How Infosys CEO handles latest challenge will be a true test of his mettle

Topics Salil Parekh | Infosys

Salil Parekh | Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
In January 2018, when the soft-spoken Salil Parekh joined Infosys as chief executive officer, it was perceived as no less than riding a tiger. A few months before, the Bengaluru-based IT services major had seen the unceremonious exit of the Vishal Sikka from the top post. Much bad blood had been spilled in public owing to open infighting between the management, a few board members and the co-founders over allegations of lapses in corporate governance standards, related party transactions and several such issues. 

But Parekh, who had just lost out in the race for the top job at French multinational software services company Capgemini, took solace in a couple of things in his new job. One, he had co-founder Nandan Nilekani for support as the board chair and, two, he knew the company was still revered as the best in the industry though it was no longer the bellwether. 

Unlike his press-friendly predecessor, Parekh maintained a low profile, at least in part because of the challenging situation in which he took charge. But a person who knows him personally and professionally said his style was essentially low-key — he believed in his actions doing the talking. Parekh focused on the core business; there were none of the bold and dramatic announcements of churn and change to achieve milestones that characterised his predecessor’s stint. Infosys, to the world at large, seemed back on track.

But less than two years after he took charge, Parekh finds himself riding another tiger, and it’s one that he doesn’t seem to have spotted. Eight months after he joined Infosys we met Parekh in Mumbai. One of the first few questions we asked him was about the growing frequency of whistleblower mails, alleging various kinds of management irregularities. Had things stabilised? Parekh agreed that the frequency of such letters had come down. But who knows, he added, when the next one will hit. He was, he said, much more focused on Infosys’ business in terms of growing digital services and building different pillars such as AI & automation, local presence and on reskilling employees. “Of course, there will be some of those things (whistle-blower emails); maybe they were a little bit more in the past. There may be more in the future but we have to manage through it. So far as my objective is concerned, it is to make sure we do what our clients are looking for, and to maintain a positive equation with all our stakeholders,” he said.  

Among the stakeholders, he hinted that the co-founders were critical and he maintained a very cordial relationship with them.

Around nine months after that meeting, we got another chance to meet Parekh, this time at the corner office at Infosys’ main corporate block at its Electronics City headquarters once serially occupied by former co-founders N R Narayana Murthy, Nilekani and Kris Gopalakrishnan. This time, Parekh sounded much more confident about the company’s performance under his watch. We asked again about the company’s internal stability. Parekh interpreted the question as a reference to the business and offered a textbook reply: “We definitely have a sense that there is a lot of stability in the business today,” he said. “All our efforts are geared towards how we build the company which in the medium term is going to be successful. So absolutely, stability is back.”

The essence of his answers to the question on both occasions indicated that his focus was on the business and the clients. The latest whistleblower complaint accusing him of pressuring finance team members to inflate profitability must, therefore, have come right out of the blue. There’s another allegation that he made racist remarks against some board colleagues. For a man with a singular focus on the business and clients, all of this must have blindsided him. How he handles this latest challenge will be a true test of his mettle.

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