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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Narayana Murthy & Nandan Nilekani – divided they stand

They are the team that is the first couple of the information technology sector. That's NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan M Nilekani for you. The former, whose brainchild became Infosys is the Chairman & Chief Mentor while the latter is the Chief Executive Officer, CEO, President and Managing Director.

They are about as alike as chalk and cheese. Murthy is the Mozart and Elton John fan while Nilekani loves the Beatles and rock music of the seventies. So, it's anyone's guess that this team was going to be complementing each other perfectly. As Nilekani says, "They say that you should team up with people you can grow old together with, and that’s really been our story. We are with people who we are happy growing older with."

Infosys was a gleam of a vision in Murthy's eyes when he was toiling away like any other salaried employee. It's his wife Sudha who has an engineering degree, which she put to use on the Tata Motors shop floor, at their factory at Pimpri, Pune. She was a pioneer in her own way - the first woman engineer to work in an automobile factory.

Families had to put on the backburner while Infosys was being born. Murthy remembers the time when he was away in France for six months and his son jumped from the top of the car and broke his arm. His wife took care of it in her quiet and competent way. He only heard about it on the phone, when he called from France and his son told him that his hand was fine!

Such trials and "deferred gratification" as Nilekani puts it, paid off big time. So, Infosys started small - with USD250 in 10x10 room, with no fancy venture capitalists having spotted them and starting them off. Today, however, the company is listed on Nasdaq and it has a beautiful 70 acres campus in Bangalore.

Also on the anvil is a hotel for the business crowd that Infosys has managed to lure down to South India because the existing hotels charge much higher and make money at Infosys's expense. So it's smart on their part to direct that business their way as well.

But the story was about keeping the faith and that's what the team around Murthy did. Nilekani told CNBC-TV18, "Well, I think we all were working under Murthy’s leadership and we just jumped into it without even thinking or worrying because we said we are with him. He is an extraordinary leader."

"I think when the history of India is written, he will be ranked up there, among the top 5-10 leaders of this country and because he is able to lead by example. He is a very fair person, even though he is very tough, in fact is toughest mostly on me because he is very brutal in his feedback."

But feedback is welcomed, especially if mistakes that have been pointed out can be converted into lessons learnt. Murthy explains, "Well the lessons learnt are one, you have to benchmark on a global scale. Second, you have to lead by example. Third, you have to look at long-term interest. You have to look at the interest of the community, the corporation. You have to bring people, who have mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive, skill sets and experience."

There has been an emphasis on accepting the company's value system and putting it before one's own. It's an ideal that everyone who works at Infosys accepts as a credo. Nilekani admits, "It’s something out there and all of us, any day, will subordinate our egos for that purpose." But this has served a purpose in the past. It's the very reason for their immense success.

Murthy acknowledges that and explains, 'I think the success formula is, one, we brought together a team, which has a common value system. Once you have an enduring value system, which means sacrifice in the interest of the company, you look at long-term rather than short-term. You don’t shortchange anybody. Here it is a leadership of the idea.'

He credits his destiny for the people he met and started out with. Five out of the original seven still work at Infosys and he says if he had to do it all over again, he would do it with the same people. But Infosys has managed to keep an exclusive image, by not hobnobbing with the business community at Page 3 events. Both Murthy and Nilekani have adopted a low-key lifestyle. They have both seen years of struggle, so the arclights do not enamour them, as their goals are bigger than the momentary fame.

Nilekani elaborates, 'I think our trip is building a great company. Our trip is really putting India on the global map, our trip is to create jobs for thousands of people. That’s what we get our excitement from. It just so happens that, as a byproduct of that, we also made some money but I think the real thing is that, that’s the excitement for us.'

Murthy adds, 'Also it’s my personal view, that people who are making capitalism become more and more attractive through entrepreneurship, I think we have to conduct ourselves in a manner that people see as approachable, people see us as one among them. As I have often said, the ultimate contribution of Infosys is that, there are thousands and probably millions of entrepreneurs in the country, who may think that if these seven jokers (people who started Infosys) could do it together, we could do it too. I think that is the ultimate compliment that can be paid to Infosys.'

Their singular approach has seen them make conservative guidance estimates and then stick to them. An attempt is made to make a commitment, which they can honour. Murthy explains, 'I think it’s a part of the value system. It’s about being trustworthy. It is about delivering on promise. So it’s about being predictable. So once all of us have agreed, we obviously have to say things or commit to things that we can really work toward.'

Obligations to shareholders apart, they don't feel any pressure when coming up with guidance numbers because a lot of the issues have been discussed threadbare internally. So once their minds are made up, it's just a matter of articulating it. So, a lot of argument happens back and forth but the better idea, from Infosys' point of view always wins.

Infosys has made it a matter of pride for people to want to work with them. There are interns lining up from abroad, who want to come to Bangalore to work. Keeping in mind the late hours, that employees may have to keep, Infosys has taken care of providing comforts and good quality facilities. How does a French restaurant, a clothing store, a hotel and a gymnasium sound? Well, all that's to be found on the Infosys campus!

Now they are selling the Infosys and by extension the India story abroad - at the World Economic Froum in Davos, in Washington and elsewhere. They are pitching a changed India to the global business community.

Murthy explains, ' A lot of things have changed for the better and if the government, the industry and all of us together, were to sort out a few minor issues - if we were to create a few visible signs of progress, like the airports, the roads etc - I think we can quickly go to the next orbit, which is $80-100 billion in just this industry plus the manufacturing sector.'

For doing this, though, Murthy rules out joining politics as he knows it's different from running a company. He says, 'It's one thing to run a company like Infosys which has a really enlightened democracy. On the other hand, to manage a country like India with it’s urban-rural divide, with its rich and poor divide, with huge problems. It’s not easy. I think we should be very realistic about our own limitations.'

In other ways as well, Infosys is a trendsetter. They put India on the map as the foremost destination for outsourcing but they were the first organisation in the world, to come up with a designation like 'chief mentor'! But for Infosys, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Nilekani agrees, 'Well, I think in some sense, the journey is just beginning. Because we have managed to convince the world about our model, that it’s better model and I think the whole industry is restructuring and leaders are going to emerge from this in the future, who were not leaders in the past and we have a very good shot at being one of the leaders of the future. So in that sense, there is lots to be done and I think that’s what drives all of us towards our next goals.'

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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