Exclusive - Sikka breaks silence as he exits a bruised Infosys

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 24, 2017
VIshal Sikka speaks exclusively to diginomica in the aftermath of a board shake up following his recent resignation.

Vishal Sikka at OOW15
Vishal Sikka at Oracle Open World

Vishal Sikka's has broken his silence after finishing his short term as an advisor to Infosys while the company searches for his replacement as CEO. He has left the company completely, just a week after he resigned as CEO. What happens next, now that co-founder Nandan Nilekani has been confirmed as coming on to the Infosys board in a non-executive chairman's role is far from clear.

The company's press release of the event was the usual larding of praise on outgoing people accompanied by a strong rallying cry from the incoming chairman:

"I am happy to return to Infosys, now in the role of non-executive chairman, and look forward to working with my colleagues on the Board and in executive management on the business opportunities we see before us and delivering benefits to our clients, shareholders, employees and communities. I thank Vishal for his service as the CEO of Infosys over the last 3 years and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Mr. Nilekani also stated that the Board will actively consider a broad based shareholder consultation process as a critical part of its overall engagement initiatives with all the stakeholders of the Company that are being taken up on a priority basis.

Mr. U. B. Pravin Rao who will continue as Interim CEO and MD and, also was pleased to welcome Mr. Nilekani to Infosys. The Infosys Board will continue with its earlier stated plan to identify a permanent CEO and MD.

Nilekani was CEO from 2002-7 and has been widely regarded as one of the best CEO's in Infosys history. Based upon what I have seen in over 45 years in a variety of industries, I can say that it is easy to be a good leader when the sun is shining. It is much harder when it is pouring down like an Indian monsoon. And whether Nilekani has a second act in the company he really did not want to return to, is another matter altogether. He has plenty going for him, not least the support of the Murthy clan, widely held responsible for forcing Sikka's resignation. Some sources believe that today, Nilekani is the only person who can keep a lid on co-founder N.R.N. Murthy's predeliction to use the media as a foghorn for his agenda.

A few hours later, and still polishing off necessary paperwork work, Sikka called me up. Relaxed and clearly relieved that the turmoil of the past week is over, he said:

The work that Nandan did with Aadhaar ID is very impressive and I'm sure he is a very good choice at this time. He has to succeed for the good of the many thousands of people who work hard every day in the company for what Infosys stands for. Some of the things we were doing are truly world changing and I hope that work continues. It has to. I remain convinced that the transformation strategy we embarked upon three years ago is the right approach but there is no getting past the fact that a transformation on this scale is incredibly difficult and especially in a company with such a deep rooted culture as Infosys. It is achievable.

Asked about the turmoil of the last few days, he said:

In one sense this was inevitable. The distractions I have referred to in the past made it very difficult to get the job done, pretty much impossible. Hopefully that changes now.

Sikka is referring to the ongoing sniping that Murthy undertook over a number of actions he believed represented poor governance.

Asked what's next, Sikka was more circumspect:

The phone has been busy but my next appointment is with a class in Stanford tomorrow afternoon which I am very much looking forward towards. After that we will see but I am not making any quick decisions. One thing is for sure, there's no point in looking backwards. That does no good.

And that was pretty much it, other than some joking about whether he's now got time to go surfing.

One question that may well be answered in the coming days: what role will Nilekani play, beyond brokering the peace between the board and management?

With the founders now having a much greater degree of control over the board, finding two replacement independent directors may not be easy - the two independent directors resigned from the board at the same time as Sikka resigned. Co-chairman Ravi Venkatesan stepped aside from the co-chair role although he stays on the board for the time being.

People I canvassed believe that while his role is slated as non-executive, Nilekani will act as the 'hidden hand' behind the throne of whomever is picked as CEO. While that may sound odd, it makes a lot of sense and allows for a good degree of stability among leadership that is dealing with a well known person.

The bigger problem comes from how the customer base responds to the  changes. In the Americas, where Infosys has approximately 65% of its revenue and among customers I met along the way, Sikka was seen as a breath of fresh air. His ideas aligned to their twin needs to reduce IT costs while still following an innovation pathway. The 'renew and new' strategy. Much of the original thinking behind the 'new' came out of Palo Alto, an office where the future must be in doubt. Fortunately, the company had embarked upon an extensive design thinking teaching program in India and has shown that it can invent in areas like autonomous automotive design. It will need to show much more than this.

Nilekani's team will need to make a strong impression for Infosys to avoid customers falling into the hands of rivals TCS, Wipro and Cognizant.

On the consulting front, they will have to pretty much restart from scratch and assemble a team that can match IBM, Accenture and Deloitte who are cleaning up in broad based digital transformation projects. Both IBM and Accenture have good marketing stories and, increasingly, good reference customers.

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