Infosys Appoints Dr. Vishal Sikka as CEO, Making a Brilliant Pilot a Swimming Coach | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On June 12, 2014

In a landmark move with far-reaching implications, Infosys appointed ex-SAP CTO Dr. Vishal Sikka as its new CEO and managing director, making him the first non-founder at the helm in the firm’s 33-year history. Accompanying this change, the founders are getting out of the new chief’s way. Current CEO and co-founder SD Shibulal will leave by end of July, while NR Narayana Murthy will vacate his role as executive chairman on 14 June, continuing in a non-executive board role until 10 October to ensure a smooth transition.

The fact that Infosys engaged an executive recruiter to look for a successor reflects a dramatic shift in ethos for the firm. It represents the strategic decision to bust up a certain inward-looking culture that has come to represent Infosys. That Infosys reacted to market and customer expectations by bringing in an external technology visionary bodes well for the critical imperative to change to a customer-centric culture, rather than firm-centric. 

What Works 

The Gujarat-born Dr. Sikka holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence. He spearheaded the development and marketing of HANA, SAP’s flagship analytics product. His experience in these areas could give Infosys a sizable edge as service providers look to establish credentials in next-generation technology avenues such as big data, analytics, cloud, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

He seems to have been given a wide mandate, per the large-scale changes in senior management that are accompanying his appointment. This will allow him to exercise a free hand as he attempts to reshape the beleaguered company. Infosys’ long-standing strategic imperative to let the founders control the firm has been widely criticized.

He joins a long list of industry outsiders taking charge of IT majors. Louis Gerstner was unanimously credited with turning around IBM’s fortunes when he took over in 1993, after previously leading RJR Nabisco and American Express. Closer to the Indian IT services landscape, Vivek Paul, a GE-alumnus transformed Wipro, fast tracking growth from a US$150 million company in 1999 to over US$1 billion in sales in five years. Last year, Apple announced UK fashion chain Burberry’s CEO as the head of its retail and online business.

Appointing an outsider tends to bring fresh perspective to inherent legacy issues plaguing companies. Free from the baggage and expectations associated with firm veterans, Dr. Sikka can look to usher new life into Infosys. 

What May Not

Since he comes from primarily a products-driven business, it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the IT services industry, which has inherently different business dynamics and challenges. The focus will be on streamlining project management, client delivery, and sales efforts. Dr. Sikka’s experience in driving sales and marketing at SAP will be a crucial asset in this regard. Being a CTO of a products-based company is an entirely different ball game than leading a global services behemoth, as product-driven businesses rely primarily on the strength of intellectual assets, while services businesses are an amalgamation of resource management, delivery, and expectations handling.

In spite of the large-scale management changes, Dr. Sikka has his work cut out as he navigates disgruntled senior management. How he soothes frayed nerves and reassures them will be essential for stability. A cultural shift he will seek to implement will revolve around Infosys’ limited risk appetite for investments. Infosys needs to invest significantly in boosting its expertise in next-generation solutions through alliances and possibly acquisitions. Although it has made some notable acquisitions such as Lodestone, the firm has generally been fairly risk-averse in exercising its significant cash pile.

The role that NRN Murthy assumes will also determine the efficacy of Dr. Sikka’s roadmap for revival. If Murthy remains strictly in a mentorship role overseeing the transition, without overriding Dr. Sikka’s strategic decisions, the sailing should be smooth. However, if those lines blur, it could create a vicious cycle of conflict, decisions embargo, and execution paralysis.

Another important but often ignored challenge of such senior-level changes is the risk of culture mismatches outweighing the business positives. Echoing Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” bringing in a rank outsider can have controversial implications. For example, John Sculley joined Apple from PepsiCo, and during his time had long-standing disagreements with Steve Jobs due to divergent management styles and priorities, ultimately resulting in Jobs’ exit in 1985. The entry of a new top-level entrant is not easily accepted by the old guard, leaving open the possibility of wilful sabotage. Dr. Sikka will need to build bridges with senior stakeholders to avoid stepping on toes.

Swimming in Choppy Waters Ahead 

Essentially, whether or not Dr. Sikka manages to snap the once industry bellwether out of its funk will depend on his ability to make the transition from a technology visionary to an empathetic business leader combining technical expertise, client management, and people development, while maintaining the focus on innovation and thought leadership. He will try to take Infosys out its comfort zone, bridge service gaps with more nimble rivals, and ultimately reassure clients that their business is in sound hands. He needs to show that a brilliant pilot can be a swimming coach as well.

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