Home >opinion >online-views >Indian CEOs as superheroes

Last week a routine story in Bloomberg came with an unusual headline: “Infosys CEO Sikka Has First Big Setback as Global IT Stalls". Note that it wasn’t “Infosys Has First Big Setback as Global IT Stalls". What prompted the stern statement was the company’s latest quarterly results which disappointed the markets and sent the Infosys stock plunging nearly 10%.

The last time this happened was over three years ago when co-founder S.D Shibulal was in charge. In April 2013, as it reported disappointing fourth-quarter numbers and lower-than-expected guidance for 2013-14, the company’s shares nosedived by 22%. That plunge prompted calls for a change of guard. A professional CEO without the legacy issues that surrounded the promoters of the company, it was believed, would bring fresh energy and new ideas to leading Infosys. It didn’t happen immediately of course but eventually a new, professional CEO, Vishal Sikka, was brought in to help the company recover its position as the IT industry’s leading light.

Two years into Sikka’s regime, the jury is still out on that. What is certain though is that with Sikka the cult of the superhero CEO is here. Sikka is Infosys in popular perception and he sinks or rises with it.

But how much of a difference do CEOs make to a company’s fortunes. All of B-School-driven management literature along with its biggest proponents, American multinationals, claims that the CEO is the alpha male around whom a company runs. Which is why, US CEOs earn eye-popping salaries, massive bonuses for achievements and gallingly, generous severance packages even when they fail. In 2011, the Hewlett-Packard board sacked its then CEO Leo Apotheker after only 11 months on the job. By all accounts Apotheker had been a disaster on the job. Yet his termination terms included a huge multi-million dollar package.

In India, the CEO as popular cultural icon hasn’t quite caught on yet. India’s top banker Aditya Puri, who has run HDFC Bank for 22 years earns about 9.73 crore, a fraction of what a top banker in New York or London would and way lower than what an equivalent CEO even in other Asian countries would. With 67% of Indian businesses still run by families, it is the promoters who tend to be top dog in most Indian companies.

There have been Indian CEOs who in time came to be identified as the face of their companies. Besides Puri, there is Y.C. Deveshwar of ITC and A.M. Naik of Larsen and Toubro, who spring to mind. But it isn’t a widespread phenomenon and often when a professional CEO has threatened to upstage the promoters, the consequences have been rather nasty for him. In 2003, Sunil Alagh was asked to leave Britannia Industries following differences with the principal shareholder, despite having made a huge success of his tenure.

In an earlier era, Tata group companies were led by men like Russi Mody, Darbari Seth, Sumant Moolgaokar and Ajit Kerkar. In their time they were powerful overlords who often ignored the diktats from Bombay House and charted their own course for the companies they headed. This was despite the presence of the legendary J.R.D. Tata as head of the group.

However, by the time Ratan Tata took over as group chairman in 1991 it was evident these leaders, talented and competent as they were, had become out of touch with the requirements of an emerging post-reforms corporate India and had to go.

Since then, Tata group CEOs have tended to stay below the radar and allow Ratan Tata and now Cyrus Mistry to be the public face of the group. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the way we perceive rivals Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. The latter, a runaway leader and clearly the jewel in the Tata crown has been led since 2009 by Natarajan Chandrasekaran, who tends to maintain a low profile. At Infosys, Sikka by contrast is more a US-style CEO, not scared of airing his views even when it means taking his own company to task, as he did after the recent results when he blamed execution rather than strategy as the reason for the disappointing results.

The same has been the case with other large Indian groups like the Aditya Birla group where it is Kumar Mangalam Birla who is the visible face as well as Reliance Industries where Mukesh Ambani reigns supreme despite the high esteem in which P.M.S. Prasad, who heads the petroleum business, is held both within and outside the group.

Owners and even shareholders don’t like CEOs who are too much in the face largely because it isn’t an Indian thing to do and also because aggressive CEOs can at times become an embarrassing liability as happened with Rahul Yadav, CEO of fledgling real estate platform Housing.com, whose battles with his investors turned ugly, leading to his messy sacking.

Often despite the exit of an iconic leader, companies have gone on to greater glory which shows that no one is really indispensable. In 1997, Atul Choksey, chairman and managing director of Asian Paints, sold his stake in the company, which he had pretty much helped build, to Uday Kotak who in turn promptly sold it to British paints maker ICI Plc., which had till then been licked in the market by the Indian rival. Asian Paints was then a 883 crore company. Most predicted that with Choksey gone, following differences with his co-promoters Abhay Vakhil, Ashwin Choksi and Ashwin Dani, the rising Indian multinational would go into decline. Instead, Asian Paints went on to grow and prosper and is today a behemoth with sales of 14,750 crore in 2015-16. Its current CEO KBS Anand, who has led the company since 2012, is a low-key performer who is consistently rated among the top CEOs in the country.

Companies do need a recognizable face since customers, investors and analysts respond to people rather than to faceless corporations. But the cult of the CEO often masks the need for collaborative work in an organization as well as the quite human tendency for one man to make mistakes and errors of judgments.

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