Empathy and ethics: Ratan Tata’s message to India’s youth on their potential and purpose in India’s progress

Ratan Tata, industrialist, investor, philanthropist, and Chairman of Tata Trusts, in an exclusive conversation with Shradha Sharma, Founder and CEO of YourStory, talks about the potential of India’s youth in powering progress, and the underplayed role of fairness, empathy, and ethics in growth.
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Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Trusts, in conversation with YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma

In a matter of days after it was announced, the YS TV live session of Ratan Tata with YourStory MediaFounder and CEO Shradha Sharma had seen over 36,000 registrations. It was the largest number of registrations garnered for a live broadcast on YourStory, till date.

The interest, of course, is understandable.

Ratan Tata is one of the most successful businessmen in the world who single-handedly took the Tata Groupto global heights. During his 20-year tenure, the revenues of the group grew substantially. Under his leadership, the Tata Group also carried out some of the boldest and most iconic deals, one of them being the Jaguar Land Rover acquisition in 2008.

The group had also taken over a series of famous global brands, from Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley Tea and British Steel. Tata Steel made the biggest corporate deal by an Indian Company in 2007. It purchased Anglo-Dutch steel manufacturer Corus Group for $11.3 billion. Ratan Tata also played a role in the creation of India’s most affordable car, the Tata Nano.

Ratan Tata’s appeal with the youth of the country is also quite fascinating. Within months of joining Instagram, he notched up 2.7 million followers on the image-sharing platform where he posts about his life, entrepreneurship, and social causes.

Categorised in the high-risk age bracket due to his age, Ratan Tata, who has stayed at home since the onset of the lockdown in March, took time off for this exclusive interaction with Shradha Sharma.

Watch the full conversation on YourStory Leadership Talk series here:

A growth story underscored by ethics and empathy

There are many important lessons to be learned from Ratan Tata’s life story and the Tata Group’s concept of a benevolent employer. Caring for its employees’ needs and for the wider community has made it a household name for trust and integrity across the Indian subcontinent.

Ratan Tata’s own foray into the Tata Group began with a lesson in empathy. Rather than getting a supervisory role, his first job at the Tata Steel factory was operating the blast furnace and shovelling limestone. He often walked to work from his quarters there, and this interaction with workers at the grassroots would go on to help him understand their needs better as he went on to play a bigger role in the company.

In his conversation with Shradha, Ratan Tata also recalled an incident he faced after he took over as the chairman of Tata Group. There was a major strike at the Tata Motors plant, which turned violent, with workers beaten up and managers stabbed.

“I stayed for four days at the plant to say that we are together. We overcame the strike and started to work again,” he said.

This empathetic approach paid rich dividends not just for Tata, but also for Tata Motors as there were labour union agreements coming up and payment of bonus to the workers. The management was not in favour of such payments, but Ratan Tata was insistent on paying the bonus as the workers stood with them. Fortunately, the workers voluntarily decided not to take the bonus. “This was a psychological turnaround on the back of a rather dangerous situation,” Ratan Tata said.

Empathy played a key role yet again in 2008 when Tata Motors acquired Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in the UK. “In Coventry, where the plant was located, there were rumours that we were going to close down the factory,” said Ratan Tata.

The odds were certainly stacked against Tata Motors, with resistive employees who were uncertain about the future. Tata reached out to the employees and held a town hall meeting, where all their concerns were addressed in a transparent manner.

Addressing the employees, Ratan Tata had said: “I really do not know what we will do, but I can assure you we do not wish to close down. We should work shoulder-to-shoulder and revive the two brands and the glory they had at one stage.” This approach worked wonders for JLR. Jaguar’s annual loss of £400m in 2008 turned almost overnight into handsome profits.

On the need for empathy during COVID-19 pandemic

Ratan Tata expressed deep anguish over the industry-wide layoffs that have taken place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “The initial tendency when the virus hit was to lay off people. Is that going to solve your problem? I hope we never have such a case, but if we did have another case of this type, I think we’ll have a much better understanding of what people could do, and companies could be reacting much faster in the right way, rather than just letting people go,” the 82-year-old doyen said.

Ratan Tata

Tata also spoke out about the condition that migrant workers and daily wagers found themselves in, amidst the pandemic. 

“That labour force which was huge, one day was just told, ‘there is no work for you, we don’t have a way of finding means for sending you home’. These are the people that have worked for you, these are the people who have served you all their careers so you send them out to live in the rain? Is that your definition of ethics when you treat your labour force that way? Truly enlightened managers or owners would try to solve problems for the labour force,” Tata implored all business owners to contemplate.

On the role of business ethics

Ratan Tata also addressed the role of business ethics in growth, and the eternal debate of stakeholders versus shareholders. “To a great extent, a company is viewed by its performance, by its profits basically. The financial and the business segment, unfortunately, more often than not, look at the numbers and view you on that basis, rather than the more holistic issues of employee or customer happiness and fairness,” he said.

“However, if you overlook the ethics of the company you chair, more often than not, at some point in the future, you pay a price for it,” he added.

On startups being one of the best learning experiences

Today, Ratan Tata counts his interest in the startup ecosystem as among his better learning experiences.

“Getting involved with personal investments as I have been trying to support startups. It’s been a learning experience for me. With humility, I have to say that I haven’t brought any magic with me, but I have chosen to support enterprises that seem to attract me from a founder’s position - what the company is trying to do,” he says.

On the role of India’s youth in its progress

“I have always enjoyed the company of spirited and enthusiastic youth of the country. Their energy is truly infectious, and they make me feel like I haven’t aged at all. Today’s webinar with 33,000 young minds was one of the most energising conversations I have had in a while. I wish them all the very best in their own journeys and hope they contribute to making India one of the global economic powerhouses,” said Ratan Tata on his Instagram post about the interaction.

Tata was also optimistic about the way forward, urging the youth not to lose hope, and to innovate and collaborate for the good of all.

“The bottom line is that we should not lose hope and be desolate, but unite with those finding solutions to end this crisis. Some of the world’s best innovations tend to emerge when we’re in crisis,” he adds.

“The young people of India are a larger part of the population than the rest of the world and I wish to see the day where India becomes an economic powerhouse driven by the creativity and ethical behaviour of its young people,” he said, signing off.

Edited by Javed Gaihlot