Reflections from India


August 28, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

During a recent trip to India, I had the opportunity to work with many dedicated professionals at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad.

ISB is an amazing place. It is a new institution that was formed with the support of Kellogg, Wharton, and the London Business School. The admission standards are extremely selective. Although it is only a few years old, ISB is already one of the top five schools in the world in terms of average GMAT score. I was there to teach a two-day executive education class on coaching to 50 top leaders from across India.

I love teaching in India. Every participant in my program was eager to learn. There is nothing that a teacher loves more than dedicated students who want to learn. The first day of my program lasted from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. I tried to answer as many questions as I could, but eventually I ran out of time! My students were willing to listen as long as I was willing to teach.

Deep Respect for Education

I was amazed at the sincerity and interest shown by the participants in my course. There was absolutely none of the cynicism or skepticism that I sometimes encounter in the U.S. or Western Europe. As a rule, people in India have a deep respect for education and for educators. At the end of the two days, I was given a lovely card with a personal thank-you note from each participant. I was very moved by their gratitude.

As I headed to my room at around 10:30 p.m., I saw three young ISB MBA students working on an assignment and decided to stop by and introduce myself. I asked them several questions about their lives, their futures, India, and the new global economy.

When I asked, “How many hours a day do you work?” one young woman laughed and said, “28!”

Income Gap Widens

All three agreed that they started studying each day early in the morning and finished late at night. They didn’t seem to mind. They realized how fortunate they were to be admitted to such a selective program. They were grateful for the opportunity to be there and wanted to learn as much as they could.

As a country, India still has hundreds of millions of extremely poor citizens who live in villages. The differentiation in incomes between the rich and poor has increased dramatically in the past 10 years.

I asked the MBA students, “How do the poor people in the villages feel about fortunate students like you? You are going to be making a lot of money when you graduate from ISB. Is there increasing resentment out there in the countryside?”

Emigration Not as Attractive

Their answer surprised me. The students all knew people in the villages. The general feeling was that, in almost every village, there was a resident who had left, attained a good education, and achieved a much more affluent life. If there was not a person in the village who had made it out, there was a relative in a nearby village. The students felt that even poor villagers saw hope for their children or grandchildren through hard work and education.

The world has changed a lot in the past few years. In the past, brilliant students, like the ones that I met at ISB, all dreamed of going to America or Europe for a quality education. Now they can get a quality education in India. In the past, brilliant young students all planned on leaving India to get great jobs. Now they can get great jobs in India.

The students went on to discuss India’s problems. Corruption, lack of infrastructure, and emerging competition in Asia all represent real challenges for India.

U.S. Heading Backward? 

As I listened to these brilliant young students, I thought about America. In the past few decades, we have made progress on many fronts and may have gone backward on others.

In some ways there seems to be a decreasing respect for education – and for educators – in our country. The average high school teacher used to make a little less money than an accountant or consultant, but not that much. Today the difference in income is huge.

In general, teachers don’t seem to get the same amount of respect that they did when I was a student. And, unlike the people whom I met in India, many Americans are not very confident that their children and grandchildren will have better lives (, 8/21/07) than they have.

The Future Is in Knowledge

As parents, teachers, leaders, and citizens, we can learn a couple of lessons from the people whom I met in India. Individually and collectively, we may need to revisit our priorities. We may need to demonstrate more respect for education and for educators. In the competitive world of knowledge work, educated individuals and educated societies are going to have a huge competitive advantage. We may also need to connect the value of a great education with our hope for a brighter future.

Many years ago, most Americans were farmers. Those days are gone. More recently, many Americans worked in manufacturing. Those days are soon to be gone. The future of America is going to be determined by knowledge workers. Education will be a key factor in determining our collective success as a society and each person’s success as an individual.

Hard-working, educated people who have hopes and dreams for a better future are going to win, no matter what country they come from.