Around noon on June 12, Vishal Sikka, named chief executive-designate by Infosys a couple of hours earlier, spoke in a townhall meeting, webcast across all of the company’s development centres.
An hour later, one employee at the Mysore facility who anxiously heard every word Sikka spoke, was a relieved man. “It was just so assuring hearing him,” the engineer, who joined the software company in 2011, said.
“Not that he (Sikka) spoke of anything grand but whatever he spoke (including) digital transformations, on areas of cloud etc were in such a saint-like manner. That was it. That’s all what we want here,” said the engineer.
It may be marked as the biggest resurrection at corporate India.
Since his appointment, Sikka has taken five key steps, early signs of which seem to suggest that there has been a change in the mood from near-despondency to excitement. Note that on June 12, the day World Cup soccer kicked off, Vishal Sikka was the most discussed subject globally on Twitter.
Sikka since then has tried to win the confidence of senior ranks at Infosys, instill confidence among the software engineers, and even reached out to former company executives, making many believe he has an “inclusive leadership style.”
Finally, in between making three trips to Bangalore, Sikka has also met with several clients and venture capitalists, leaving some to even suggest if Sikka is the new Murthy.
“From what we can tell through our contacts, the mood has changed… employees, clients and investors are definitely excited,” said Ray Wang of Constellation Research. “There is a more can-do attitude than before,” adding that “culture and people are key to success” in any services-focussed IT company.
On the day Sikka was named the CEO-designate, Infosys elevated 12 leaders to the position of executive vice-president with additional responsibilities. Experts then dubbed it as a good start by Sikka for it could help the company stop the exodus of senior talent. Since then, only one senior vice president, K Murali Krishna, has left the company. This is heartening for Infosys which saw at least four senior vice-presidents quitting in the six months starting January this year.
‘Home’ for a week
Immediately after his appointment, Sikka, based out of California, started meeting clients and even got together many of Infosys’s business unit heads to meet them in the US. To be based out of the US, a region which accounts for about 60% of Infosys revenues, Sikka has a ringside view on business. Sikka will be working out of India for “at least a week” every month while his deputy and chief operating officer UB Pravin Rao will oversee daily operations.
Significantly, Sikka, based out of the Silicon Valley which is also home to most disruptive technology startups, gives Infosys boss an added advantage to recruit and make investments in companies, said John Appleby, global head of SAP Hana at Bluefin Solutions, the consultancy.
“You (Infosys) couldn’t have chosen a better man to head the company,” one client told a recently elevated business head at Infosys during a meeting. “During any transition, clients adopt a wait-and-watch approach. This time, we all seeing clients telling us how they look forward to working with us,” the executive said.
“One of the great things I came to understand about his (Sikka’s) role at SAP was engagement with customers,” said Dave Gardner, founder of Gardner & Associates Consulting, a California-based advisory firm. “The companies that will win in this century will be customer-focused, helping clients solve the daunting challenges they face and taking them to a place they could not have realized on their own. This is ingrained in Vishal’s DNA.”
“This made analysts who were negative on Infosys come out with positive outlook on the company, with Keith Bachman, an analyst who tracks Infosys for BMO Capital Markets, writing in an August 8 note that “management changes are close to complete” at Infosys. “We expect (the) new management to offer a new strategy toward the end of the calendar year,” Bachman said in a note, titled ‘The Times They Are Changing’.
As he was meeting clients and Infosys senior ranks, Sikka also had multiple meetings with venture capitalists, seeking their thoughts on how to get the missing innovation strand in an $8.2 billion company. Sikka, in a freewheeling chat with ET on July 31, did mention that he will like to start with the corpus of $100 million to incubate both internal and external startups to help Infosys be at the forefront of innovation.
Well done, boss
On July 15, Sikka first connected with the over-160,000 engineers at his company with his crowdsourcing initiative Murmuration, under which he asked employees to share with him what key areas of innovation they thought clients are focusing on. In the first week starting August 1, since he officially took charge, Sikka okayed promotions for over 5,000 employees.
“It is better than it was,” said an engineer working at the Electronics City campus. “Now we are wondering what he is going to do and the promotions made it better. I was worried about the company, with all the bad news. Even my mother was asking what is happening, but it seems better now,” said the employee, who joined the company last year.
Another woman engineer, who started with the company in 2012 said promoting people is certainly a great morale booster. “I mean, everyone was talking about leaving. All the bad news made lots of people leave. But now you hear less of that,” said the employee.
“Vishal promoting executives and connecting with employees is a great move as it does away with the insecurity any leadership change brings,” said Vijay Vijayasankar, Arizona-based vice-president of global channels and business development at MongoDB. “Even at SAP he had a knack for spotting talent from within the company and promoting them. I’m sure at Infosys too he would do the same.”
In the same week, Sikka wrote an email, titled “A new beginning” to former employees of Infosys, highlighting the great work done by them, a move some dubbed as reaching out to those people to return to the company.
“There are simple changes that are being made to help folks feel more empowered and creative and to reduce the hierarchies so that the organization can be more innovative and creative,” Wang said.
In his first interview with ET, Sikka did mention about how he wanted Infosys to also create new intelligent software in more advanced areas. Some experts believe this is “heady stuff” and the company will continue to focus on its traditional approach of winning more “bread and butter” outsourcing deals, with Bachman of BMO Capital Markets estimating the company should retain its 25% margin for fiscal year 2014-15.
His old univ
On August 3, Sikka, along with 20 senior executives, left for the US on a fortnight-long trip. On August 14, the team was at Stanford, where senior staff was given an overview on design thinking from the ‘D School’ at Stanford. Interestingly, D School was set up in 2005 after Sikka’s mentor at SAP, Hasso Plattner, gave a $35-million donation.
Plattner continues to be a professor at the school. Sikka too has said he wants to continue teaching in a consulting role at Stanford. People who know Sikka say this first session at his alma mater suggests Infosys may look at forging a deeper partnership with Stanford, a university famed for its links to successful startups.
“Even while at SAP, Vishal ensured a strong partnership with his alma mater,” said Vijayasankar, who was Sikka’s colleague at SAP. “Now (he may) want to have more employees visiting (the) campus, exchanging ideas. He himself will like to speak with some of his colleagues/professors.”
But all this and more notwithstanding, some doubt if Sikka will be able to live up to high expectations. “I think he (Sikka) has a couple of months and that might be difficult,” said Frances Karamouzis, vice president at Gartner. “Because when you make major changes, the impact of that takes time. But the reality is that the patience of typical industry watchers is one or two quarters.”
Nonetheless, Gardner said “the best is yet to come” for Infosys. “Vishal is doing what outstanding leaders do: listen and learn. He’s working tirelessly to meet his team, the employees and Infosys clients. In the world of Nascar auto racing here in the US, Darrell Waltrip, a former driver and now a TV analyst, offered, ‘Sometimes you have to slow down to go fast’.”