I’m last of the jokers left; no plan B after I leave Infosys: Nilekani
Infosys may be looking for talent to fill the shoes of Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and non-executive chairman of the technology giant. When asked about the role that he would play at Infosys in the future, Nilekani at a media event said he would be handing over his role to a non-founder when he exits the company. This even as N R Narayana Murthy, another co-founder, rued that his earlier decision to not allow the children of Infosys founders or the next generation of promoters to work at the company was wrong.
“I am the last of the jokers (founders) left,” said Nilekani on Wednesday at an event in Bengaluru that commemorated the four decades of the IT giant. “My challenge is a little more acute since I have some founder’s clout. But I would be handing over to a chairman at whatever point I would exit from the scene and that (person) would be a non-founder. If you hand over to somebody (the responsibility) and it doesn’t work out, there is no Plan B; I can’t come back at the age of 75,” said Nilekani, without specifying the date of his exit.
Other Infosys co-founders Murthy, Kris Gopalakrishnan, S D Shibulal, and K Dinesh were also present at the event.
Nilekani said when he leaves the company, he will ensure that he implements Murthy’s vision of putting in place the leadership structure and people with the right values. Murthy is also known as the ‘father of the Indian IT sector.
Speaking at the event, Murthy, who earlier held the view that no family member of a founder can ever come to work at Infosys, said: “I was completely wrong. I was depriving this organisation of legitimate talent. I take back whatever I said.”
“Every individual must have the same opportunity as every other individual if he or she is considered the best person for the job,” he said.
Explaining his earlier opinion in this regard, Murthy said: “The reason why I, at that point in time, probably embraced that idea was because I was afraid that some people may bring in undeserving candidates and put them in positions, and I wanted the future of the organisation to be strong.”
Established in 1981 by seven people, Infosys pioneered the global delivery model and became the first IT company from India to be listed on Nasdaq in 1999. From a capital of $250, it has grown to become a $17.53-billion (LTM FY23 revenue) company with a market capitalization of approximately $71.41 billion.
On whether it makes sense for most people to retire at 65, Nilekani said “we are all mortals”. “We are not going to be around. We don’t know if we are going to be there for the 50th (anniversary) of the company.”
He said one has to create institutions across generations and move from an ownership model to a totally professional process. “I haven’t found the person yet whom I can hand over (his responsibilities),” he said.
Murthy, on the other hand, said most of the objectives the company founders set have been accomplished, but the vision is that Infosys should move on to at least 100 years. “We said that at least for 100 years this company has to flourish,” he said. “I will be less than honest if I say that we have completed our task. Right now, (Infosys) is in the hands of two extraordinary people (Nandan Nilekani and CEO Salil Parekh). We are cheering them from the sidelines. And I have no doubt that they will pass on the (roles) to you equally competent and value-based people.”
Co-founder Gopalakrishnan attributed the success of the company not just to the founders but also to its 350,000 employees. About the role frugality and austerity played in the success of the firm, Gopalakrishnan said the company founders have middle-class values. “The opportunity that we have is unique, which is to create an India that is very different from a 20th-century model of how capitalism has been driving the world,” said Gopalakrishnan. “There are challenges that we face today, such as climate change, disparity of income, and inequality, and every innovation that comes up is targeted at just the top 10 per cent of the people. There is a need to come up with a new and better model.”
Shibulal was of the view that the company became successful due to its 95 per cent focus on execution and 5 per cent focus on strategy. Dinesh said that for the company to be relevant for the next 60 years, the founders have laid down the right foundation. “Culture is very, very important. Salil (Parekh) is carrying that forward,” said Dinesh.
Nilekani said focusing on strategies, such as “relevance, resilience and responsiveness” would help Infosys flourish in the future, as well. He said making the business relevant has been a huge task that Parekh has performed in the past five years. The firm is also making its employees relevant by imparting the right skills.
“We want to be no drama, no surprise, boring company,” said Nilekani. “Another big thing that we have done is to make Infosys very responsive — how do you make sure that it doesn’t have bureaucratic cholesterol.”
The other strategy is increasing the resilience of the company, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. This included enabling staffers to work from home during the pandemic and then bringing them back to the office. Infosys also had to deal with the sudden surge in demand for its services as the pandemic accelerated the adoption of the technology. This increased the demand for people and the company had to deal with high attrition.
“Now we have another situation emerging which is a slowdown in the economy, which means we have to make sure that we continue to add value,” said Nilekani. “I’m not sure if this formula is good for the next 60 more years, but certainly our focus on relevance, resilience and responsiveness has been the mantra for us.
But Nilekani said that in the long term, the company has to create a structure where there is outstanding leadership related to execution and board. “Our goal is to put all this in place, not only for the next (few years) but for the next 60 years.”
Now at a time when India is producing many unicorns — startups valued each at more than $1 billion — Nilekani said he is impressed with the ambitions and the understanding of the business by young founders. “What worries me is that do they want to build an institution, which is the hard part,” said Nilekani. “Do these guys have the stamina to play the long game, and that is what worries me. Too much money is a curse. Especially when you start a company. Once you lose respect for capital, frugality and managing your expenses, then the game is over.”
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