The real reason why Infosys hasn't announced a COO yet

In all the excitement about who will succeed NR Narayana Murthy as Chairman of Infosys, many of us forgot the bigger question - Who will succeed D Shibulal as the COO?

Whoever that person is - he will surely get to run Infosys as CEO and Managing Director when Shibulal retires from that post. In doing so, he or she (although the chances of it being a woman are next to impossible) will be the first non-founder to run Infosys.

The company understands how critical that person will be for Infosys' future. Which is why for now the board has decided not to appoint a person in that role. I doubt that no one is ready for that position inside Infosys.

The reasons for not making that announcement now are probably the following:

a) The board was thinking of giving that role to Mohandas Pai - who either did not take it or Shibulal did not want to accept Pai as his COO. So clearly that option is ruled out.

b) The board thinks this is not the best time to pick one person from among the next line of second generation leaders. It will create competition and there is a strong chance that whoever does not get that role might want to move out - a cost Infosys and its board is not prepared to bear right now.

Chairman and Chief Mentor Officer of Infosys Technologies, Murthy has to yet decide on the next COO.

The board, Murthy, Kris Gopalakrishnan and Shibulal are also painfully aware that Infosys now has five years to groom Kris and Shibu's successors. Which is why the announcement of three internal candidates to the Infosys board will be so important to watch in June, 2011.

Infosys has an impressive line-up. It has a leadership bench of 500 leaders many of whom have spent close to 20 years in the company.

Among these are eight front-runners who are most likely to be picked for joining the board in June 2011, as well as take over leadership roles when the last two founders retire.

A big clue in who these people could be lies in the recent re-org. So far the process for signalling who were the more important leaders was the creation of the Executive Committee (EC) in 2007. At that time the criterion used for selection was people who were running $1 bn businesses - BG Srinivas, Ashok Vemuri, Subhash Dhar and Chandrasekhar Kakal.

In the recent re-org, Infosys has carved up its revenues in four large verticals, and appointed mini-CEOs for running these units. Apart from BG and Ashok, two new faces have emerged on the scene: Pravin Rao, who was head of retail, and Prasad Thrikutam, who was head of infrastructure services and energy and retail.

These are four critical operational people who will work closely with Shibulal to grow and consolidate Infosys position in the market.

Aiding them will be the three service line heads who will run independent operations, too, but will work closely with the vertical heads.

Only one of these have been announced - Subhash Dhar, who will manage innovations. Two more are expected soon (Stephen Pratt, who will run transformation, and Chandrasekhar Kakal, who will run Operations).

So the big question is who will get the three coveted board seats?

My picks are:

1. CFO V Balakrishnan. He is the senior-most member amongst next generation leaders and as CFO of the company plays a critical role at the enterprise level.

2. BG Srinivas. He runs a large market (Europe) and will now run a large business of over a billion dollars. BG is older than the remaining EC members and also has a demeanour befitting an Infosys CEO. He is said to be good with people, is hard working and has a solid track record.

3. Ashok Vemuri. He is sure to be elevated due to the sheer size of the business he runs (banking, financial services and insurance - BFSI), which contributes one-third of Infosys turnover, and the fact that he handles North America, one of the largest markets for Infosys. He has also done extremely well. He is considered a bit brash but is seen as a high performer.

4. Stephen Pratt. He is a bit of a dark horse in the race. But he has the stature and respect in the industry befitting a board member. Was rated best consultant in 2005, has worked in international corporations like Deloitte. If Infosys is considering merging the subsidiary, Infosys Consulting, of which he is a co-founder, with itself then Stephen will need an important role in the company. Consulting is a big part of Infosys' next avatar and it will crucial to have a consultant on the Board.