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Guru Mantras: Lessons in leadership from Tata’s Chandrasekaran, Narayana Murthy, Nilekani and Ajay Piramal

Guru Mantras: Lessons in leadership from Tata’s Chandrasekaran, Narayana Murthy, Nilekani and Ajay Piramal

The four iconic business leaders have their own leadership models, but patience and perseverance are common

The four iconic business leaders have their own leadership models, but patience and perseverance are common The four iconic business leaders have their own leadership models, but patience and perseverance are common

One of the key advantages of being a journalist is the opportunity the profession gives you to interact with some of the finest minds—thought leaders who make a difference to the world around us. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of interacting with at least four such business leaders, people who have made their place in the business firmament and reached iconic status on the back of their vision, razor-sharp focus and perseverance in achieving their goals. The conversations I have had with them provide deep insights into their thought process, their recipe for success and, most important, their leadership styles. However different their styles may be, there’s one thing they all share—they are patient, wait for the right moment to execute their vision, and persevere to follow them through. Here are some of their leadership mantras garnered from these conversations. 

Natarajan Chandrasekaran: Direction first, velocity next 

This marathon runner, who helms the storied House of Tata (FY22 turnover $128 billion), is a transformation artist par excellence. During my conversations with him over the past few months—Chandra, as he likes to be called, was named Business Icon of the Year as part of the Business Today India’s Best CEOs awards this year—I have come to realise that he is someone who believes in the theory of “falling forward”, as he likes to put it. Simply put, it means you move ahead and, if in the process mistakes are made, that’s fine; one can always get up and rectify them. But not doing anything is never an option. 

Chandra’s perseverance and patience has led to deep-rooted transformation at the Tata group, where the conglomerate is now in the midst of creating new business opportunities while transforming the older, existing ones. With the aid of simple messaging, Chandra drove home a key message. “Fitness first, performance next,” was a key mantra where he accorded sharp focus on the balance sheet first. The second, and equally important, catchphrase he popularised within the group was “direction first, velocity next”. “We needed to agree on where we must run and then worry about speed,” Chandra explained to me. His 3S strategy—simplification, synergy and scale—was aimed at creating simpler structures and synergies (read fewer companies, mergers, etc.) to make the group less complex and unwieldy. Perhaps Chandra’s greatest strength has been to understand the Tata legacy and ensure whatever change he drives does not go against the core values that the group stands for. Driving evolution while keeping traditions firmly in mind isn’t easy. Chandra’s mantra is to keep both firmly in focus. “Without evolution, traditions die; and without traditions evolution is meaningless,” he says. Having taken over during a most turbulent time in February 2017, Chandra has not only steered the 150-year-old group into newer horizons, but also helped grow the traditional businesses, making them stronger. As Bain Capital’s Amit Chandra says, he has proved to be the perfect mix of a marathon runner and a chess grandmaster. 

N.R.Narayana Murthy: Empathy will never go out of style 

Little can be added to the legend of Narayana Murthy, the iconic Founder of Infosys, that is not already known. But my recent conversations with Murthy have served to underscore why the man, who set up what can arguably be called India’s first start-up—tech giant Infosys—is an enduring role model for millions, and not just in the tech world. Murthy’s deep commitment to empathetic leadership is one of the key features of his management style. Humility and integrity are central to Murthy’s world, values that today’s entrepreneurs would do very well to emulate. How does an entrepreneur navigate today’s uncertain world? Murthy says the best way is to “hope and act for the best, but be prepared for the worst”. Make sure that your value proposition is so strong to the venture capitalists that it can be explained in a clear and unambiguous way to those who you are seeking funds from. “Focus and sharpen your definition of value addition,” Murthy advises. 

Uncertain times also mean entrepreneurs must focus their energies on getting the maximum value from everything they do. Simply put, this means a sharp focus on innovation in every aspect of business. A priceless piece of advice Murthy has for entrepreneurs is: Behave like it is a bad time even though it is a good time. He reasons that being austere even in good times is ideal. “Behave as if today is a tough day. Then things will be easy when the difficult days come.” 

Empathy will never go out of style, Murthy told me. “Empathy is about being fair, it is about being transparent. It is about sitting down in private with an individual and telling him or her the real situation vis-à-vis his or her performance, but saying it in a way with fairness.” Fairness is about saying it with data and facts. Simple words of advice which many of today’s CEOs and start-up founders would do well to follow. 

Nandan Nilekani: Be strategic, not tactical 

Nandan Nilekani, the architect of India’s Aadhaar unified identity system, comes from the Infosys school of values. But Infosys Co-founder Nikelani’s own path has been diverse—from the private sector he moved to government to set up Aadhaar, and is now back at the helm of Infosys, as Chairman. And it is this journey that makes Nilekani’s leadership mantra compelling. Consider some of the key values Nilekani has stood by, ever since his first stint at Infosys where he joined Murthy and then rose to become CEO. The basic tenet he follows is, “If you have the vision, you can rally people behind it.” That’s what came in very handy for Nilekani when he moved to uncharted terrain, joining the government for the Aadhaar initiative.

Nilekani initially had to face stiff resistance in government from various quarters who felt threatened that their powers would be taken away or curtailed if the unique identity initiative came into existence. Having worked in the Bangalore Action Task Force at the state level and later with the National Knowledge Commission at the centre, Nilekani understood the nuances of working within government. Two other tenets served him well. Simplicity always trumps complexity, he explained to me. “The other part was in being strategic and not tactical. You must know the endgame and be tactical to get there, but never lose sight of the endgame.” It was a mix of these tenets that saw him achieve success with Aadhaar, one of the most complex government initiatives in recent memory. It was during his government stint that Nilekani also saw the value of being patient, explaining to the various departments in government the value of Aadhaar and ensuring they were on board with the idea. Navigating the various government channels was a time-consuming affair, unlike what could be achieved in the private sector because he was fully in charge. 

Nilekani is also realistic enough to understand and admit to his mistakes. For instance, he told me bluntly that the plunge he took into politics was his “biggest failure”. Admitting that there was “a sense of invincibility” that worked on him after his stints with Infosys and the Aadhaar project, Nilekani was realistic to understand that he needed to play to his real strengths and politics was not his cup of tea. The return to Infosys, at a time when the company was rocked by a bitter feud between then CEO Vishal Sikka and the promoters, was another one that has deep lessons for leaders and entrepreneurs. Nilekani realised his second stint was in the role of Chairman. “Earlier it was about being an executive and now that has moved to governance. I look at it as reinventing oneself.” A reinvention that has worked brilliantly for both Nilekani and Infosys. 

Ajay Piramal: Buy imperfect, sell perfect 

One of the savviest investors and business leaders in India, Ajay Piramal has made contrarian bets and emerged stronger every time. Whether it is the sale of his pharmaceutical solutions business to Abbott for a staggering $3.7 billion in 2010 when everyone was betting big on Indian pharma, or buying the troubled DHFL to bolster his financial services play, Piramal—who had also made a killing earlier by investing in Hutch and then selling for handsome returns—always plays by his gut. Piramal told me his formula is simple: Buy imperfect and sell perfect. It is this investment thesis that has served him dollops of success all through. “The right acquisition gives you good value. It should not be perfect. In fact, my belief is that you sell when perfect and buy when imperfect. That’s when the arbitrage of valuation comes in,” Piramal told me, explaining his mantra for success. 

Why does he like taking contrarian bets? Piramal says he has always believed in “looking beyond the obvious”. When he acquired Nicholas Pharma in the 1980s, MNCs were looking to exit India. Conversely, when he exited the business, all the talk was about India as a great market. But both ways, Piramal ended up the winner working on a contrarian theory. 

The other key leadership tenet Piramal follows is doggedness and perseverance, which was in ample evidence during the bitter battle to take over DHFL. The normally reticent and soft-spoken Piramal bared his fangs and bit into DHFL, edging out strong rivals like US-based Oaktree Capital in an all-out bidding war. Once again, a simple justification for this came from Piramal: “We had a long-term approach in mind, while the others were looking to extract value.” A mix of long-term strategic thinking, patience and doggedness got him DHFL. Today, Piramal’s two key pillars of growth are the pharma and financial services businesses. Both, he believes, are primed for smart growth as India moves ahead on the growth path. 

Views are personal. The author is Editor, Business Today

Published on: Jul 11, 2023, 3:44 PM IST
Posted by: Priya Raghuvanshi, Jul 11, 2023, 3:39 PM IST