Indian exec's guide to sounder sleep

Infosys Technologies CEO Nandan Nilekani runs his IT services behemoth according to a simple motto--and it's worked like a charm.

5 min read
Business leaders and politicians are often asked the cliche question, "What keeps you awake at night?"

Asked what he thinks is the key to a sound sleep, Nandan Nilekani, president and chief executive of Indian IT services behemoth Infosys Technologies, has a ready answer. "The softest pillow is a clear conscience," he says.

For a man who looks to Nelson Mandela as a role model, it is little wonder that the 49-year-old executive seeks to exemplify the former South African president's virtues of uprightness and perseverance.

The softest pillow is a clear conscience.

Against a global corporate backdrop marred by high-profile financial irregularities from the likes of Enron, Tyco International and Computer Associates International, Nilekani comes across as refreshingly forthright and honest, attributes he, in turn, instills into his company's operations. Transparency is his operating mantra, best summed up in one of Infosys' corporate-governance philosophies: "When in doubt, disclose."

A software engineer by training, Nilekani and seven other partners founded Infosys in 1981. He took the reins as the firm's head honcho in March 2002, a time still reeling from the backlash of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A year later, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) pounded Asian economies, and today, Infosys' bread-and-butter business of IT outsourcing continues to stir up politically charged debates in the West.

In the face of such adversities, Nilekani steered Infosys to its first billion-dollar revenue milestone in 2003. With economic fortunes rebounding globally, the company expects rosier fortunes this year. He recently spoke to CNETAsia about his management philosophy, motivations and Infosys' growing pains.

Q: Which Asian values do you firmly believe in?
A: I believe in the Asian spirit of integrity, ethical behavior, honesty and respect for fellow beings.

How do you apply these to your business?
We believed in the principles of being ethical, fair and honest with our customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders. We went through difficult times but did not digress from our common vision.

No corporation can sustain its progress unless it makes a difference to its context.
All of us believed that Infosys was bigger than any of us and were willing to subordinate our egos and our desire for the company's good.

We also believe firmly in the principles of corporate governance. As long as we can be fair and transparent to all our stakeholders, show long-term thinking and follow every law of the land, we have done our work well.

We also believe that corporations have an important duty to contribute to society. No corporation can sustain its progress unless it makes a difference to its context. Thus, a core value of Infosys is a strong sense of social responsibility. This translates into a commitment to help people and communities, to enhance the living conditions of the rural population, and to improve education and health care.

How would you describe your management style?
I believe that meritocracy and hard work is the foundation of all successful institutions. It is important to have the ability to work as part of a team, subsuming individual glory to team achievement and making unbiased decisions based on analysis of data. I like to empower people but do sample checking to see that things are proceeding along expected lines.

What is your definition of "good" people? What qualities do you look out for?
At Infosys, our aim is to attract good professionals.

As we morph from being merely global to a true multinational, we need to plant more local roots.
We focus on recruiting candidates who display a high degree of 'learnability.' By learnability we mean the ability to derive generic knowledge from specific experiences and apply the same in new situations. We also place significant importance on professional competence and academic excellence.

Other qualities we look for are analytical ability, teamwork and leadership potential, communication and innovation skills, along with a practical and structured approach to problem solving.

How do you motivate yourself and your employees?
People are Infosys' most valuable assets--more so, since success at Infosys depends on the ability to recognize, learn and assimilate changes quickly, and on bringing business value to the customers by leveraging the assimilated knowledge. To attract, retain and motivate professionals, a corporation needs to uphold the respect and dignity of each individual. Further, it is important to create a competitive environment.

What is the biggest challenge you face when expanding overseas?
As we expand into new geographies, we face a whole new set of challenges. The first is the increase in the competitive intensity of the marketplace. When we began, we were a niche player--below the radar screen. Our offering was seen as another service, to be used as an alternative way of doing the existing work. Moreover, the huge investment boom of the bubble era masked the inherently disruptive nature of our offering. At that time, there was enough business for all.

Today, in a far more difficult scenario, where our global customers are unable to raise volumes or prices, the 'offshore' model has gone mainstream.

Nelson Mandela's life has been a great source of inspiration for me.
The second challenge is, conversely, to get more local. As we morph from being merely global to a true multinational, we need to plant more local roots. This includes more local hiring and becoming a more embedded part of the countries and communities where we operate.

Infosys, today, has employees of 38 nationalities. Creating a multicultural outlook is part of our effort to truly leverage the power of globalization and achieve long-term survival. The third challenge is to become a company that is seen by customers as a trusted advisor and strategic partner. We have to learn to be more consultative, to be proactive with business solutions that meet the customer's challenges and to interact with felicity with our counterparts in the boardroom.

Our whole effort today--be it changes in the organization structure, investments in business solutions, alliances and acquisitions, or the training of client-facing people--is geared toward this change. An important part of this is to define a new model of outsourcing that resonates with our customers' needs, protects their strategic interests and is based on the global delivery model we pioneered.

What do you hope to be remembered for when you leave the company?
I hope to be remembered as a fair, honest leader who raised the aspirations of others and encouraged people to believe in themselves.

Who do you look to for inspiration?
Nelson Mandela's life has been a great source of inspiration for me. His determination and perseverance in the midst of extreme adversity is truly motivating.