Lots to Learn From Business in India

16/02/2015 15:48 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 10:59 BST

Earlier this month I flew from the Republic of Georgia where I'd been supporting the President of a global microfinance organisation, via Doha, to spend a week with some telecoms and investor clients in New Delhi.

From the inside of all these airport terminals, you can't tell much about a country - except for the fact that at Tbilisi airport, on a previous trip, I did see a farm tractor driving along the edge of the runway. All these airports are shiny, modern and full of glass. But once outside, New Delhi and its business leaders were a revelation.

My clients were there primarily to take part as speakers at a major conference, the Digital India Summit and on top of that, because of their business interests and contacts, I got to meet quite a few very interesting Indian business leaders.

The very first thing that strikes you as a UK businessperson when you meet leaders in India is just how much energy and positivity they have. Even when they're playing hardball there's an energy there. And it's infectious. At one point it struck me that perhaps if you could bottle this energy and sell it, not only would you make millions, but at a stroke you'd wipe out both the Western 'self-help' and 'how to run a business' book markets forever.

Now you could argue that this positivity is very 'now'. They've got an inspiring new Prime Minister, ambitious infrastructure and social plans, foreign investors are falling over themselves to give them money and their economy is exploding - they're getting rich very quickly indeed. Basically, they know their best days are ahead of them, while in the UK we're not so sure exactly what's ahead of us. But I got the impression that even if their economy was nose-diving, they'd still be positive.

So what makes them like this? After a few days I'd come up with a couple of reasons. First, they have a very strong shared vision of where the country is going. They're not in the slightest bit embarrassed about having huge global plans for their own business and believe they, as a nation, are in it together for the long haul. They have a collective social conscience and are determined to ensure India's growth benefits the many not just the few.

Secondly, they put their employees first. This might seem suicidal to a Western business but it works at the moment in India. What this means in practical terms is that in business, employees are well-trained, given business education and valuable skills, and rewarded well. But most of all, they are important to the business and made to realise this every day - they know they are more important than the customer. You only need to look at the booming and highly confident middle class in India to see that generally, white-collar employees do pretty well, thank you.

And this all got me thinking. Why do we always assume that customers come first? What's wrong with putting your employees before your customers - or indeed your shareholders? The other week Ikea reported worse-than-expected profits. But that was because they contributed £150m to an employee loyalty scheme and paid massive amounts in bonuses to their staff. Waitrose is another case in point. No one ever bad-mouths them for treating their employees as VIPs. OK, neither of these businesses has shareholders but the legalities of doing right by shareholders aside, even with PLCs, I wonder if there is something to be learned from the Indian model.

By this point, I thought I'd got it all worked out. India was inspirational because they have huge amounts of energy and put their employees before their customers. Then of course, the next day, I realised I was completely wrong. India is not a place where one theory fits all. As a famous Cambridge economist, Joan Robinson, said: "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true." It's a hugely complex place. For every business that puts its employees first there's another one that treats its employees very badly indeed. But Indians are getting their own back against the bad bosses.

Like the UK, India is a nation of shopkeepers. Every city-centre street is crowded with self-employed people making a living - in shops and spilling out onto the pavements. And that's what's really different about business in India and what we're starting to accept in the West. We just don't have this vibrancy or variety of business. To turn our economy around in the long term, we need many, many more industrious, inventive, energetic sole traders and small businesses. We need to help our kids to see self-employment as a good thing. They need the self-belief, skills and confidence to run with their ideas - not just confine their ambitions to a traditional 9-5 office job. If we could find half the 'get up and go' of the Indian population today, we'd be all be much better off tomorrow.