What is the fuss about Narayana Murthy returning to Infosys?
After all, many leaders have thrived in similar situations. "The classic example is of Winston Churchill. He was a terrible politician but war turned him into an exemplary leader," says Pramath Sinha, founding dean of Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, though Murthy certainly needs no additional shine to add to his already burnished reputation.
Politicians aside, many corporate leaders - some in family businesses - have dived back into the fray and helped their companies clamber out of the corporate graveyard.
William Clay Ford Jr, along with Alan Mullaly (whom he hired), pulled off an astonishing rescue act at Ford Motor Company, whose corporate bonds were assigned junk status at that time. Some deft financial restructuring of its liabilities brought it roaring back to life. Others have been first-generation entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs being the much-touted poster child in this category.
The flap about Murthy's return stems from two issues. Murthy, while at Infosys, made a big deal about founders retiring at the age of 65. He was also insistent that founders' children wouldn't join the company. This was a company whose reputation partly hinged on the fact that it kept its promises - to shareholders, employees and analysts - and made sure everyone knew about it. Ethics was high on its agenda. And now, the demigod of the information technology industry has broken both rules by also bringing in tow son Rohan Murty as executive assistant.
Is this a good thing? M V Subbiah, who knows a thing or two about rescuing companies, having orchestrated the remarkable turnarounds of Carborundum Universal, TI Cycles and EID Parry by often taking bold and unpopular decisions, says he's not in a position to comment on Murthy. But in general, he says it's wise to know when to leave (in his family's case, it was at 65). "My grandfather did it, my uncles and brothers did it and I did so as well," he says.
And, what about Murthy's son, who has the right educational pedigree but no management experience of note? "Sometimes, you end up thinking, 'Hey, I need help! I'm older. Which crack team can I pull in with me?'" says Pramath Sinha.
"With ISB and Ashoka University, I pulled in people I knew. If I had a son who fit the bill, I might have done the same thing," he adds. "I think it is a very good move," says Sebastian Morris, professor of strategy at Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Ahmedabad.
"The company was unable to rework itself and needed a different approach. Now, it can see problems afresh," he adds.
But is Murthy's comeback merely the application of a band-aid over an arterial wound? "Infosys has been truly exemplary throughout its existence. But I would say it is obviously true and very disappointing that they haven't been able to create a cadre of internal leaders," says Sinha.
Since its inception, the company has been passed from one co-founder to the other, as if part of some ancient tradition you would see in a family enterprise. Talents such as Mohandas Pai, among others, left because they clearly saw no future in playing second fiddle to this tradition. The much ballyhooed system of meritocracy at Infosys was looking distinctly suspect.
Truth is, while corporate strategy is critical, the 'people problem' is at least as crucial, if not more. Infosys is in a fiercely competitive industry, in which the IT professional has a limited shelf life. "You burn out quickly. It's like a finance job," says IIM's Morris. What is urgently required is innovation in human resource management and that hasn't happened yet.
"Industry has to take a big leap and employ fairly large out-of-the-box thinking," adds Morris. Yet, where Infosys stumbled, Cognizant has thrived by creating a cadre of MBA-engineers who can nourish themselves, and the company, by playing both roles.
Ultimately though, good management is about devising the right kinds of systems to ensure the prolonged health of one's organisation, and then moving on. M V Subbiah says this concept is also embedded in Hindu scriptures, citing 'Vanaprastham' - where one retreats to the periphery of the fray to enjoy retirement. "How do you know if a mango is really ripe?" asks Subbiah. "It falls to the ground and gets ruined. Most people stay on the mango tree. The thing to do is be like a pumpkin. Stay on the ground and come off the stem when ready, so you don't get damaged," he says, adding the next in line will simply have to negotiate the whirlpools that constantly threaten to pull them down but if they have the requisite strength of mind, they can overcome these.
Infosys is not in a whirlpool just yet. The problem is today, the world is a technology-suffused one, evolving at rapid speed, very different from what it was when Murthy was at the helm. Here, Rohan Murty, a PhD in computer science, someone who reportedly enjoys grappling with knotty problems, could prove indispensable.
Perhaps roping in one child in an effort to save the other is the only option Murthy has.
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