Vishal Sikka resigns: Former Infosys CEO played like Narendra Modi, but Narayana Murthy was no Advani

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 4 August, 2017. It is being republished in the wake of Vishal Sikka's resignation as the Infosys MD and CEO

One is beginning to wonder if the status of co-founder and the elder statesman of Infosys, NR Narayana Murthy, is akin to that of Lal Krishna Advani in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

There are striking similarities between CEO Vishal Sikka's reign in the Bengaluru software bellwether and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rule in New Delhi, both of whom have completed three years at the helm this summer. It seems Sikka is respectful but not necessarily cognizant, of the wishes of Murthy — and that puts him in the Advani Syndrome, right? Much like Modi, Sikka is pushing ahead his own style of leadership with a vision to change the old order, and is not feeling burdened by old-fashioned ties of another era.

A few weeks ago, when Sikka declared his respect for Murthy, it seemed all was well after months of tensions on corporate governance issues between the two gentlemen. But the latest bit about Infosys rejecting Murthy's call to make public an inquiry report into the acquisition of Panaya based on a whistleblower's call raises questions both on the state of boardroom health and deeper issues of corporate governance.

By all accounts, Sikka seems to have been a generous man in acquiring Panaya as well as in the severance pay for former chief financial officer Rajiv Bansal. The legitimate explanation is that he wanted to craft a new strategy amid obstacles to old-fashioned outsourcing from both technological and political developments in the United States, the prime market for Infosys - and would have liked to have a favourite in the finance chief's spot. This is normal in the course of corporate transitions, where pennies are not pinched in strategic shifts.

Murthy, however, is not any old minority shareholder on the board -- though that is exactly his technical status. All of India buys into his iconic status and his candid  admission of being emotional and idealistic. He also treats Infosys as if it was a social enterprise accountable to employees and the public at large in some way, though the harsh realities of capitalism often place the primacy of shareholders and customers/clients above other interests.

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Narayana Murthy, co-founder, Infosys. Reuters

In this strange context, Murthy has de-facto assumed the status that mixes three unlikely personas. Notwithstanding soft-paw claims by co-chairman Ravi Venkatesan, Murthy is an activist investor seeking a say in the way the company is run. Second, he is akin to a trade union leader representing employee interests. Third, he is like a comptroller and auditor general for the company, wanting to know whether the money spent was justified and proper.

From all indications, the board is happy with Sikka, and Murthy's dissent is much like that of Steve Jobs on the board of Apple when he was ousted ( though not fired) by John Sculley -- the man Jobs hired.

Jobs had a second coming to Apple that revolutionised the world with the iPod and the iPhone. Sadly for Murthy, his own second coming came apart at the seams.

There are two heavy-tension questions that hang in the air of the lush-green Infosys campus in Bangalore beyond its trendy golf carts and sprightly engineers walking up and down its stately buildings.

1) Is Murthy's overbearing style causing difficulties to the management when it has to walk a tightrope between technological shifts and executive/staff morale?

2) Will Murthy take the next step to the shareholders, the media and the public in his own slightly understated but sharply targeted style?

Sikka has dismissed as "nonsensical" reports of a series of senior executive exits hurting the company. But it does not look like business-as-usual at all, despite stellar results and visionary traits shown by Sikka in his three years that he completed this month. My sense is that we have not yet heard the last on the perceived or real executive exodus.

Unlike Advani, who seems to be enjoying a reflective quietude, you can expect Murthy to utter some measured words that may keep Sikka on his toes. Similarities between the two elders end somewhere. Watch this space.

Click here for live updates on Infosys row and Vishal Sikka's resignation

(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)


Published Date: Aug 04, 2017 10:14 am | Updated Date: Aug 18, 2017 10:14 am


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