Do Indian CEOs like to be called by their initials?

Back in the early 90’s I had won the pitch for the advertising business of one of the large Indian business houses. Naturally our last round of pitching involved the company Chairman ( also the owner of the company who had taken over his father’s empire ), a young debonair, westernised gentleman, known for his lavish and social lifestyle, who was going to be whisked away by a helicopter if we didn’t close the deal in 30 minutes. Fortunately, in my company, where everyone from the CEO to Account Executive were on a first name basis, we naturally decided to call the Chairman by his first name throughout the meeting. And he did likewise. The Chairman of the company was then under 40, and that made it easier for us to address each other informally by our first names.

It is only after we won the business, that I realized that the Chairman of the company was not called by his first name by his own employees. Even the much older employees who were perhaps even 20 years older called him VJM. When those 3 initials were first mentioned to me by one of his senior staff in the question ” Do you think we should be showing this to VJM?” I wasn’t quite sure who we were talking about. In fact, I didn’t quite understand the J. Because to the best of my knowledge the Chairman’s father’s name started with the letter V. So I didn’t quite make the association. Suddenly in a flash, it dawned on me that VJ corresponded to the two syllables of his first name (quite inventive ). And of course, the third letter stood for his second name.

I was finally put into a boardroom with the Chairman and about 10 of his senior board members. This is when it really got awkward. Everyone but me referred to him as VJM. I was suddenly in two minds. Should I follow the others or continue to call him by the first name? I chose the latter. Because the way you address people does stick. You can’t change it later. Also, first names make you feel more equal. And for whatever reason, the Chairman saw me as equal but saw his employees as unequal. I was happy for it to remain that way.

Ever since I have realised that this is true of all Indian companies. In one company I worked at, the Managing Director and the Joint Managing Director were referred to as HS and SS. So when people wanted to relate what happened at a meeting they would say ” HS quite liked the idea, but then SS shot it down”. To the outsider, this might seem funny. I used to address HS by his first name in meetings and while speaking to him. Then one day the boss’s secretary who liked me told me in an aside that in emails where other employees are addressed, I should refer to him as Mr. S, rather than by his first name or his pet name. I followed that rule. Because I realised that I was being given a special license to address the boss by his first name and that was good enough.

Today I read a journalistic piece by the employee of a company, who was writing about her boss in a trade journal and referring to her boss as MN. I couldn’t help smiling. Because I had no idea that MN was called MN. It was amusing.

My tips on how to address your boss

Although the workplace has become a less formal environment than it was a few decades ago, it is still necessary to always address your boss in a respectful manner. Be aware that the tone you use when communicating with your boss is just as important as what you say. Choosing the right moment to speak your mind is also critical. Listening to what your boss has to say is also an important part of respectful communication.

Its not about the initials. Its about how you behave and your tone and manner that really shows respect. But if your boss is one of those who actually likes being called by the initials, and encourages people to do so, you may not have much of a choice. I have noticed Indian bosses like to be called by their initials as a sign of respect which they demand of you. I find it quite silly but then that’s reality!

At the beginning of the article, I said Indian CEOs like to be called by their initials. I think it is more prevalent in promoter companies. In private companies typically people like to call their CEO Chanda ma’am rather than CK or Chandra rather than NC. But perhaps there are some Indian companies that are also influenced by the Indian promoter culture. Those who can’t even call their bosses that, may just say Ma’am or Sir. Of course, Mr. So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So would have been ideal.

Look at it another way that calling your boss AHP is a lot better than calling him ‘Sir’, the other popular way of addressing the boss ( business owner ) in India. ( Sirji has become quite popular after the Idea commercials ).

I think the Indian CEOs should loosen up a little. It’s modern times!

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

2 Comments

  1. CEO.

    Therein lies your answer.

    Abbreviations, the bane of all jargon, is used to “elevate” a concept. Only if you are on the inside track would you know what that means.

    Saying Chief Executive Officer takes too long.

    And saying “Chief” sounds too pally.

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