It seems from the outside that you have been on a sprint ever since your appointment as Chairman of Tata Sons. How is the marathoner in you coping with the rush?

As a long-distance runner, it is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You have to, first, address the weaknesses. In parallel you have to build on your strengths and, then, persevere. That’s what I have set out to do. Since taking over, we have spent considerable time understanding our strengths and what we need to do to emerge stronger.

There are multiple facets to this journey, not only in terms of the financial analysis but also in terms of a review of our current strategy, competitive performance and talent. One of the initial areas of focus has been on building a team with the requisite skills to get the immediate job done.

From a business perspective, we have focused on situations that required priority intervention, such as the Tata Steel-Thyssenkrupp merger and the Tata Teleservices-Bharti deal. Suffice to say, we are focused on the issues that need our attention. Overall, it has been a good experience thus far.

We have to be best-in-class on growth and best-in-class on profit; both are equally important. It’s about striking the right balance in any given context.

You have been speaking about the 'One Tata' idea since you took charge. What is the essence of this concept?

If you reflect on our heritage, our value systems, our culture and our capabilities, we are a group unlike any other. Our qualities and attributes enable us to stand apart from other conglomerates.

'One Tata' is a concept I have reflected on for a long time over my journey with the Tata group, and it got crystallised distinctly in my mind after I took over this role.

‘One Tata’ is a mindset. What does it mean to be a part of the Tata group — for a company, for an employee, for a leader? What is it that we can do better together to draw on our collective strength, to leverage the relationships and partnerships, the know-how and expertise, the goodwill and fortitude we have at our command as a group? The synergetic integration of Tata companies can make a significant difference to each individual within the Tata ecosystem. That, in turn, can make a difference to Tata Sons and to society.

‘One Tata’ will certainly have a financial impact. In addition, it will also be beneficial for our employees, their career paths as well as the wider community. A fundamental element of ‘One Tata’ is to affect the thinking of our senior leaders and to ensure that they cascade it down the line to their teams. It’s not rocket science; it’s a shift in thinking and mindset.

You spoke about how ‘One Tata’ can benefit Tata Sons. What about Tata Trusts, its biggest shareholder?

We should not view ‘One Tata’ through the prism of Tata Sons, Tata Trusts and so on. Rather, we should see it in the context of the Tata group in its entirety. The amount of work Tata Trusts undertakes in social development is unparalleled. Every individual Tata company also follows this principle and has made a significant impact in our communities. But there are different Tata companies doing the same kind of work; sometimes, we don’t take a collective view. If we did — and I don’t mean by this that we ought to approach every social uplift initiative as one — and with a bit of planning, the impact of our endeavours would be far greater and they would unfold on a much wider canvas.

But ‘One Tata’ is not about defining everything in terms of the final output. It’s only when we start collaborating that we become aware of the possibilities. Collaboration is a journey. You cannot set off on this journey with a specific goal that has to be reached by a specific date. Collaboration is a culture and it has to be nurtured and built.

We have a culture of which we are very proud. We have many characteristics that are unique to us and have been built into our DNA over the past 150 years. We should reinforce these values and supplement them with collaboration, accountability, performance and agility.

We must be open to enriching our culture with additional traits that can benefit us all. And today we have high-impact digital technology tools at hand to help ease the way. Our foundation is very strong and we can bolster it further, while making it agile for changes which the future will bring.

Would you like to expand on working together with Tata Trusts?

Collaboration with Tata Trusts will be a part of the group’s social commitment. It is not just about contributing to the Trusts’ projects or to the Trusts, but also about tapping into their institutional capabilities and knowledge. Our social uplift efforts should be a part of the ecosystem the Trusts have built. Once you begin to engage, you can see the myriad new possibilities that open up to us.

You recently spoke about the Tata group needing to concentrate on specific areas. Which of these demands the most attention and which is the most challenging?

Each sphere is equally important. Agility, high performance, culture, talent, customer focus — it’s when you operationalise each of these that you see where we need to improve. On talent, the question is: are we able to attract the best people out there and offer them opportunities to grow? Talent is not just about hiring; it is about nurturing and building leadership skills.

We have to grow in all dimensions. Obviously, we need to have suitable programmes and the right technology tools. But even then, it’s not easy. To go digital, for instance, we can put the infrastructure in place but it is largely up to our companies and employees to take the transformational leap into the digital world. This requires commitment at the top levels in each company. It cannot happen overnight by stating that we will go digital and allocate five people to the task.

Customer centricity, too, cannot be compartmentalised. We cannot say that 10 people in any given Tata company can take care of customer focus. Having a customer-centric culture means that every person in the company, from the chief executive to the front desk to the back office to staff at every level, should be aware of the actual impact he or she has on a customer. I’m not saying that the Tatas don’t have a customer-centric focus, but we should be consistent. It should be embedded in our culture.

Challenging does not come into the equation. Any and all of them can be handled if we have the right outlook. However, we have to be honest about where we excel and where we don’t.

No other market, I believe, is going to grow faster than India in the next 10-20 years. It’s a massive market, the biggest game in town.

Where do you think we are weak as a group?

Every Tata company is different and each one of them is aware of its strengths and drawbacks. We have to work on bridging the gaps and that is a continuous process. The minute you proclaim, "I have arrived," you have lost. As I said earlier, we need to bring more uniformity to the group.

Once the 'One Tata' concept is ingrained in our DNA, it will be a tool that helps us progress in every dimension. It is the culture of accountability. We already have a fantastic culture, one that is fair, transparent and ethical. We need to also acquire qualities like agility, collaboration and high performance. These take time to develop.

As somebody who knows technology and digitisation intimately, what is the optimum way for a group such as Tata to make the most of the digital revolution?

Digitisation is an area where we have a lot to achieve. It's not just a project; it's a new way of thinking. The world is changing rapidly; every physical aspect now has a digital overlay. Tata companies have to think through their digital journey. They have to understand what it means to them, be open enough to adopt and adapt, and make the necessary adjustments in their business models. We will definitely engage with our companies and bring them the necessary tools to get them started on this journey.

You said in an interview with Forbes magazine that there will "definitely" be a pruning of the Tata business portfolio. Would you like to elaborate?

In a business group, you constantly have to take decisions that make financial sense. I have clearly stated the emphasis on returns and capital allocation, but that does not mean we will exit a business that does not meet our targets. We will always work hard together to realise the potential of every Tata business. There will be times, though, when hard decisions are inevitable.

We have to be performing at the highest level in every business we are in. If we have underperformed the competition, while the market or that industry has potential, then we must be held accountable. It’s not good enough to say this year was better than last year. It’s important to consider the profile of the industry, existing opportunities and potential, and perform to match that potential. The Tata group should be known for the performance track record which we have built through ethical practices.

Ratan Tata had said that Tata enterprises should be No 1 or 2 in their industry, or they have no business to be in that business. Do you hold the same view?

What Mr Tata meant was that each company has to be a top performer, and I absolutely agree with his view. High performance is non-negotiable. However, we should appreciate that a steel company is different from an IT company, which is different from a finance company and so forth.

We have several advantages, including a unique brand. When we start a business, we also have the tailwind to grow quickly. Why, then, should we not aim to be best in class? We owe it to ourselves, to our stakeholders, to the Tata brand.

I think every person running a business knows what high performance is. To me, business starts with aspiration, followed by strategy, talent, skills and the rest. If we don’t aspire, we will not reach the heights we want to.

Will financial performance and profitability become more important than growth in the realignment taking shape in the group?

That is like asking whether being fit is more important than running fast. The two go together. We have to be best-in-class on growth and best-in-class on profit; both are equally important. It’s about striking the right balance in any given context. No business can survive on growth or on profit alone.

The Indian domestic market is said to be an area that Tata companies will pay more attention to from now on. What are the expected benefits here?

The opportunity for many of our businesses in India is fantastic. They should use this opportunity to make investments and participate in and contribute to India’s growth story. I’m quite bullish about the country’s economic prospects.

No other market, I believe, is going to grow faster than India in the next 10-20 years. Considering our demographic profile, we will have a consumer population that is going to have higher spending power. It’s a massive market, the biggest game in town. Having said that, our businesses need to understand their individual domestic prospects, because all of them may not have the same growth opportunities. Each will need to craft its own strategy and this will have to be company specific.

A constant criticism of the Tata group is that it is too widespread and, consequently, too unwieldy to capitalise fully on its potential. What’s your opinion?

There is definitely some truth in that. We have far too many companies in the Tata group and some level of consolidation is essential. Our aim should be to achieve the optimal level of consolidation without losing the entrepreneurial spirit we are famous for. We have not worked out all the details. We have our thoughts on this and we will consider them carefully.

There have been several new appointments at senior levels at the Tata group. How do you see these working to the group’s advantage?

We need certain core capabilities in-house to execute what we have envisioned. For Tata Sons to work effectively with our operating companies and to provide them the necessary help, we require multiple skill sets. To enable our companies to pinpoint opportunities and make the right capital allocation and investment decisions, we need to strengthen our strategy consultation and project management capabilities.

We need to build such core capabilities within the Tata Strategic Management Group so that it can be a cohesive partner to the group. This does not mean that we will not reach out to external agencies when required, but it is imperative to develop certain core capabilities as well.

We are enhancing our leadership capabilities in select businesses. Apart from the big three of Tata Steel, Tata Motors and Tata Consultancy Services [TCS], we want to have an improved play in financial services, infrastructure, consumer businesses, and in travel and hospitality.

If you had a three-point message for Tata employees, what would that be?

One Tata, One Tata, One Tata. I want to reiterate: let’s collaborate and have aspirations. These need not be at the business level; it could relate to individuals. I keep saying that every person has more potential than that person realises. We need our people to be aspirational; everything will fall into place once that happens.

What’s your expectation of the group in the coming five years?

Our focus should be on the future. We need to be agile, build abilities to respond to changes quickly and adapt to the rapidly evolving digital world. We need to transform existing businesses and build new businesses by adapting to the digital world and changing consumer aspirations.

Besides the obvious, what is the difference in being the Tata group chairman and the head of TCS?

TCS is a truly global company. I have had the good fortune to be a part of TCS’s journey as it worked with global clients who were focused on adapting their business to new technologies and changing market dynamics. It gave me valuable insights in business transformation and how technologies impact business models.

My tenure in TCS also taught me how to build and scale businesses rapidly. I have developed global relationships and have a deeper appreciation for cultures around the world. It has opened my thinking in several ways.

At the group level, the nature of the job is different. It is perhaps the greatest platform across diverse business groups. We have a huge and talented employee base and a terrific culture, but there are challenges for sure.

I have become more conscious of the word ‘purpose’ than ever before. I realise the huge responsibility placed on me to develop ‘business with purpose’. I have to take a broader view about what’s good for the group, the industry and the country. Additionally, the decision-making process is different. I’m enjoying every moment of it.