The dilemma of being Nandan Nilekani

Much is being reported and celebrated on the return of one of the original co-founders of Infosys to its helm as chairman. But is that what he may have wanted? Is it desirable? What kind of lessons emerge?

Charles Assisi

[By Australia India Institute (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr]

This is as informed a punt as punts can get because I could not speak first-hand to the central protagonists at Infosys—save listen to my colleagues who last heard Nandan Nilekani address analysts on Friday morning and the media in the evening after taking over as chairman of Infosys. I’m told his demeanour had changed from relaxed in the morning to curt in the evening. Clearly, there must be a lot on his mind.

I spoke to some people who have seen him from close quarters and asked them a few questions.

  • What would you do if you were in Nilekani’s shoes?
  • What does this episode say about NR Narayana Murthy and Vishal Sikka?
  • Are there lessons here for those in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India, and those aspiring to leadership positions?

Some quick pointers, answers, stories and learnings emerged.

Lesson #1: Minds can change

Those who have seen and known Nilekani for years now, talk of him as someone who thinks fast, executes relentlessly, and stays emotionally detached when it comes to decision making. Though, whether he ought to take on the top job at Infosys is one decision he vacillated for a while. Most people attribute it to multiple reasons.

The most important of which is that he had gone on to think up and execute Project Aadhaar—one of the largest and most complex assignments in contemporary history for any chief executive, be they in the public or private sector. To get it done though, he has had to navigate enormous complexity. While he accomplished much in his tenure as the man who saw the project through, there is much that remains unaccomplished. The larger picture is visible only to a few people in the ecosystem like him. He cannot take his eyes off the ball. And people from across the world have their eyes on the outcomes of this project.

When looked at from that perspective, Infosys and the crisis there is a fire he wouldn’t want to get into. Whatever public perception may be, he has outgrown that entity and moved on to larger things.

Stepping in as chairman then is a bit of a comedown for him. Not just that—there are multiple issues that have gone unreported and continue to remain outside the public domain. For instance, there are reports doing the rounds that claim to have originated from whistle blowers. While its veracity is still to be authenticated, it is under scrutiny. If any of the charges in it are proven, it can have damaging consequences not just for Infosys, but to the reputation of its leaders.

Why did he finally bite the bullet and take it upon himself to clear the muddied waters?

It can be argued that his personal wealth is tied to the fortunes of Infosys. But that said, there is no taking away from that this must have been an excruciatingly painful call to take.

Again on the back of multiple conversations with people from across the ecosystem, when asked what would you do if you were Nilekani, those who have known him and could see the world from his eyes put it like this.

Assuage the damage that has been inflicted by the warring parties and exit as quickly as possible

  • If I were Nilekani, I would be compelled to do what he is doing right now. Not because I want to do it. But because it is in the larger interests of the shareholders to do it, and I, as Nilekani, am a shareholder in Infosys as well.
  • How would I go about it? I’d be clear the fires at Infosys must be doused, reassure shareholders and institutional investors the ship will be steadied, infuse confidence building measures, assuage the damage that has been inflicted by the warring parties that include Murthy and Sikka, and exit as quickly as possible.
  • This may be a tough job for most people. But after having built out the ecosystem that is Aadhaar and having been through the wringer, Nilekani knows exactly how to build consensus.
  • And contrary to popular belief, Nilekani may not be the best man right now for the job either. This is because the nature of the industry is such that the half-life of somebody at the helm of a technology company is getting shorter every year. Entities like these need fresh blood. What Nilekani could do at 26, he may not be able to do at 62. He is acutely aware of that. But given the kind of crisis staring at the entity, it leaves him with little choice but to don the mantle, because his name can assure the markets, investors and public sentiment in the entity.

When probed further on what do they think of how Murthy and Sikka conducted themselves, a few thoughts echoed consistently.

Murthy hasn’t come to terms that when it is time to let go, you must let go. If he had, destiny would have conferred greatness upon him. But he stayed wedded to his ideas.

As for Sikka who put in his papers in a huff, whatever his intent may have been, another lesson emerges—you cannot impose a culture on any entity. It evolves over time.

If more perspective may be needed, the CEO of a technology company said, “In Silicon Valley, things are easier because you manage people. In India, you manage people and systems including the government. It is a tough ask on any CEO, particularly if you have been parachuted from the outside to take over a ship as large as Infosys.”

So how did things come to such a pass? As recently as two months ago, Nilekani had declined to comment on Infosys. He had then said there are other things on his mind and this is part of his history. But on the back of the most recent developments, and as articulated earlier, he was perhaps compelled to change his mind.

Lesson #2: It’s not just about profits

10,000 miles away in the US, earlier last week on a Wednesday morning, Steve Case, an American investor, entrepreneur and businessman, tweeted an interesting set of numbers. It pointed at how many years employees last at the world’s largest technology companies in America. I looked at it with much interest.

Company

Average years people work

Google

1.90

Oracle

1.89

Apple

1.85

Amazon

1.84

Twitter

1.83

Microsoft

1.81

Airbnb

1.64

Snap Inc

1.62

These numbers are in line with the data put out by the United States Department of Labor. It highlights that people do not last too long at American technology companies. This raises a few questions about the culture of Silicon Valley that is celebrated in many parts of the world, India included.

Why is a culture that creates systems where people last less than two years celebrated?

  • Why is a culture that creates systems where people last less than two years celebrated? Is it worth looking at it with star-struck eyes?
  • Why do people last only this long at a technology company as against the median American norm of 4.5 years? Is it because people in tech companies there burn out too soon?
  • If people burn out as fast as they do, is it because brain banks that power these entities are hard charging brutes?

For as long as I can remember though, most of us in India have looked at Silicon Valley with awe. What will it take to emulate that world? We’ve naively dubbed Bengaluru the “Silicon Valley of India”. Then there are those who argue India’s equivalent of Silicon Valley is Pune, not Bengaluru.

But like I said earlier, a culture cannot be cloned. This is something I had dwelled upon in an earlier column.

Then there is that other metrics called GDP most of us use to look at development. Is it necessarily the right metric? This is a theme that gets the attention of Arun Maira, former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, and is one of the topics he touches upon in his most recent book titled Listening for Well Being where he tried to address the issue.

“Amongst people like us, growth has become a shorthand for growth of GDP only. Whereas human beings value growth in many other things that matter to them…. These include our dignity, fairness in society, security in our lives, sustainability of our environmental resources, and happiness. However, these qualities that we value so much in our lives and societies are not measurable in monetary terms. Therefore, they are excluded from conventional economic measures of growth.”

I asked if I may speak to him for a while and he graciously agreed. He spent some time sharing his thoughts on the theme and gently made the point that we live in a world where we ought to learn how to listen harder as opposed to shout louder.

I think it pertinent. Because when thought about, and extrapolated to the beast that is Silicon Valley and all that we aspire to be, my mind goes back to the time I had stumbled across a very compelling post on Medium by Julia Cheiffetz, an executive editor at Harper Collins Publishers. It had me stunned for a while. “I had a baby and cancer when I worked at Amazon. This is my story,” she wrote. 

Before I go any further, a caveat. I use Amazon as a metaphor, as a representative for all the entities that operate out of Silicon Valley. Cheiffetz signed off with a few lines—at once harsh, and poignant. “Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents. Reevaluate your parental leave policies. You can’t claim to be a data-driven company and not release more specific numbers on how many women and people of colour apply, get hired and promoted, and stay on as employees. In the absence of meaningful public data—especially retention data—all we have are stories. This is mine.”  

But most of us are weaned on stories of what kind of fantastic entities these are and what kind of superhuman creatures power them. If you were to listen to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon talk, for instance, it would be very easy to think of him as not just superhuman, but a superbly warm creature as well. And why not? For instance, in the hyperlink above, when he addressed the students at Princeton, it was easy to be awed by him.

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy—they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices,” he tells the students.

But between Cheiffetz’s essay and a pointer that led me to a long investigation by The New York Times on what really happens to people Inside Amazon, particularly white collar workers, I am compelled to once again reassess Bezos.

The New York Times writes, “Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. ‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

“In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away labourers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

“But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. ‘The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,’ said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.”

And then there is this little bit from the report that stayed in my head: Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

Are these hard-charging kinds the leaders what we want or aspire to be?

Stories like these raise more questions.

  • Are these hard-charging kinds the leaders what we want or aspire to be? That is the question Maira, without stating explicitly in as many words, asks of us.
  • If evidence be needed, look at that other beast called Uber and its until recently much-celebrated CEO Travis Kalanick. That he has lasted as CEO for six-and-a-half years makes him an outlier. But through all those years, he has earned much wrath as well—and it is payback time.

Nobody was willing to come on the record to state this in as many words. The writing on the wall is clear for Indian IT companies. The numbers are there for all to see. Indian tech CEOs are worried about productivity. The evidence is there for all to see in the declining revenues per employee, linear growth, and lower valuations.

Conventional wisdom has it then that a new kind of CEO is called for—the hard-charging kind from Silicon Valley. Sikka, apparently, fits the mould. Nobody is willing to come on the record about this. But some digging around on public forums like Quora later, some pointers emerge from employee posts.

After he got in, the culture at Infosys seemed to be changing. For instance, the dress code moved from formals to informal. He was always on. The bureaucracy was being dismantled so the entity could move faster. And people have gone on to say if he continues at this pace, the face of Infosys will change from that of a staid one to a nimble beast in five years. It couldn’t sound any better.

But there is no taking away either from the disparaging remarks on public forums—that these changes are over-rated and cosmetic. Perhaps, he had the right intent. But, like the CEO quoted earlier put it, he was unfamiliar with how India operates. “This is a complex country to work in and it takes its toll,” he added. When coupled with the pressures imposed by the markets, Sikka was willing to sacrifice people at the altar of growth. That is a strict no-no in the Indian context.

Was Murthy right? By all standards of corporate governance, he had gone over the top. Was Sikka right? If pointers in the public domain are any indicator, then him trying to impose a culture of “my-way-or-the-highway” worked against him. There may just be a middle path though. To find it, navigate through, and exit at just the right time as opposed to going down the rabbit hole is a tough ask.

Lesson #3: Some roads are long

Once upon a time, Kiran Deshpande had a dream. He wanted to build a company that builds software products out of India. Like Nilekani, he too graduated from IIT Bombay. Following various stints at Indian software companies like the grand-daddy of them all called TCS and being mentored by the legendary FC Kohli, he moved up the ladder, got to be the CEO of Tech Mahindra and is now the co-founder and president at Mojo Networks. It is co-located out of Pune in India and headquartered in the US.

I engaged with him in a conversation until late night a couple of days ago. It had nothing to do with la affair Infosys or Nilekani. How did he end up as an entrepreneur and what lessons has he learnt from the road, I asked him.

He shared a few learnings, all of which I thought were interesting given the cross currents Indian business and thought leaders stand at.

  • Every other bright engineering graduate aspires to build the next big thing after Apple, Microsoft, or Google out of India. Time and experience have taught him it doesn’t happen. With his co-founder, they worked hard to build a products-based business out of India. But no venture capitalist was willing to fund them. They had to pivot and one of them had to shift base to the US where the risk appetite is higher. It upended their lives. But they survived a Death Valley to tell the tale.

Moral: Be cognizant of where you are.

  • Picasso is reported to have famously said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”  Steve Jobs spun that around and quipped to the delight of his audiences, “We have been shameless about stealing great ideas.” That is the logic pretty much every Indian entity, dreamer, and leader uses when they launch a new product that apes what works in Silicon Valley. But, Deshpande has a caveat to file. It works in that part of the world. But will it here? Do people have the same kind of monies to pay for what you may have in mind?

Moral: Be careful what you steal. By way of example, he says, it makes sense to look at the Italians. As ways of life go, they are the closest to Indians—messy, chaotic, colourful, extreme, melodramatic, all at once. They’ve used it to their advantage and all things “stylish” are now associated with the Italians. If there is one bunch of people in India who understand this nuance well, it comprises Indian film makers, particularly those who make Hindi films. That is why they are as widely successful in other parts of the world as well. So, stick to what you are good at and copy as well—but not blindly.

When all of these are extrapolated to where Infosys stands right now, it has a long way to go.

Lesson #4: No one lasts forever

On a parting note, one of the most significant lessons he figured along the road, he says, came from one of his mentor, Ravi Nigam, a veteran in the agriculture and food business. “The role of technology in any society goes down as the levels of knowledge grows higher.”

To keep pace with technology, the shelf life of a technology professional keeps diminishing every year

When looked at from that prism, to keep pace with technology, the shelf life of a technology professional keeps diminishing every year. The last report I came across was a few years old. It suggested an Indian IT professional hits a glass ceiling by the time they are 15 years into the job, or 35 years old on average. Therefore, it requires an altogether different kind of creature from the founder who created a venture to keep it not just running, but growing in the relentless world we live in now.

Lesson #5: Comment is free

The easiest job everyone has is to comment. That is why when the Indian cricket team gets out to play, everyone has an opinion on what shot each batsman ought to have taken to every ball delivered; or what kind of delivery a bowler ought to have pitched. Nobody knows though what it is like to be in the arc lights.

That is why blokes like me can wrap commentaries like these, settle down to a quiet lunch and get a quick nap.

(A shorter version of this column was first published in Livemint.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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