IT WAS IN 1978 that Nandan Nilekani, in his early twenties and fresh out of IIT-Bombay, went for a job interview to Patni Computer Systems. His interviewer was NR Narayana Murthy, and three years later, Nilekani would follow him to start Infosys. The story of a rare Indian company of that era to become a global player without compromising on core values would begin. Infosys made its investors millionaires, its employees were considered top-notch, and it evoked unbridled admiration among peers.
By 2013, however, the story had paled on the growth front and when Murthy returned that year to Infosys to fix things, one of his remits had been to find a leader who was not a founder of the company, someone who would take it to its next stage. That Murthy had been forced to do so had something to do with Nilekani. In 2002, Nilekani had taken over as CEO from Murthy, and till the end of his charge in 2007, Infosys had registered extraordinary growth for a company of its size. What this also bolstered was the assumption that its founders, as a category, were best suited to lead the company. As subsequent events would show, this was a flawed premise. A decade after he left, Nilekani finds himself returning reluctantly to the firm. And in a double irony, his remit too, like Murthy’s second coming, is to find a leader who will take Infosys through the turbulent waters it finds itself in.
Nilekani is suited for the task. The admiration he evoked among Infosys stakeholders had been high. With Murthy currently at war with its Board, as a consensus candidate to steady the ship, Nilekani is clearly the better man. In the environment of negativity that surrounds Infosys at the moment, Murthy is accused of being rooted in the past. He hired someone from the new school in Vishal Sikka and then couldn’t reconcile himself to the changes it implied in operating style. Nilekani, even after leaving Infosys, has remained at the forefront of digital technology as an active investor in startups. His public profile has expanded after Infosys. As the person in charge of creating a system that would provide a unique identity to all Indians, he made Aadhaar a biometrics-driven initiative. It might still be a work-in-progress, but it is hard to see anyone else who could, in a few years, manage to leapfrog such an initiative by a generation.
Nilekani, according to newspaper reports, had no intention of returning to Infosys and it was only a few days ago that he acquiesced after being courted by almost every party in the imbroglio, including investors, other founders and members of the Board. Murthy, too, was agreeable. A 2008 profile of Nilekani in Mint has an interesting insight on the relationship between the two. It said: ‘In his book-lined office in the heritage wing of Infosys, a relaxed and expansive Murthy talks about his protégé; about Nilekani’s extraordinary ability to engage and communicate with people; about the way he rallies people around a common goal; and about how he always saw the big picture…“Of all the people in Infosys, I am closest to Nandan,” says Murthy. “I can tell him anything I want and usually do. And, he can tell me anything; I don’t think he does, though.” The big difference between them seems to be that Murthy leads from the heart and Nilekani from the head.’
Infosys does need more head than heart at the moment. What can be expected from Nilekani? He is going to be its non-executive chairman, so will limit himself to offering direction, but, more importantly, finding a CEO. After Sikka’s resignation, it was commonly thought that Infosys would have a tough time finding anyone of a similar calibre willing to join. Nilekani is probably the only Infosysian around who can assuage that apprehension.