives be beneficial for young professionals, businesses and NGOs in India?
3. What are the specific needs for young professional leadership development and what strategies would be most acceptable and effective?

In an effort to understand these complexities, CCL sent a team of professionals to India and hired a leading design and innovation firm for this project.

Our Approach

When we arrived we were overwhelmed by the amazing culture, food and welcoming hospitality. The start of our visit coincided with the Ganesh Chaturthi which we learned was a festival of good omens, prosperity and luck. Perhaps a good sign for what the future would bring.

In no time we found ourselves talking with a broad spectrum of people. Our exploration took us into the educational backgrounds and developmental foundations of young professionals. We explored the choices they made as they navigated their way through schooling and into the early years of work. We spoke with educational institutions, corporate executives, HR managers, independent trainers, young professionals, NGOs and foundations that fund grants for learning, development and leadership. Each establishment provided us with a great deal of information.

Between the two projects we met with 43 organizations and about 200 people. Of the sectors visited, 42% were NGOs, 37% were corporations, and 21% were educational institutions, and training centers. (Fig. 1)

Challenge, Change and Opportunity

We heard that for young professionals, corporations, and educational institutions in India this is a time of significant change, adaptation and growth.

The overall picture that emerged from our conversations across the nation was:

· The high growth in India has generated a tremendous demand for young professionals
· Many organization are struggling to attract, develop, and retain talent
· A key factor is that the overall educational system is doing a poor job of preparing people with soft skills (versus book knowledge)
· Companies are working hard to develop training programs to address this need

We note three areas that would increase young professional staff retention, their overall development and performance, and the overall strength of the organizations.

1.) Preparation – do as much as possible to prepare young people before they land in the work world.
2.) Transition – enhance the transition into their place of employment where mentoring, coaching continued learning, training, and career guidance become a common practice.
3.) Support – continue to prepare this group to become effective team players and managers.


“Something needs to be done about that.” This is what one corporate trainer said referring to how young professionals are not being prepared with the skills needed for the work environment. While many young professionals and leaders in organizations expressed the need for better preparation, our findings show that a piece of the problem is young professionals have false expectations about the work world. Many describe the transition as “shocking”, or “what you think of the work world is very different than the way it is”. Others elaborated by saying, “the sort of mindset you get in the MBA is that you have these theories and this is how organizations work and if you apply this you can do whatever you want. But that…just doesn’t happen…it doesn’t work…it comes down to practical human interaction”. “Practical human interaction” is one way many express the recognition and need to develop soft skills, team work and interpersonal understanding prior to the work world.

Although soft skills are seen as essential in the work world, college students in India see classes in leadership and soft skills as of little importance. “During education, even when doing teamwork exercises, I didn’t understand the importance, [there was] no context or introduction”. Additionally, it was shared that classroom based team building projects could not compare with work place team dynamics, diversity of people, and challenges.

Some schools, however, are rising to the challenge by incorporating team assignments, field work and internships into their curriculum. These institutions won much praise from employers for the quality of their graduates. While some students at top schools are beginning to receive better preparation and training, there are many more who attend more traditional schools. For them, their preparation offers very little exposure to industry, leadership development or team building. Overall, nearly everyone expressed the need for less theory and more practical experience. With this in mind, it is not surprising to hear a lead executive say “only 20% of the graduates are employable.”

While better preparation for the work world and the development of “soft skills” are one demand of the day, the next is to address the transition of young professionals (from their university and into their first few years in the work world) and the need to accelerate their learning to meet the fast paced growth taking place in India.

“In our culture…we do not emphasize identity from childhood; a child can never say that I believe this, I like this”. In fact, until the start of their careers, many young professionals describe their situation as being on a “railroad track” or “always in queue” and rarely having to make life directing decisions. A VP of HR expressed how, “self awareness is not in management institutes” and that he needs “people who can think.” As a result, this lack of self-awareness is carried into the work world leading to time and “energy that is just getting wasted here and there” until the young professional “sits back and thinks about what it is they want from a job and if they’re getting it or not.” It’s not until this happens that young professionals will align themselves with the proper position and be able to be clear about their goals and what they want from career and life.

Some young professionals talked about how their “fresher” year-long exposure program had an impact in helping them align their potential with career prospects. They explain how the program was designed to introduce them to different departments within the organization, share ideas with managers and develop relationships that would allow for future cross departmental collaborations. As a result, young professionals are able to better understand the individual departments and the organization as a whole. Moreover, they are able to observe and learn about potential career paths they might choose.

Some organizations even blend exposure experiences with international immersions. One training director describes the impact of an international experience on young professionals as, “they come back a changed person, exuding with confidence”. One young professional stated that, “I got the big picture when I visited the U.S. [Prior to that I] was just doing coding, just [doing] a piece of the puzzle. Once I saw the end product and received feedback from customers I realized I was doing something important”.

Several individuals we met who didn’t receive these immersion experiences felt neglected and more inclined to jump ship for better advancement opportunities and pay. Others, who worked hard to get ahead of the pack and be noticed, hinted that stress and pressure was taking a toll. Almost all spoke of the importance of good managers as role models and mentors who made a great difference in their lives.

Support – Coaching for Capacity

As young professionals transition into the work world, support from within the organization becomes crucial to their ongoing development and success. Many organizations are recognizing the need for a heightened developmental approach for young professionals and are designing valuable programs that enhance self-awareness, professional growth and the sustainability of both. One way organizations are beginning to do this is by institutionalizing coaching.

While ideally the immediate managers of these young professionals should play the role of a coach, many are young professionals themselves and are still learning basic managerial skills. One expressed how he was, “not experienced to facilitate difficult situations in the office” and that "initially it was difficult to disassociate personal ambition and views from the situation at hand”. Young managers are often “prepared to manage process but not people” and need to “learn how to communicate, how to get people to do their work, how to develop support, and convince/negotiate with people.” Most young professionals do not have this type of experience and thus are learning on the job.

Not only are young managers not reaching their potential, they are also not able to support those they supervise. For one VP of HR, his biggest fear is that a young manager might “kill” unidentified talent and drive them out of the organization. Because of the potential impact on the organization and the challenges young professionals face, many indicate an immense need for support and coaching.

One intriguing approach adopted by a leading business school was to pair fresh graduates with senior alumni mentors. These mentors were helpful in guiding these graduates as they encountered difficult challenges of new jobs.

Convergence of the Social and Corporate Sectors

In addition to our work with young professionals in the corporate world, we were also exploring the need for NGO leadership development. What we found was that skills learned within the social sector were applicable and highly effective in the corporate sector. This convergence of the social and corporate sector is seen by some as not only a way to give back but also a way for both sides to learn and grow. These professionals described their experiences within NGOs as life changing, challenging, and very different than the corporate world, causing them to think in different ways.

One NGO we visited specializes in recruiting students for extended assignments in rural India. Participants in these programs described the experience as powerful learning opportunities that expanded their abilities, self-awareness, and confidence.

Could the social sector be a training ground for more young professionals? Evidence from both the NGO sector and the corporate sectors, leads us to believe that both could benefit greatly from the convergence of the two.


There is little doubt that India is booming with opportunity. Those with whom we met were excited and optimistic about the challenges and changes confronting India. Most were aware of the situations connected to preparation, transition and support and were either already responding to them or were eager to help address them.

We noticed a significant role for educational institutions to do more in preparing young adults with soft skills and real-life experiences. Our sense is that colleges and universities are a critical point at which to help young professionals reach their potential and thus should be an area of focus. In addition, we observed the need to accelerate learning and experience for young professionals as they transition from educational institutions and into the workplace. It’s here where corporations need to provide more support and coaching to facilitate the development of future managers.

The Center for Creative Leadership is in the process of working to help address the leadership development needs we encountered.