Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mr. Software retires from work, not from life

One of the most interesting quotes that I have heard in branding was not made by Philip Kotler, John Philip Jones or David Aaker. It was made by Nandan Nilekani, CEO & MD of Infosys when I interviewed him in connection with my book, “You become a brand not when you talk about yourself but when others talk about you” he said. And I remembered this quote in the context of Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy stepping down from the Executive Chairmanship of Infosys Technologies Ltd on 21st August, 2006. Because this statement if anything certainly applies to Mr. Narayana Murthy who in my opinion atleast is India’s foremost personal brand in the corporate world. And in this column I would like to share a few things based on my experience and interactions with him. The reason for this is simple. For five years in a row Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy has been voted as the most admired business leader by management students in this country in brand-comm’s business leadership study. And I believe that people in business and people in India can learn a lot from him as I have, over the years. So here are a few random memories that I shall cherish of my experiences with Mr. Software as I believe that title best represents his achievements.

Confident of the future not futuristic
I first met Mr. Narayana Murthy in 1993 in connection with the Infosys public issue. Mudra, the agency I worked for then, was handling the issue. I remember 6 of us landing up in their small office in Koramangala to make the presentation. (Agencies believe in strength in numbers!). And I remember a few people vacating their chairs to accommodate us. I am reminded of Infosys’ spartan early beginnings whenever I see their mind boggling, world-class structures at Mysore or Bangalore. But back to the advertising. I remember my then colleague, Balki working a futuristic campaign referring to Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov for Infosys. We believed Infosys was a futuristic company. Very rightly the company said it would not talk about the future. I guess they were content with merely creating it! The campaign that came out was matter-of-fact, boring even. Over the years Infosys has metamorphosized to one of India’s most successful companies and one of its most visible as well. But its visibility is a product of public relations not mass media advertising. And leading the public relations strategy has been Mr. Narayana Murthy who has been the face of the company and the software industry as well. And the strategy has been simple. Achieve. Do things first. Do them differently. Do them in a larger scale. And you will be written about. And you will become the foremost brand in your category.

First in business, economy in travel
On another occasion on a later date, I was traveling to Ahmedabad. As I went to my customary 12C seat in economy I was surprised to see Mr. Narayana Murthy peering shortsightedly at a magazine in the business class section. (This is hardly the time to talk about my childhood affinity for the 12C bus route in Madras as it was called then, which has extended to my airline travel by way of seat preference). But back to Ahmedabad and my return trip to Bangalore the next day. Whom should I bump into at security other than Mr. Narayana Murthy. I mentioned to him that I had seen him in the same flight the previous evening. Barely had I finished my sentence before he started saying how the organisers who had invited his wife, Sudha Murthy had bought business class tickets and how despite their protestations it could not be changed at the last moment and how now they were travelling economy and boy was he relieved at the changed scenario! To me it seemed a simple conversation, but to him it was a way of life. One had to fly to save time. But traveling business on a local flight to him seemed wrong. To the point of being an obsession. You can call it a middle class hang–up but I would call it a value, that drives Infosys as well.

Environment is what you make
A lot of us depend on our environment to make a statement. The address we live in, the clubs we are members of, the restaurants we patronise, the schools our children go to are all symbols that we cling to. I remember moving to Delhi (or trying to) in 1993. My predecessor lived in Vasant Vihar, an expensive suburb of New Delhi. The reason for that was simple. He said one’s address matters. Well Mr. Narayana Murthy continues to live in Jayanagar. That isn’t Cuff Parade or Boat Club Road. And I have seen him having iddli vada at Adigas which is hardly as aspirational as having breakfast at Leela’s or the Sheraton Towers. (Probably just that little bit tastier). But then Mr. Narayana Murthy does not need the props that you and I need. You can look for the brand to support you or you can be the brand that supports the environment. Like every youngster today believes that IIM is the only brand that can build his career. Mr. Narayana Murthy however believes in strengthening the IIM brand with the power of his own personality and the strength of his conviction. And this is precisely what he did as Chairman Board of Governors, IIM Ahmedabad. He fought for the IIM’s autonomy on the fee increase issue tooth and nail whilst some others in positions of authority were dithering and sitting on the fence. And I remember that from the IIM ‘B’ alumni association we wrote individual letters to over 40 Directors of the various IIM’s expressing solidarity with their quest for autonomy. We got one solitary reply thanking us. No prizes for guessing that Mr. Narayana Murthy was the only one who wrote back. Mr. Narayana Murthy has always responded to mail immediately. (A trait that Nandan Nilekani has as well). Unlike a host of CEOs and VPs even who never respond to mails, text messages or calls on the mobile. There is a lot that business leaders and aspiring ones can learn from NRN as he is called. But then since many of our leaders know everything that needs to be known on every subject under the sun. I am sure they are not reading this column or following what comes to Mr. Narayana Murthy naturally.

Recognition of achievement
Mr. Narayana Murthy was one of the few business leaders who gave me considerable time by way of a personal interview for my just published book. I remember our slotting an hour and we ended up spending ninety minutes. The interview was interrupted up just once as Mr. Murthy after seeking my excuse went out to say hello to G.R. Vishwanath the stylish cricketer who was visiting on behalf of SBI. Mr. Murthy said he had been present with a host of his IIT Kanpur friends in 1969 when the batsman made his test debut against Bill Lawry’s Australians. Mr. Murthy complimented GRV on his fantastic century in the 2nd innings while Vishwanath smilingly recalled his duck in the first innings. This was absolutely fascinating to me, a new dimension to Mr. Narayana Murthy. Today he is a celebrity several times over, but he took pride in recognizing a hero of 37 years ago, when he was a nobody and actually went out of a meeting to recognise him.

Sum and substance

Mr. Narayana Murthy clearly is a leader with a difference. I can’t think of too many laying down office when they are at the peak of their physical and mental powers. More so when the company has been founded by them. Mr. Narayana Murthy demonstrates the value of being oneself without professing to be something else. Consistency is key to a brand. “Ethical”, “Values”, “Simple”, “Wealth Creator” are the brand associations that he elicits consistently. Today Infosys is recognized as the leader of the second generation of successful Indian companies. Not content with leading his company, he led software as one of its most influential leaders making it the industry of choice to Indian’s brightest and best. He may retire from the company he built but will no doubt continue to be a brand. Without even trying.

The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm