Business & Strategy

Cognizant's Deadliest Weapon

Since I write on IT, people often ask me what is the secret of Cognizant’s success. There are many, but I think their deadliest weapon is Francisco’s age and energy. In the past I have written about how the IT business is all about energy and momentum. Francisco has that in bucket loads.

Mitu Jayashankar
Updated: May 7, 2012 02:52:19 PM UTC

I'm a Delhi girl who managed to embrace the quirks of the South Indian way of life after moving to Bangalore. A sceptic but not a cynic, I'm lucky to have been a part of the Garden City’s journey from a sleepy paradise to a bustling high-tech metropolis. I'm interested in technology and business, education, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. I began my journalistic career at A&M and passed through the portals of Businessworld and The Economic Times before coming to Forbes India.

“A leadership role isn't a reward for past performance. It's a bet on the future. Might take new skills & fresh vision,” tweeted Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School Professor, a celebrated author and thinker and a woman I greatly admire.

In the latest issue of Forbes India you will read a story that my colleague N S Ramnath and I wrote on Francisco D’Souza, CEO of Cognizant. I won’t give away too much of the story here but Kanter’s words describe the scenario we have captured in our story on Francisco. Under him, Cognizant has grown from a revenue base of $2 bn in 2007 to over $ 6 bn in 2011. Last year Cognizant over took Wipro and this year it might go past Infosys in revenues.

Francisco, or Frank as he is known inside Cognizant, doesn’t meet Indian journalists that often, so it’s very difficult to write about him. While working on this story I learnt that he hasn’t visited Bangalore for the last seven years. Writing about a subject from such a long distance is tough, especially if your I’m-not-taking-no-for-an-answer Editor has asked you for a story that takes the reader deep inside the CEO’s mind. But we’ve tried, just as in this blog I will try to connect what is happening at Cognizant today with Kanter’s description of leadership.

One thing that always amazes me about Frank is his age. He was just 38 when he took over as CEO from Lakshmi Narayanan, Cognizant’s Vice Chairman. Lakshmi (as Narayanan is better known) told us an interesting anecdote. Some time ago, employees quizzed the senior leadership of the company. In one such session, they asked each of the senior officials what kept them awake at night. Some said operational issues, others mentioned customers, and some said the future. When it was Frank’s turn to say what kept him awake at nights, he quipped, “my two year old daughter”. When Lakshmi told us this anecdote, we cracked up. But later on as we were putting our story together I realized that Frank wasn’t just being funny, he was being factual. He really is that young.

Initially Frank may have felt a bit overwhelmed. Frank’s colleagues often joke about his age, saying that customers do a double take when they see a boyish looking CEO walking in for meetings. But if he had any doubts about himself, they seem to have vanished.

Lakshmi says that when Frank first took as CEO over he would call him at least 7-8 times a month, and he describes these calls as “intense”. Today the frequency is down to 2-3 calls a month, signaling to Lakshmi that Frank is now comfortable and independent and has a good team to fall back on.

Since I write on IT, people often ask me what is the secret of Cognizant’s success. There are many, but I think their deadliest weapon is Francisco’s age and energy. In the past I have written about how the IT business is all about energy and momentum. Francisco has that in bucket loads. While reporting for our latest story, we heard dozens of anecdotes, of Frank working 24*7, pulling in all nighters to close large deals, taking transatlantic flights to spend a couple of hours with a client, and even moving bag and baggage to live out of UK for a couple of months when its European operations were struggling.

More than 70 percent of the workforce in an IT company is between the ages of 22-25 years. A young CEO can often be seen as a hero in such organisations. Sullajja Firodia Motwani of Kinetic Engineering was Frank’s classmate at Carnegie Mellon. Some time back when Frank was in Pune, where Cognizant has its biggest development center, he invited her to attend an event at the campus. Post the event she hung around with Frank for dinner. And she observed how young software engineers felt extremely comfortable walking up to Frank to say hello and chat him up. She says while they were respectful of him, they weren’t in awe of him, they could relate to him easily.

Age isn’t just a number it’s a mindset. Lakshmi says Frank is almost like a millennial, he is tech savvy and a total gadget freak. “His thinking is not like that of an enterprise programmer, it is like a social programmer,” he says. Lakshmi says that when Frank wanted ideas for a new initiative he has started inside the company, he created a Facebook like platform, “I would have prepared a deck, talked to employees, made presentations,” says Lakshmi.

Why am I going on about Frank’s age when we should be talking about leadership? Well, if leadership is, as Kanter says, about placing a bet on the future then the leader must have enough time to assess how that bet is playing out and make changes when required.

This is where Frank’s age becomes a big advantage. He has a long time to put a plan in place and see it through. Frank is 44 today and the voluntary retirement age at Cognizant is 55, which means technically speaking he has 11 more years at the helm. And if does continue till 2023 (provided he wants to and the Board thinks he is worthy) he would have been CEO for 17 years. The only other person who I can think of staying at the top for so long is N R Narayana Murthy. Like Frank he became CEO in his thirties and was the helm of Infosys for 21 years. Long enough to place some big bets, make mistakes, correct course and take Infosys to the top of the heap.

In my opinion this is one of the biggest challenges that Wipro and Infosys face today. I will digress a bit here, to make a point not about age but about longevity of tenure. When a CEO knows he has only five years at helm, even if they are the founders like in Infosys, or not sure when they will be booted out in the case of Wipro, he is going to be focussed only on the short term. It is not a coincidence that leaders who are more sure of their stay at the top, be it N Chandrasekaran at TCS, Phaneesh Murthy at iGate or Vineet Nayar at HCL have been able to demonstrate more long term thinking, take risks and change their organisations in profound ways. They may not be as young as Francisco, but they are young enough and have enough time to see their plan to fulfillment.

So do read the story on Francisco and tell us if you agree.

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