July 22, 2024


World's finest Law

Developing Business Leaders – Clues From The Indian Civil Services

The purpose of this article is to draw a few lessons on the leadership development from the selection and grooming processes of the Indian Civil Services (ICS).

Many of my compatriots may not agree, but I firmly believe that one of the best legacies that the British Empire has left behind is the ICS, formerly known as the Imperial Civil Services. The ICS is an ‘All India Service’ and follows the Cadre system in which, the officers are allotted to the state cadres, not necessarily to the officers’ home states.

Selection Process:

After satisfying the eligibility criteria (mainly the age, academics, and nationality), aspiring candidates go through a strict selection process comprising three successive steps. First, the preliminary exam; second, the Mains exam; and third, an Interview (Personality Test).

In 2013, 776565 candidates had registered for the preliminary exam of which 323949 appeared. Of these, 14959 qualified to appear for the mains exam. Of 14959, 3003 candidates were shortlisted for the personality test. Finally, 1122 candidates successfully cleared the interview. Just 0.34% of the candidates who gave the Prelims. How does it really sound? Rigorous? Right.

Depending upon the rank in the selection process, the candidates are allotted to either Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Foreign Service or other departments including Finance, Post & Telegraph, Revenue, Secretariat and so on. All the selected candidates first go through a training session for a short period and then move to an academic staff college.

Grooming Process:

At the college, the training comprises of mainly three modules, i.e. the Foundation Course, the Professional Course Phase I, and the Professional Course Phase II. Each module has the specific objectives and the subject coverage.

The subjects covered at the Foundation level are Public Administration, Management Techniques & Behavioral Sciences, Law, Basic Economics, Political Concepts & Constitutional Law, Indian History & Culture, and Hindi.

The Professional Course Phase I covers the subjects including the Constitution of India, Basic Economic Principles, Development Administration & Rural Economics, and Law. This phase also aims at making the probationers proficient in the language, the history, geography & culture, the resource base & techno-economic potential, and the administrative ethos of the allotted the Region or the State.

In Phase I, the probationers need to develop an appropriate attitude towards the socioeconomic change & progress, the problems of the disadvantaged population, public administration & management, basic economics & five year plans, etc. During Phase I, probationers also undertake a study tour wherein they are attached to either a defense wing or a Public Sector Undertaking or a tribal Village or a voluntary agency or Bureau of Parliamentary Studies & Training, for about 8-10 weeks.

Professional Course Phase II covers a wide variety of subjects like Law & order, Civil Liberties, Civil-Military Liaison, Revenue administration, Land Reforms, Management of Natural Calamities, Public Distribution system, Agricultural Development, Women Empowerment, Integrated Child Development Programs, and the Wild Life Conservation.

The methodology across the entire training process comprises classroom teaching, experience sharing, group discussions, presentation of case studies & discussions, field tours, group assignments, physical training, simulations, internships, etc.

Now, you realize how exhaustive and tough the leadership development process is. To bring out an able administrator and an intelligent policy maker out of the staff college, it takes a mammoth effort & investment on the part of the Government.

What are the key lessons the Indian organizations can draw from the ICS model for their leadership development processes? Quite a few, actually.

Selection Process:

The charm of the process lies in its severity, its depth, and in its broad objectivity. So, what tools the organization can deploy to ascertain the rigor of the selection process?

  • Eligibility criteria (can be minimum 5 years of continuous services in the middle management grade, at least one breakthrough achievement in last two years, minimum one promotion in last three years, good mix of people- and task-orientation, and adherence to the organization’s values)
  • Detailed performance data (qualitative & quantitative) of at least last 5 successive years
  • Types of training obtained in the last few years and corresponding improvements
  • General behavioral data / observations
  • Level of acceptance among the immediate seniors
  • Degree of camaraderie enjoyed with the immediate functional & inter-functional colleagues
  • Demonstrated capabilities of initiative, problem-solving, crisis management, decision-making, engaging people along, team building, team management, communication, and ownership
  • Acknowledged willingness to grow in the career at a pace faster than the others
  • Opinion of the senior leaders about the employees’ potential based on direct observations and / or data
  • A formal process of interviewing the potential employees. The interview panel can adopt the Assessment Centre approach and must have a behavioral psychologist as a panelist. Before formally announcing the results, a nominated board member must meet the selected employees to convey the importance and seriousness of the selection process.
  • Counseling to non-selected employees and guidance for preparing again

Like the ICS, after the selection, the CEO & the HR Head should deliver an orientation brief to the selected employees and share the organization’s expectations as well as their future prospects.

Grooming Process:

Now the time is set for the robust training, both hard and soft, for grooming the potential leaders for their subsequent conversion into the real ones. So what could be the components of such a grooming process?

  • Advanced managerial preparation at a reputed institute (like General Management Program or 3 Tier Management Program of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) – Such a training helps in polishing the basic management concepts, understanding the latest developments in managerial disciplines, and in initiating the employees in the leadership role.
  • Functional brilliance & interdisciplinary appreciation – The potential leaders need to know all the aspects of the business inside out. Ways to accomplish this are the involvement in formal goal- & time-bound team assignments, individual assignments in the functions related to the employees’ current function that can lead to massive improvements, and an additional accountability of at least one more function. The employees’ all-round development in the functions including Finance, Accounts, Legal, Manufacturing, Operations, Supply Chain, Quality, Customer Service, Information Technology, Marketing, Sales, and Human Resources Management & Development is an essential requirement before formally declaring them as leaders.
  • Field visits – The ‘field’ here implies the front of any given function. Unless the employees grasp the front end and the back end of the specific function, it would be difficult for them to understand that function completely.
  • ‘Accidental’ involvement in Strategic or Critical Meetings – The last minute involvement of the potential leaders without any clue acts as a platform to check on their spontaneity, composure, preparedness, communication & presentation skills, buy-in from the Seniors, persuasion & defending abilities, and perseverance.
  • Leadership drill at a reputed institute in India or abroad – This is the final push before formally closing the leadership development process. The course selection requires a scrutiny in terms of the course content, past participants’ profile, the faculty profile, the institute’s overall reputation, reference checking on the program quality with the select past participants, and so on.
  • Mentoring – This is a very critical & broadly an invisible component wherein the selection of the mentor is a crucial aspect. The mentor could be either a senior director or an external subject expert. Periodic stocktaking, course correction, resource allocation, troubleshooting, etc. are some of the mentor’s actions that help the mentee stay on the path. Essentially, the mentor’s role is to counsel & invoke the mentee’s latent potential for the leadership.

Incentives and the retention bond – A question mark

While the grooming process is on, the challenge for the management is to retain the employees and help tone up their interest in the grooming process. Relying solely on the intrinsic motivation is too utopian a thought.

The organization must provide financial (enhanced compensation, deferred compensation, additional performance bonus, stock options, etc.) and non-financial (public recognition, family sponsorships, membership of the professional associations, etc.) incentives to the employees to make sure that they stay on the course and invest their time & efforts with the desired intensity. There can be a telescopic linkage between the incentives and the specific stages of the grooming process.

Whether to have a retention bond for such endeavors is a moot point. In my opinion, the retention bond serves the purpose only when, (1) the concerned employees have ‘proven’ faith in the management, (2) the organization stands by the employees in difficult times during the grooming process, and (3) the management walks the talk.


Concisely, the ICS model provides an excellent, an attainable, and a proven framework for the leadership development, more so in the Indian context. Here is an opportunity for the Indian business enterprises to study the ICS model in depth and evolve their own prototypes of the leadership development.

The beauty of leadership development is in the formal and the systemic nature of the process. Converting the performing employees into leaders is purely an academic, an experimental and an experiential exercise that requires effective planning, investment of time & the budgetary allocation.

Can you name a person who was born as a leader? None. Barring exceptions, leadership is an outcome of a designed effort and not a default.

Note: The information about the ICS has been taken from various websites and used only for the purpose of illustration.