India’s largest software services company avoids the management churn that roiled rivals after a change at the top in a testament to the quiet leadership of Rajesh Gopinathan, who succeeded Natarajan Chandrasekaran as CEO in February. Edited excerpts from an interview with Gopinathan:
What were the early days like, and the run-up to 12 January when you were named CEO?
The whole thing happened pretty suddenly. So a week or 10 days before the announcement, there was a more formal dialogue, and the discovery (of the chief executive officer, or CEO) was pretty much on the day itself. All of us, about 15-20 people, which included all unit heads, service heads, were together on the day of results (12 January). And when it (announcement) came, everyone was happy that I had been appointed. The idea of transition is that it was not a step change. It’s been a very smooth process because the team has stayed together. We have a more of a first among equals culture rather than a very centralized leadership culture.
So what has changed?
So before January 12 and after January 12, did I start behaving differently? I don’t think so. In my mind, the enormity of it also took some time to seep in. So, fundamentally, although the event happened suddenly, the actual transition happened over a long-drawn process. Even now, it is going on. This concept that I need to send the message to the organization that I am the CEO is the least of my worries. The organization is structured differently. There is no need for me to stand up and say I am the boss. It is more an orchestra kind of situation. There is a conductor. Each of the participants knows the score. And then it is the question of relative emphasis. You change the tempo to bring in your own signature, but technically everybody knows the score, or everyone is a virtuoso in their own area. And you may emphasize or de-emphasize. You have the power, but you exercise it very lightly. The orchestra is trained to follow the conductor. But it is not dependent on the conductor.
How has it been from stepping into the corner office from playing the role of a chief financial officer (CFO)?
This year is a different one because it required a lot more travel. This year has gone in pretty much flying all over the world. Say, on an average, 20 days a month. In fact, for the first three months, both NGS (chief operating officer N. Ganapathy Subramaniam) and me travelled continuously. All of us have always been on the road.
What according to you are some of the attributes of a good leader?
Firstly, you need to understand your own teams and you need to respect them. Respect them from the bottom of the heart, and they will respect you. It is this mutual respect that is the key to get extended teams to work together. Secondly, honesty and transparency. The third element is something which I’ll say I learnt completely from Chandra; it is that as a leader, you’ve got to take the risk and put yourself up. The team should see you are not asking them for something which you yourself are not holding up to.
What is the role Chandrasekaran plays?
He (Chandrasekaran) has got his hands full (as Tata Sons chairman). Still, his involvement is quite high. I get to speak with him if not daily, then at least 3-4 times a week. So, take for example, I have a call with a person later this evening. So in the morning I had a call with Chandra as I sought his feedback, some background, on the person I’ll be talking to, because I have not met the person. Post January 12, post February 21 (the day he took charge of TCS) also, we went for client calls, travelled extensively, (he) introduced me (to clients). In our main client conferences, he invests a lot of time. Just two weeks back, we were in Japan, where he spent two-to-three days meeting all our key people. The intensity of the first couple of months has gone down, but in our key events, like our global customer summit, he is present. The transition is still ongoing. He is very tuned in. There is a lot of back and forth which happens. There are elements of which I had not thought of before. It’s a quick phone call. A few minutes of dialogue.
So are you happy with the way things have worked over the past eight months?
...it has gone much more smoothly than I would have imagined. Like I said, it all came very suddenly. But it has gone smoother than I could imagine.
Why this insular approach towards technologies and even building talent?
I don’t know if insular would be the right word, but definitely we believe in building talent and technologies in-house. As an organization if I don’t offer you the space to grow the capability that you don’t have, then it is just a transactional buy and sell relationship. It (the decision to build talent) is very core to our DNA. People ask me why our attrition is low. Our attrition is low because of this. Because my promise to you (my employee) is that I will give you the space to be who you are not today. And If I don’t give that space, then why will people stay with me?
Isn’t pursuing this approach also a risk as it means your growth gets impacted because building talent and technologies in-house takes time?
I agree, it is a risk. (But) we are betting on our people that this culture is the more robust and resilient culture which will allow us to go over multiple cycles of technology. Otherwise, I am merely a financial investment engine.