Article: Big Interview with Gurnek Bains

Strategic HR

Big Interview with Gurnek Bains

Gurnek Bains, Co-founder and Chairman of Young Samuel Chambers, on his YSC journey, why cultural DNA is important and what millennials need to be sensitive to
Big Interview with Gurnek Bains

The best leaders possess something that gives them an edge and they know what that is. This is what helps them leverage their spike and balance off their weakness


You’ve spent so much time studying culture, psychology and people after you moved from Punjab to London. What led you to establish YSC?

Early on, I received a lot of help from the people around. Teachers took me under their wings and helped realize my potential, get into Oxford and do my Ph.D. without having my parents spend a penny. So, I have seen how help from the right people can release someone’s potential. I politically believe in enabling people and society to flourish. I am highly passionate about growth in people so I established YSC for this very purpose. When we were setting up YSC, I wondered how it would turn up since I am an Indian brought up in London. But it turned out to be great, we built authentic relationships and now we have established offices across different continents. When I reflect, I see that YSC cultural DNA is a mix of Indian and British. We created an entrepreneurial, rigorous, achievement-oriented and relational culture. So for the first 15 years of our journey, we didn’t lose any client when competitors were fractionating. We went from working with one company to working with top 100 companies.

In your book, Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization, you say that there is no such thing as a multi-national company. What does this mean for Indian companies that are looking to go global? How can they leverage the Indian cultural DNA to succeed on a global platform?

Every company’s strengths, development requirements and culture are rooted in the country of origin. Sometimes companies miss that and believe that because they are present in more than 100 countries they are truly global. Even when they hire people from a particular environment, they socialize them into the dominant mode of a functional culture that is grounded in the country of origin. Indian companies will also reflect that and put out the strengths and weaknesses rooted in their cultural DNA. However, one of the great strengths rooted in Indian DNA is their ability to tolerate and work with diversity, which is one of the most important requirements while building a multinational outlook. Intellectual flexibility that Indian leaders show has enormous value that adds to strategy and execution. The third thing, which is intangible and I see Indian leaders possess, is a great sense of heart and humanness. These are the three most important things that Indian leaders can take to the global stage.

You have talked about paradox of differences and similarities. Can you share an example where you have seen leaders tune into differences and similarities?

There are always certain similarities and certain differences and tuning in to either of them is a judgement call that leaders need to take. I will give you an example. We were running an advanced leadership program that involved a lot of reflection, feedback, case studies, etc. in one of the European companies and it was working really well for them. So the leader of the African region of that company heard about it and wanted to run the same program in Africa. All people in the leadership argued that getting the program to Africa was a stupid idea, which was likely to back-fire. According to them, it was a program suited only for Europe or the USA. But we still took it there and we were completely surprised with how well the African leaders took to it. This is where we saw the similarity piece coming in. It became a very powerful program and I realized that we really should have ignored the differences; we were surprised that the program there ran for a longer period than in Europe.

However, in the same program we also noticed some differences. We had asked the African leaders to take a personality test. They only took 20 minutes to finish the test and later an anxious administrator came to us saying that the leaders were very troubled with the questions. We later found out that the leaders thought that we were trying to catch them and were bewildered by the entire process. So, for feedback, we had to visit them after the program and we saw a sudden transformation. They were out of their shell and portrayed a larger-than-life big man syndrome and that’s also how people wanted them to behave. Later we realized that these differences weren’t trivial, but emanated from a deep cultural DNA. In Africa, one cultural DNA is that trust is built in tiny groups and we were outsiders so there was distrust. This is the paradox of differences: At one level, we had to work through similarities and at another we had to be sensitive to the differences and it actually turned out to be a roaring success.

You say that we need to explore others’ culture from inside-out and your own culture outside-in. Can you give an example of how this can be done?

We are used to seeing our culture often being the right way, but you have to be able to pick yourself up and see how does an outsider see your culture; thinking how does America see us as Indians for instance. There could be a lot of things that could be frustrating to an outsider but you won’t know that if you always look at your culture as being right. On the other hand, when Americans look at India, they need to look at it inside-out so as to be empathetic and respectful because all cultures have come to being because of very profound historical and environmental factors.

At YSC, you coach many leaders; what do you think are the differentiators of leaders who are successful and those who are not so much?

Leaders can succeed in different ways, not everybody has to meet the exact same criteria. But what is common among highly successful people is that each has a distinctive spike; it could be the ability to mobilize or connect to people or excellent thinking skills. The best leaders possess something that gives the edge and they are aware what that is and they leverage that spike and balance off their weaknesses.

Many millennials are taking to the leadership positions today. Do you see the cultural DNA of these leaders to be broader than Gen X leaders?

The world is becoming flat and people have more exposure today and therefore are much more aware. But, parachuting in a global context requires certain relationship building skills and patience and Gen Y can be a little impatient; they are focused on their own goals. These are some of things that millennials need to be sensitive to. If you hit the ball too fast, it goes too far as opposed to hitting it with a more relaxed swing and young people need to hear that.

What advice would you give Indian leaders who are looking to take on to the global stage?

I would say, engage in the journey, recognize and be receptive to support and feedback. Also, think about your culture from the outside-in, understand how it will land in a different environment and build a muscle to lead inclusively as against wearing the hat of authority. Don’t be too anxious to prove yourself; you have to stay resilient. Lastly, learn from and response to difficulties.

What’s next for Gurnek Bains?

I am now a chairman at YSC, which gives me more time. Being the CEO of a global company takes a lot out of you. So now I’m looking at other things. Currently, I am also the chairman of a dance group called Akram Khan Dance Company. They have danced at the London Olympics; they have danced all over the world and are quite well known. I do pro bono work in politics because I’m interested in political difference that one can make. On this, I want to set up a website and a think tank because I truly believe that unless we get a cultural understanding and empathy, the world is going to be a rocky difficult place. With so many powers coming up, people need a mirror into their culture which reflects their strengths and weaknesses and by creating a platform through the website and the think tank I believe I can make that difference.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Leadership

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