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The struggle for succession

Vishal Sikka's decision to resign as Infosys chief executive officer (CEO) has led to much analysis, discussion and debate

A still from ‘The Last Tycoon’.
A still from ‘The Last Tycoon’.

In The Last Tycoon, a new Amazon TV series based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel, Pat Brady, played by Kelsey Grammer, is the owner of Brady American Pictures, a Hollywood production company. Brady has a complicated relationship with his junior colleague, partner and protégé Monroe Stahr, the sharp, enigmatic and inspiring producer who is the show’s central character.

Brady can’t do without Stahr, the studio’s guts and heart. Yet he resents the loyalty and following the younger executive commands. In a dramatic scene with his wife, Brady cleaves right to the core of his discomfort with Stahr: “Do you know what it’s like not to be the hero of your own story?"

Not to give away too much of the plot, but this 1930s period drama essays workplace intrigue, professional betrayal and prickly insecurities.

The Last Tycoon is larger than life but its script of office drama plays out in small cubicles and well-heeled conference rooms just about everywhere. Just as I had finished the last episode of the first season early on Friday morning, I woke up to a real-life messy boardroom saga rushing to its own curtain call.

The sorry spectacle at Infosys is well-known by now. Vishal Sikka’s decision to resign as chief executive officer (CEO)—the company’s first non-founder top boss—has led to much analysis, discussion and debate. This column adds to that newsprint but the lessons from this modern corporate fable are so rich and varied that they merit attention.

Vishal Sikka. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

Nobody has come out looking good in this unfortunate morass of ego battles, churlish one-upmanship and poor stakeholder management. But N.R. Narayana Murthy, the company’s founder, cuts the sorriest figure.

Whatever one may say about Sikka (some believe he was too audacious and ambitious, although he had successfully driven up profits and revenue, and was steering Infosys to more new-age technologies) or about the board (ineffective, at the end, from stopping their CEO from resigning), it’s Murthy’s stock, reputation and gravitas that has taken the most brutal beating. His public shaming of Sikka, uneasy dynamic with the company’s board and consistent interference is unbecoming of an industry leader, most agree.

Much like The Last Tycoon’s Brady, Murthy is deservedly a “hero" of his story. Taken together, their reel and real life dramas throw open two deep fault lines that founders everywhere struggle with: letting go, and managing their best talent, especially those that are “better" than them.

Nothing trips up the best founders more than letting go. However well-intentioned, and minutely planned, succession plans and leadership transitions might be, human nature often trumps the best-laid plans. There are enough examples of uneasy passing of the baton, and the ugliness this can result in.

Performance isn’t a guarantee against a founder’s insecurities. Even when professional management and CEOs are up to the task, as some might say Sikka was, founders can feel uncomfortable about being merely witnesses, not the lead protagonists. Even if the company is actually doing well. Or would do well.

N.R. Narayana Murthy. Photo: Mint

For founders, their ventures become such an extension of their personalities that it becomes impossible for them to distinguish the self from the organization. Not enough founders confess to this but it is a difficult ask: How do you bring all of yourself to work, invest everything you’ve got in a venture and then behave as if it’s not all yours? If you take all the risk, don’t you deserve all the glory? Are you wrong then to expect that you will always be the hero?

A big talent myth that the start-up world, and increasingly even larger companies, believes in is that the best managers and bosses love to hire people smarter than them. And, they love it even more when these smart people outshine them; when they build leaders who question and push them. This makes for perfect vision documents and people-practice handbooks, but the reality is in the practice, not in the preaching.

In the start-up world in India, high-profile senior, talented professionals brought in with much fanfare—not unlike Sikka—have eventually had equally high-voltage, messy exits.

I reckon many founders are part Brady, part Murthy as well—in all their glory and blind spots.

Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.

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