U.B. Pravin Rao: The accidental (and interim) CEO
Bengaluru: For a man who joined Infosys Ltd in 1986 at a monthly salary of Rs1,200 and spent the better part of the last two-and-a-half decades in several operational roles, U.B. Pravin Rao’s rise within the company over the past three years has been nothing short of meteoric.
In a company like Infosys that over the past two decades has made flashy newspaper headlines for several high-profile executive departures, Rao represents a somewhat rare breed of the good old-fashioned delivery and operations manager.
According to several colleagues, fortune has rewarded him for his dogged perseverance.
An Infosys veteran of over three decades, Rao has managed to outlast every one of his more illustrious peers and colleagues such as Phaneesh Murthy, Mohandas Pai, Subhash Dhar, Ashok Vemuri and B.G. Srinivas, and achieved what none of them ever managed—become CEO (ok, interim CEO) of arguably India’s most high-profile IT firm.
Rao’s turning point at Infosys came in December 2013, when then chairman and the company’s iconic founder N.R. Narayana Murthy was orchestrating a massive shake-up inside Infosys as part of his turnaround efforts, which led to exits of potential CEO candidates such as Ashok Vemuri, V. Balakrishnan and, later in early 2014, B.G. Srinivas.
From being the head of just one of the company’s several businesses, Rao was swiftly thrust into the role of joint president, with a seat on the board. All of this took place in less than a month. He then became COO after Murthy left the firm in June 2014 and Vishal Sikka became CEO. Now he finds himself in the hot seat.
According to colleagues of Rao, it was his mentor Murthy who orchestrated his rise. Murthy recognized Rao deserved a larger role in the scheme of things and quickly promoted him.
For a man who largely avoids the spotlight and prefers to operate quietly, Rao found himself in the middle of a controversy that was not of his own making when the board decided to raise his pay earlier this year—and ironically attracted the ire of his mentor.
Rao, 55, who is married to an architect, was born in Mysuru into a traditional, middle-class family. When he joined Infosys in August 1986, most of his family was shocked by his decision to join a firm that had barely 30 employees—especially since Rao had other offers from firms such as Bhel Ltd, Maruti Udyog and NTPC.
Before joining Infosys, he was interviewed by Murthy and another co-founder, N.S. Raghavan.
For a man who has seen Infosys go through several ups and downs over the course of his career, Rao now faces the biggest test of his tenure.
According to at least three colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Rao’s biggest challenge will be to assuage the concerns of Infosys’s nearly 200,000-odd executives and staff, who woke up on Friday to read about the exit of the company’s CEO.
His ability to navigate this challenge and period of uncertainty may well determine his legacy at a firm where he has spent most of his life in the shadows, working his way up the ladder slowly and steadily.
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