In recent business times of India, no event has triggered so much surprise and debate as the return of NR Narayana Murthy from retirement as the Executive Chairman of Infosys, the Indian information technology iconic bellwether struggling to remain on a growth path (please also see: http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/06/the-return-of-narayana-murthy-fast.html). There have been positive and negative angles to the news of Murthy’s comeback. On the positive side, many have held that there is nothing wrong, and everything to support, in such a towering personality returning to bring back to health the company he founded and grew with his co-promoters. On the negative side, many also have held the return to be a reflection of the inadequacy of the past leadership development, and hence a prognosis of future insufficiency of leadership development. After the initial swell of the welcome notes, analysts believe that only future events can judge if the return would be a positive or a negative for the long term future of Infosys and the overall gamut of business leadership development in India, including strengths and weaknesses of a possible dynastic succession.
For the larger body of students of technology and management as well as other professions, aspiring entrants to corporations and budding leaders, the return of Narayana Murthy must signify an entirely different aspect of corporate life and career development. It is not uncommon for scores of employees at all levels of an organization to leave, and for some of them to return to their alma mater. The twist here is that such returns are often seen as the return of the prodigal rather than the return of the savior as is the case with the return of towering leaders such as Murthy. Given that every unit of work in a corporation has its importance, the return of the employees at whatever level should qualify to be deemed as the return of the savior. That, however, hardly is the case except in certain truly high level leadership positions. As youngsters watch the unwinding of the Murthy2.0 story in Infosys3.0 saga, apart from the lessons to learn, a key self-learning objective must be how the young aspirants would be seen as saviors rather than prodigals, should such exit and return episodes occur to them.
As with every aspect of human endeavor, factors of demand and supply determine the relative importance of any material or non-material resource. At a gross level, from a human resource perspective, in a company or in an industry there would only be few leaders of a comparable caliber while there could be hundreds of executives and managers at lower levels with comparable caliber. At a gross level, from a business growth perspective, there could be only a few corporations that are willing to introspect and take radical measures to revert to their growth path as Infosys has boldly done. At a gross level, therefore, the demand-supply gap determines whether the return of any individual professional is deemed to be the return of a prodigal or a savior. The phenomenon of surplus-scarcity can, however, be addressed efficiently by individuals and corporations equally by deploying the concept of substitutability appropriately.
The relationship between the organization and its human resources is a paradoxical one. Organizations benefit if the available skill sets are both standardized and unique. Standardized skills enable the companies lower the bargaining power of candidates and reduce the attrition pressure of employees. At the same time, unique skills enable the companies enhance their competitive advantage in an industry and enhance the ability to reward and retain their employees. For employees, unique skills need not only continuous self-development but also an organizational ecosystem that facilitates development and deployment of unique skills. If an organization’s human resource base comprises only generic and standardized skill sets, it is unlikely that such an organization would become highly competitive. On the other hand, if an organization seeks only highly unique skills, conventional organizational systems would fail to cope with the need for heightened reward systems. The paradox needs resolution.
Prodigal minds and savior skills
Aspirations need to be matched by achievements. What we see in some organizations is a constant unrest in young operators, officers and executives to grow in their careers at a fast clip. Many times such young employees imagine a superior work opportunity and career package in other companies. When employees move far too quickly out of an organization in pursuit of short term career boost, such decisions, more often than not, result in later day distress. The foundations of such fast moving careers, instead of being reinforced by industry or skill distinction, tend to be brittle with disconnected skills and inadequate depth and breadth. At times, the best way to address the gaps is to retrace the steps and return to the base organization as a prodigal. In some cases, organizations also make mistakes in judging employees and release them too soon. Both organizations and employees need to be prodigal in such occasions. While this may cause some emotional distress, correcting the missteps, and more importantly rebuilding the stronger skill base, provides longer term solidity to the employee careers and organizational strength. Eventually, employees and organizations may benefit from the phenomenon of prodigal minds.
Renunciation must take place only after actualization. Leaders too face their share of needlessly fast moves, albeit into sunset. Leaders play a crucial role in not only growing their corporations but also preparing them for sustainability. Actualization for a leader is not complete until he or she is able to execute a business model and build a leadership team that can take the execution forward, until the firm is under a need, or in preparedness, for a new business model with an appropriate leadership model. When Narayana Murthy moved out of Infosys, it was probably actualization that was incomplete and renunciation that came on too soon. In retrospect, it would appear to be more of governance redistribution rather than undertaking the right change at the right time (please also see: http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2011/05/infosys-board-rejig-crowded-at-top.html ). Saviors possess leadership skills that have built and grown companies with achievements that are industry acclaimed. Saviors typically have stature and charisma that can rebuild confidence in internal and external stakeholders, and turn situations around for stalled corporations.
Prodigals as saviors
It is not that prodigals need to be at the bottom of the organizational pyramid and saviors at the top of the pyramid. Youngsters need to have the skills and the stamina that can make unique contributions in the domains in which they operate in their organizations, however small such domains may be. A product designer, a market researcher, a process engineer, a project executive, a quality officer and a salesperson all have their respective opportunities to be distinctive and become much sought after executives in their domains. The early development of savior skills in a youngster is a good augury for organizational competitiveness. Youngsters need to complement their subject specialization with practical expertise and a breadth of outlook. An automobile component designer, for example, would need to be conscious of the challenges of material technologies on one hand and the complexities of manufacturing on the other. The more end-to-end connected a specialized youngster’s thinking is, and the more broad-spectral his or her aptitude is, the more he or she would be able to add value to his or her functional competencies. Such talent at the bottom of the pyramid is often hard to find, and that is the reason it is so valuable to build a cadre of saviors at the bottom of the pyramid.
This requires that organizations should focus on all-round skill integration in youngsters. The need for ready to use talent is so high in organizations that fewer organizations are willing to commit the lead time and effort to train youngsters in all the departments of an organization prior to their getting absorbed in their core functions. Early departmental rotation provides a broad perspective of a corporation’s value chain without compromising the core competence. If entrepreneurs such as Murthy emerge as saviors it is not necessarily only because of any superior skills and attributes but also because of their intimate association with the total value chain of the organizations as they establish and build their organizations. Professional organizations which compartmentalize functions as organizational silos in the name of specialization need to consciously adapt policies of all round development of skills in their youngsters. The greater the commitment to graduate and post-graduate rotational training and development programs for youngsters the corporation has, the greater will be the development of savior skills in the organization.
From prodigal to savior
Too much of functional specialization with too much of an emphasis on assigned task delivery but without an understanding of the total value chain contribution on the part of youngsters gives them a needlessly elevated view of their contribution. Organizations-in-silos which are aware of the gap between the due requirements of organizational competitiveness and undue expectations arising from tiny contributions in narrow niches struggle to explain and retain talent consummately. Organizations that are unbounded in thinking and creative in execution tend to be conscious of the need to leverage young talent as much as possible to develop deep knowledge, broad perspectives and futuristic vision in them. Such organizations do not fight shy of nurturing and rewarding saviors from the early years of their careers. Youngsters who join organizations must understand the responsibilities and nuances of developing savior skills from the early years, and keep reinforcing the savior skills as they move up the managerial and leadership hierarchy. Such leveraged talent provides sustainable competitive advantage to corporations.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 9, 2013