Building a Premier Leadership Cadre: The TAS Story

Lessons from India Inc’s replica of the IAS

Founding Fuel

Leadership is the engine that powers big changes in the country, as well as in India Inc. TAS is one of the oldest leadership development programmes, and the most well known.

This masterclass takes off from the book, Tata's Leadership Experiment: The Story of the Tata Administrative Service, and the ideas it represents.

The panel includes two of the co-authors, Bharat Wakhlu and Mukund Rajan, in conversation with Arun Maira, who himself is from the TAS batch of 1965. 

The Masterclass also invites three special guests from different TAS batches—Rajeev Dubey, Namita Jain and Arjun Nohwar—to discuss and understand leadership perspectives from different generations of leaders. 

Key Takeaways

Why the book?

  • There wasn’t any systematic documentation of how TAS was created and how it functioned over six decades.
  • Where did the Tatas’ emphasis on values come from?
  • What had been the impact of the TAS on the Tatas’ fortunes?
  • To see the country’s evolution since the 1991 reforms; and the Tatas provide a proxy for what was going on.
  • In recent times—post-Covid and the impact of climate change—Tatas have been one of the best examples of ESG in practice as a business house.


  • You cannot hold a beacon light for values unless you have influence, clout and leadership qualities. 
  • The founder Jamshetji Tata consciously went against the norms of his time, towards the interest of all stakeholders
  • In the JRD Tata years as well, that remained the focus.
  • The Tatas’ drew great pride in saying “we are building a nation”—that reflects something that’s not confined to shareholders alone.
  • The founder’s quote—”In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence,” reflects those values 
    • Unless you have a thriving community, you will not have thriving customers, investors or vendors. 
    • A thriving community is the concept of modern corporate responsibility. And the Tatas have been carrying the flag of stakeholder-driven capitalism for the past 150 years.
  • When taking a decision, JRD would ask himself, what is good for India? What is right for the country, for society, will turn out right for the Tatas too. 
  • The Gandhian principle of Antyodaya: if it doesn’t benefit the poorest person, it’s the wrong decision.     
  • “When Mahatma Gandhi was asked about the Tatas he said while he was fighting for India’s political freedom, Jamshetji Tata was fighting for India’s economic freedom.”

Why TAS?

  • JRD didn't call TAS a “management” service.
  • Leaders are those who take the first steps—in ways that others wish to follow.
  • When Mr Maira joined the planning commission, where the intent was to build something in a country where it’s tough to build (lack of infrastructure, too many rules, etc), he needed young minds around him who think about the country first and would challenge his ways of thinking, the government couldn’t provide people who thought like builders and leaders.
    • Mr Maira turned to Satish Pradhan who was then running the TAS and to Rajeev Dubey (from Mahindras, also ex-TAS)—and got two people who created the seed of a group who then came from other companies—ICICI, Axis Bank, etc.

The TAS leadership spirit

Arjun Nohwar (TAS batch of 2009; he was one of the people from TAS to join the planning commission):

  • There was no programme as diversified as TAS in terms of giving you exposure across industries and functions. Programmes at several other Fortune 50 companies operated within the sector and framework of that particular industry.
  • The planning commission was the ultimate learning opportunity to get a sense of how India operates.
  • What we are learning here has to be applied.

Namita Jain (TAS batch of 1991; one of the few women officers from TAS):

  • I wanted to work for a group that was known for its nation-building spirit. 
  • The Bharat Darshan—where we saw projects where Tatas had invested money and dedicated people with a view to building national capability (the Tata BP solar project, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Tata Elxis)—reinforced that I was in the right place.
  • At Taj projects, I learnt how to put organisational goals before self.  
  • The courage of convictions—which comes from solid background and training.

Rajeev Dubey (TAS batch of 1975; who’s gone on to Mahindras and then on to the governing board of ILO):

  • My experience at Mahindra: We tried to create a purpose that would appeal to the inner space of all businesses. We tried to create the possibility of people to cooperate while pursuing their own interests. 
    • What value are we creating for the business that they cannot create for themselves?
    • Articulate a purpose and through it, create a framework, and certain experiences in terms of assignment and coaching/mentoring, that any one business would have found hard to create.
    • Even within one company in the Mahindra group—M&M with different divisions—it was impossible to mandate that we move a person from one business or function to another. 

Career expectations

  • It’s not right that a central service in a group of independent companies would mandate who to take, or when, or even what salary structures they should have. So how could a central service help TAS people develop themselves as leaders and manage their own careers?
  • At TAS one got the exposure and opportunity to have many doors opened. 

The authors’ perspective

Measuring the success 

  • TAS officers brought a variety of capabilities that enabled them to be intrapreneurs in the Tata group.
  • Willfully, many of the TAS officers were placed in positions where there was a problem. 
  • There was no mollycoddling. Just provide a space for them to do the kind of things they enjoy doing that will help the Tata companies and the nation. That also became relatively less as we moved from the 1990s to the 2000s.
  • The zeal Arjun described was the kind of spark that TAS brought to the Tata group.
  • Many TAS officers transformed the businesses they were a part of, because they thought of themselves as entrepreneurs, as owners of that business.
  • The dissonance came in when the opportunity to do that began to shrink. That’s when TAS officers started to say, why bring people from outside, why not assess the talent within the group?

Leaders groomed inside vs functional managers brought in from outside and who become leaders

  • Perhaps people from TAS may be less good with the functional management that the Tata group needs—people with the latest skills.
    • These functional managers then become the leaders of the company.
  • Even leaders need clarification of dilemmas and conversation with coaches—they need continuous learning. It’s a waste of talent if after the effort is made to find the right kinds of people, you don’t maximise their potential. 
  • A big reason for the attrition in TAS is that elsewhere there will be more investment made in their human capital—more support, resources and opportunity to move into leadership roles.
  • One would expect that the HR teams that are responsible for inducting TAS officers, having done a great job of it, would continue to ensure that they thrive. 
  • Those conversations—to understand their strengths and future path—drop off a cliff after the first year of your induction.    

Is nation-building still at the heart of TAS?

  • For the first year, TAS has a very well curated programme and schedule. After orientation, you rotate between three Tata companies. You also have a superb 40-45 day immersion with an NGO where you live in a remote town or village. 
  • After that you are expected to navigate yourself and network within your peer group and alumni. There is no conscious check-in from HR.
  • On nation-building, there is no structured approach; it’s more from how you are orienting them.
  • Ratan Tata was never of the view that TAS needed to be given any elevated status. When he created the group executive council, it was almost entirely made of people from within the group who were non-TAS and people from outside the group. Cyrus Mistry too shared that perspective that you needed a mix of talent brought in from outside for fresh thinking, and also talent sourced from inside. Though Cyrus had a sense that perhaps more could be done with TAS.
    • Some of the younger CEOs appointed in Cyrus’s time were from TAS—and for various reasons many left the group after Cyrus left. 
  • But the fact remains that TAS has not been the preferred port of call. And that tells you something about some missing links. 
    • In the last six decades only two TAS officers have been elevated to the board of Tata Sons, the group’s holding company.  

What should the Tata group—or any business—do to create better leaders?

  • Leadership is going to be the driver for the creation of value for the long-term—for communities and shareholders.
    • Ensure that key leaders possess the “10+2” capabilities.
    • Look at the future and the challenges we have in the decades ahead. That they have the quality of compassion and can serve Planet Earth in a globalised world.  
    • There’s also a responsibility for senior leadership to create space for such leaders to thrive, and also be comfortable with younger leaders voicing disagreement.  
  • This will also need a change in the metrics by which an organisation’s success is measured today.
  • How do you judge value creation in the corporate world? The good news is that there are a number of initiatives, especially given the focus on ESG, to give a good sense of value creation—job creation, social impact, resource consumption, etc.
  • A lot of the turnover for the Tatas comes from overseas operations. The TAS therefore needs 
    • more representation vis-a-vis the kind of organisation the Tatas have become—international representation in the TAS, and a lot more gender diversity. 
    • the ability to take risks, entrepreneurial zeal—and demonstrate talent for that from a young age.

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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