June 2012 | Sangeeta Menon

A profile in courage

Meet Malcolm Lane, good steward of the planet, cancer survivor, UK-based director of corporate affairs at TCS, and head of the Tata Europe Corporate Sustainability Group

Born a few years after World War II, Malcolm Lane has memories of growing up in a post-war Britain where life was not particularly easy. Money was tight, shaping a “cautious approach to managing both personal and business finance in future years”, and the family had to make do with second-hand furniture. “In my teens I would deliver newspapers early every morning to make a few pence pocket money,” he recalls.

Cut to the present. The boy who once delivered the day’s news to a few houses in the neighbourhood has an audacious dream: to bring fresh hope to a billion lives.

The UK-based director of corporate affairs at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) believes it’s an achievable dream. In his additional role as head of the Tata Europe Corporate Sustainability Group, it’s a dream that he sees turning into reality every day. It takes shape in the form of a renovated nursery and play area for the children of a deprived part of London; or in the 15 Indian villages where child labour has been eradicated through free education. It finds expression in the healing touch that helps countless cancer patients in India and Africa. It is the voice that raises awareness about the impact of climate change on the environment and on human life. It’s a dream that gets bigger and bigger…

What Mr Lane loves most about his job at TCS is “the freedom to follow this grand dream, to drive business and society action with the government and the United Nations, as well as encourage other businesses to live up to their responsibilities.” The Tata Europe Corporate Sustainability Group, he explains, seeks to create synergies across the sustainability initiatives of companies such as TCS, Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Steel in Europe, Tata Global Beverages and 16 other Tata companies in the United Kingdom. Not an easy task, admittedly, given that each company has its own agenda built over the years.

Much from those with much
“So we proceed with centrally-led corporate sustainability strategies for each of these companies; with some geographically dispersed strategy or action,” Mr Lane points out. “Some of these are mature, with sustainable action; some are less developed, using simple philanthropy. However, all recognise that there is value in our combined strength.” As he keeps reminding himself and those around him — from those who have much, much is expected.

“As I listen to other companies describing their actions to address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which seek to address the needs of 1.5 billion living on less than $1.25 a day, all too often examples of excellence are cited that address the needs on a village mindset impacting perhaps 10,000 people,” he says. “Whilst that is great for those 10,000 people, it will just not achieve the scale to address the needs of 1.5 billion. I am, therefore, encouraging the United Nations to up their game by driving strategy with scale in terms of impact.”

His attention is equally on individual employees who have the potential to become important catalysts of change. Inspired by Mr Lane’s deep commitment to the larger issues that confront society, TCS employees in the UK are increasingly volunteering to do their bit. Starting with just three employees, he now guides a team of 50 volunteer champions and their teams.

He recalls one particularly memorable occasion, when three TCS employees went skydiving to raise funds in aid of those suffering from multiple myeloma. Mr Lane himself was diagnosed with this rare and incurable form of cancer in 2007, and has ever since devoted much effort towards creating awareness about the disease, raising funds for cancer research and for the treatment and rehabilitation of those suffering from cancer.

His characteristic optimism and his faith — he has been closely involved with the church as a volunteer since his early 20s — help him see the silver lining even in suffering: “Cancer has been the worst but maybe also the best thing that has happened to me. Cancer makes me appreciate life. It shouldn’t take an illness to bring us to realise the wonderful gift of life that we all have. Life has an unknown ‘live by date’, so we should live life to the full, and with compassion for others. For those of us with faith, that faith is meaningless unless we live it in practical ways that help people in need, whether nearby or the millions living in poverty worldwide.”

In Tata, Mr Lane finds the perfect partner in compassion. Interestingly, he knew little about the Tata heritage when TCS approached him in 2001. He had spent 30 years at British Telecom and was enjoying a well-deserved break after taking early retirement when TCS asked him if he would “help a little on the telecom account”. He took up the offer, he says, “impressed by the living representation of the Tata brand that I saw in the TCS people”.

Putting faith in action
In 2004, he mentioned to AS Lakshmi, who was head of TCS in the UK, that he would like to take on the additional responsibility of developing the community initiatives at TCS — and the journey kept getting more exhilarating. “My interest in corporate sustainability comes from a lifelong aim to live my faith in action” says Mr Lane.

The one casualty as he follows his dream is his work-life balance; he admits to faring rather poorly in his attempts to strike the perfect balance. However, Mr Lane makes sure to take time out to travel with Sue, his wife of 35 years and his greatest strength (a running joke between the couple is that “Malcolm is a cancer survivor and Sue is the cancer sufferer”).

Some of Mr Lane’s most precious moments these days are spent with his two-year-old grandson, Alfie, who at once delights him and fills him with a sense of responsibility. “If I ignore the environment and then the worst predictions of climate change come true, in 50 years’ time he will think that granddad could have done something, but why didn’t he? We are all asked by God to be good stewards of the planet, so let’s do it by all means, large and small.”