Business Today

The Dilemma of Context

Vishal Sikka, the new CEO at Infosys, has his task cut out in ensuring his employer has a longer shelf life than many give it credit for.
Josey Puliyenthuruthel | Print Edition: July 20, 2014
Business Today Managing Editor Josey Puliyenthuruthel
Business Today Managing Editor Josey Puliyenthuruthel

Every leader is a product of a given context. Some of Abraham Lincoln's views on slavery and equal rights for blacks and whites may be abominable today but, in his time, were almost progressive. Lee Kwan Yew, father of modern Singapore, created an island of prosperity over a short three decades, keeping personal liberties on a tight leash. The long list could go on: Deng Xiaoping, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher... Business, too, has its list. Thomas Edison, John Rockefeller, Charles Pfizer, James Duke, Cecil Rhodes, Jamsetji N. Tata, and Dhirubhai Ambani.

In India, the fast-changing context of the last three decades has posed challenges on its business leaders and several, if not most, have struggled with transitions. Most of the leaders from the pre-1985 era have put even the present behind them and are coasting along with time. Even those who earned their chops later have struggled with updating their worldview. Infosys, Indian Tech's poster boy, offers one such instance. Its leaders were among the best in the information technology space in the early 1980s, when they started up their business. It was not just their coding and project management skills that made them pioneers in the business in the 1990s, but also their ability to think beyond their immediate context in creating a stunningly profitable and robust business that scaled. The primary architect behind this growth was N.R. Narayana Murthy, the leader of seven co-founders at Infosys. His "predictable, sustainable, profitable and de-risked" model combined with his "revenue is vanity, profit is sanity" outlook was conservative but sound. Infosys's delivery excellence meant that it could charge a premium over competitors. But as the market landscape changed with a savvy competition that was happy with lower margins, that "Infosys premium" vanished into ether.

The company made the big mistake that many winners make: repeat what worked in the past expecting it will work in the future. Unfortunately, in the short year he was there, Murthy, who was back in a CEO-like role after seven years, couldn't make much change to that. But he may have made another mistake by bringing his son, Rohan Murty, who is a whiz-kid in wireless technologies, into a seemingly innocuous role but one that quickly morphed into bigger than life. Pain in any company's journey is necessary but Rohan, as Senior Associate Editor Goutam Das's story tells us, may have done more hurt than good for Infosys in his short stay there. I heard Rohan speak at Murthy's retirement from the Chairman's role in August 2011. Talking about how his father spent more time at Infosys than with his family, Rohan said he'd come to appreciate how "the power of an idea" can consume a man. His father's intensity, couched in a 20-something's casual shirt, jeans and sneakers, came through strongly in that short speech. I promise you, dear reader, that you will hear more of Rohan in the coming years in a context that he's better cut out for. Meanwhile, Vishal Sikka, the new CEO at Infosys, has his task cut out in ensuring his employer has a longer shelf life than many give it credit for. I wish it paranoia and luck in equal measure.

It is Union Budget season. For the first time in nearly three decades, a party with majority presence in the Lok Sabha will lead its allies in presenting a Budget on July 10 and signal its plan for the economy in the next five years. Will the first Budget of this National Democratic Alliance government reflect Narendra Modi's pragmatism in a year the economy is expected to be buffeted by a weak monsoon and rising oil prices? We present reportage and expert opinion on what to expect. Three other stories I'd recommend: how corporate debt restructuring packages seem to be failing, why Kushagra Bajaj is readying a Rs 12,000-crore power plant, and how Tamil Nadu's "Amma Unavagams" (or Amma canteens) may, indeed, be an innovation in fighting urban poverty.

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