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When Nandan Nilekani returned to steer Infosys as non-executive chairman in 2017, analysts asked him how long he planned to stay.

It was a fair question. Nilekani, one of the company’s founders and a billionaire who has pledged half his wealth to charity, doesn’t need to work for money, for one.

Secondly, in the eight years since he stepped down as co-chairman of Infosys in 2009, he had been immersed in public service and politics—most notably as the creator of the now-ubiquitous universal ID Aadhaar.

It was certainly in his interest to secure his legacy, as well as his wealth, which is mostly in Infosys stock, but it was clear that at this stage in his career, Infosys needed him more than he needed the job. Hence the question.

“People are asking how long I plan to be here. I plan to be here as long as necessary and I will not be here as soon as I am not necessary," he told analysts in his first interaction on 25 August 2017. “So I have a set of tasks to accomplish, CEO search has to be done, the board has to be reconstituted and new people have to be brought in, and the business has to be stabilized," he said, without providing a timeline to achieve these goals.

The $100 billion question

A few days short of four years, Nilekani has clearly orchestrated one of the most impressive turnarounds India Inc has seen.

Infosys’ American Depositary Receipt or ADR ended at $23.63 a share at the Nasdaq on Friday, giving the company a market cap of $100.23 billion (The ADR trades at a slight premium to the shares listed in the country as its shares on BSE had a market cap of $98 billion at the end of trade on Friday).

Infosys becomes the second information technology (IT) services company after Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, and the fourth public company in the country that is valued at more than $100 billion (Reliance Industries Ltd and HDFC Bank Ltd are the two other companies).

Back in 2017, Nilekani returned reluctantly to Infosys when the company descended into chaos: It was still to start scouting for a successor to chief executive officer Vishal Sikka, the embattled boss who resigned, after a long-running stream of criticism from founder N.R. Narayana Murthy. Infosys's then chairman R Seshasayee and two other board members had stepped down. There was uncertainty on its revenue growth even as employee morale was close to its lowest ebb. The company was valued at $34 billion.

In less than 100 days, Nilekani and the board managed to get Salil Parekh, a former executive at Capgemini SE, as the new CEO.

With Parekh focused on running the business, and winning back the trust of clients, Nilekani got to work on restructuring the board. He got four new members and elevated Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw as the lead independent director.

To put it simply, Parekh and Nilekani’s partnership has helped Infosys get back its mojo and retain the tag of IT bellwether.

Mission accomplished?

With all the goals he had outlined having been accomplished, a question is now rising to the fore among analysts and a few executives: Is it time for Nilekani to hand over the reins to a successor?

The question is prompted by upcoming events on the company’s horizon. The next 18 months will see expected changes in the ranks of the company’s executive leadership and the board. In December, chief operating officer UB Pravin Rao will retire. Twelve months later, in December 2022, Parekh’s current five-year tenure will come to an end. Finally, Infosys’s lead independent director Mazumdar-Shaw will turn 70, the retirement age for board members at Infosys, in March 2023.

“A good leader always leaves when things are on a high. Now, the question is if Nandan will step down now, so as to give his successor time to work so he can see through the changes in the senior leadership or will he continue for the next two years," said a former Infosys board member, on the condition of anonymity.

The emerging line of argument is that Nilekani should either hand over the reins now or commit to stay for another two years and communicate the same.

“I don’t know if Nandan has indeed got a successor in mind, and that to me continues to remain one of the unfinished things he had set out to achieve," said a second executive, also a former board member.

“I really don’t know (why Nilekani could not find a successor)," said the second executive. “Maybe it just shows how difficult is it for an iconic company like Infosys to really step out of founder’s shadows and have a non-founder chairman"

Parekh will be 58 next year while the retirement age for executives at Infosys is 60. This means Parekh could still lead the company for another two years although some executives doubt if he will be given a fresh contract only for two years.

“Companies normally don’t give such a short contract especially if the leader is nearing a retirement age," said one of the board members cited above.

An email sent to Nilekani on Tuesday seeking his comment went unanswered.

Succession plan?

“With many of the key leaders transitioning out in the next year combined with Nandan achieving the many goals he had established four years ago perhaps it is an ideal time for Nandan to hand over the reins to a successor," said John Mattone, a leadership coach based out of Lake Mary, Florida, in the US. “Not all chairmen and CEO’s get this. He does."

“The most important decision-making criteria—assuming he has in fact, accomplished the goals he set out to accomplish—is to ensure that his successor oversees an efficient transition while many of the current senior leaders are still onboard. If he delays too long, this will definitely impact how seamless the transition goes," said Mattone, who has advised companies such as Amazon, IBM and Coca-Cola.

“I believe that he has painted a masterpiece, especially over the past four years that he himself likely will never be able to paint again. It is difficult if not impossible to replicate the value he has brought to the world through his masterpiece," said Mattone.

A Mumbai-based analyst with a foreign brokerage said difficulty in succession planning has been a recurrent theme at Infosys. “Infosys has had a problem with succession planning in the past, especially in 2013-14, when under Murthy’s watch many internal candidates left the company after Sikka was brought in from SAP. Nandan’s presence at the company gives that assurance that the company can see through the next succession when the current CEO’s term ends," said the analyst, asking not to be named.

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