Of each of the great leaders, it is said by his followers, long after he is gone, he made us do it. If leadership is the art of persuading your people to follow your bidding, without their realising your involvement, the archetype of its practice is N. R. Narayana Murthy, the chairman and managing director of the Rs. 143.81 crore Infosys Technologies (Infosys). For, the 52-year-old CEO of the globalised software corporation — which he founded with six friends, and a combined capital of Rs. 10,000 in 1981 and which now occupies the front ranks of the country's most admired corporations, leads with the subtlest of weapons: personal example.
Infosys ranks only 578th among the country's listed companies, and sixth in the software sector, in terms of its turnover. But it is setting new standards for India Inc. through its practices of inter alia awarding stock options to its employees, putting the value of its intellectual assets and its brands on its balancesheet, and conforming to the disclosure standards of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC:of the US. Behind all this is the stubborn personal subscription of its CEO to the underlying causes of wealthcreation- people-power and transparency. "What were choices earlier are compulsions now," asserts Murthy.
In fact, the mirror images of Murthy, the Man, can be found all over Infosys, his company. His egalitarianism — which finds expression in such habits as using the same table and chair as anyone else in the organization — is practised firmly when it comes to charting a course for the company's future: everyone has a voice. "We have no hierarchy just for the sake of control.
" Brimming with the conviction that customer satisfaction is the key to success, Murthy has built a fleetfooted human resource management system that treats employees as customers, using the resources of the organisation to meet their professional and personal needs. His instruments are not just top-of-themarket salaries, but also operational empowerment as well as every facility that an employee needs to focus on the job.
Just what methods does Murthy use to ensure that his DNA is replicated in his company? Not for him are the classical leadership genre — transactional or transformational, situational or visionary. His chosen style, instead, is to lead by example, ensuring that the CEO's actions set the template for all Infoscions.
Murthy believes that the betterment of man can be brought about through the ‘creation of wealth, legally and ethically’. The personal example that he has set enabled his company to mirror those beliefs, tying his own rewards, and measuring his value to the company, to his ability to create wealth, and erecting systems for the company's wealth to be shared by its people. Sums up Nandan Nilekani, 41, deputy managing director, Infosys: "This is the future model of the corporation. Run an excellent company, and let the market increase its value to create wealth." Although Murthy is one of the prime beneficiaries of the philosophy — his 10 per cent stake in Infosys is worth Rs. 130 crore today — in his book, the leader leads not by grabbing the booty but by teaching others to take what they deserve. That's why, on the Infosys' balancesheet, the value of Murthy's intellectual capital is nowhere near the top, on the rationale, that the CEO, at 52, is worth far less to his company than, say, a bright young programmer of 26. To spread the company's wealth, Murthy has instituted stock options — the first to do so in the country — for employees, creating 300 millionaires already. By 2000, he wants the number to climb to 1000.
To act as a beacon for his version of the learning organisation, Murthy not only spends an hour a day surfing the Internet to learn about new technological developments in his field, he also makes as many luncheon appointments as he can with technical people and academicians — dons from the Indian Institutes of Technology for instance — systematically plumbing their depths for an understanding of new developments in infotech. Murthy's objective is not just to stay abreast of the state-of-the-art, but also to find a way to use that knowledge for the company.
Following Murthy's example, Infosys has set up a technology advancement unit, whose mandate is to track, evaluate, and assimilate new techniques and methodologies. In fact, Murthy views learning not just as amassing data, but as a process that enables him to use the lessons from failure to achieve success. This self-corrective loop is what he demonstrates through his leadership during a crisis.
In 1995, for example, Infosys lost a Rs. 15 crore account — then 20 per cent of its revenues — when the $69 billion GE yanked its business from it. Instead of recriminations, Murthy activated Infosys' machinery to understand why the business was taken away and to leverage the learning for getting new clients instead. Feeling determined instead of guilty, his employees went on to sign up high profile customers like the $20 billion Xerox, the $7 billion Levi Strauss, and the $14 billion Nynex.
"You must have a multi-dimensional view of paradigms," says the multi-tasking leader. The objective is obvious: ensure that Infosys' perspective on its business and the world comes from as many vantage points as possible so that corporate strategy can be synthesised not from a narrow vision, but from a wide angle lens. In fact, Murthy still regrets that, in its initial years, Infosys didn't distil a multi-pronged understanding of the environment into its strategies, which forced it onto an incremental path that led revenues to snake up from Rs. 0.02 crore to just Rs. 5 crore in the first 10 years.
It was after looking around itself instead of focusing on its initial business of banking software, that Infosys managed to accelerate. Today the company operates with stretch targets setting distant goals and working backwards to get to them. The crucial pillar on which Murthy bases his ethical leadership is openness. Transparency, he reckons, is the clearest signal that one has nothing to hide. The personal manifestations of that are inter alia the practice of always giving complete information whenever any employee, customer, or investor asks for it: the loudly proclaimed insistence that every Infoscion pay taxes and file returns: and a perpetually open office into which anyone can walk.
But even as he tries to lead Infosys into cloning his own approach to enterprise, is Murthy choosing the best future for it? If Infosys grows with the same lack of ambition, the same softness of style, and the same absence of aggression, is it not cutting off avenues of growth that others may seize? As Infosys approaches the 21st century it is obvious that Murthy's leadership will have to set ever-improving role models for his ever-learning company. After all, men grow old; companies shouldn't.
Last fortnight, news of a significant development was tucked away in the inside pages of newspapers. The government finally tabled a bill in Parliament seeking to make primary education a fundamental right. A fortnight earlier, a Delhi-based newspaper had carried a report about a three-month interruption in the Delhi Government's ‘Education for All’ programme. The report made for distressing reading. It said that literacy centres across the city were closed down, volunteers beaten up and enrolment registers burnt. All because the state government had, earlier this year, made participation in the programme mandatory for teachers in government schools. The routine denials were issued and there probably was a wee bit of exaggeration in the report.
But it still is a pointer to the enormity of the task at hand. That economic development will be inherently unstable unless it is built on a solid base of education, specially primary education, has been said so often that it is in danger of becoming a platitude. Nor does India's abysmal record in the field need much reiteration. Nearly 30 million children in the six to ten age group do not go to school — reason enough to make primary education not only compulsory but a fundamental right. But is that the Explanation? More importantly, will it work? Or will it remain a mere token, like the laws providing for compulsory primary education? It is now widely known that 14 states and four Union Territories have this law on their statute books.
Believe it or not, the list actually includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan, where literacy and education levels are miles below the national average. A number of states have not even notified the compulsory education law. This is not to belittle the decision to make education a fundamental right. As a statement of political will, a commitment by the decision-makers, its importance cannot be undervalued. Once this commitment is clear, a lot of other things like resource allocation will naturally fall into place. But the task of universalizing elementary education (UEE) is complicated by various socio-economic and cultural factors which vary from region to region and within regions. If India's record continues to appall, it is because these intricacies have not been adequately understood by the planners and administrators.
The trouble has been that education policy has been designed by grizzled mandarins ensconced in Delhi and is totally out of touch with the ground reality. The key then is to decentralise education planning and implementation. What's also needed is greater community involvement in the whole process. Only then can school timings be adjusted for convenience, school children given a curriculum they can relate to and teachers made accountable. For proof, one has only to look at the success of the district primary education programme, which was launched in 1994. It has met with a fair degree of success in the 122 districts it covers. Here the village community is involved in all aspects of education — allocating finances to supervising teachers to fixing school timings and developing curriculum and textbooks — through district planning teams. Teachers are also involved in the planning and implementation process and are given small grants to develop teaching and learning material, vastly improving motivational levels. The consequent improvement in the quality of education generates increased demand for education.
But for this demand to be generated, quality will first have to be improved. In MP, the village panchayats are responsible for not only constructing and maintaining primary schools but also managing scholarships, besides organising non-formal education. How well this works in practice remains to be seen (though the department claims the schemes are working very well) but the decision to empower panchayats with such powers is itself a significant development. Unfortunately, the Panchayat Raj Act has not been notified in many states.
After all, delegating powers to the panchayats is not looked upon too kindly by vested interests. More specifically, by politicians, since decentralisation of education administration takes away from them the power of transfer, which they use to grant favours and build up a support base. But if the political leadership can push through the bill to make education a fundamental right, it should also be able to persuade the states to implement the laws on Panchayat Raj. For, UEE cannot be achieved without decentralisation. Of course, this will have to be accompanied by proper supervision and adequate training of those involved in the administration of education. But the devolution of powers to the local bodies has to come first.