Last Updated : Nov 16, 2020 10:19 PM IST | Source:

Like a Boss: Infosys co-founder SD Shibulal on how leadership hinges on challenging the status quo, uncertainty principle and steering the company during a crisis

Infosys co-founder SD Shibulal has a Masters in Physics and Computer Science but he has never been to a business school and yet he continues to inspire through his leadership. In this edition of our Like A Boss series we caught up with him to understand his leadership style and what keeps him inspired.

Note to readers: How do corporate India’s leaders manage their businesses? Where do they draw inspiration from? What is their management style? Like A Boss is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from corporate bosses on how they run their companies.

SD Shibulal is the co-founder of Infosys, India’s second largest IT firm and has been the CEO of the company from 2011 to 2014. He currently oversees his family office, Innovations Investment Management and co-founder Axilor Ventures, a venture capital firm.

Being a part of Infosys since its inception in 1981, Shibulal has seen his share of crisis from the dotcom bubble in early 2000s to global financial crisis.


A Physics and Computer Science major, Shibulal applies the best of both when it comes to leadership and running an organisation. Learning the uncertainty principle does give him interesting perspectives, he quipped.

In an interaction with Moneycontrol, Shibulal talks about his leadership style, challenging the status quo, and tackling an unprecedented crisis like COVID-19 as a leader.

What time do you like to be at your desk?

I am an early riser. I usually get up by 5.30 am and I am at my desk at 9 am.

But, I wouldn’t say being an early rise is necessary for success. It works for me. I used to be a late riser years back. But once you start straddling multiple time zones, it becomes important to prepare for the day. Then early rising worked very well for me. I formed a habit.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: at business school or on the job?

I have masters in Physics and Computer Science and I have never been to business school. But I believe that both are important.

I think business schools add tremendous value. It gives you the fundamental principles, teaches you techniques and tools. You will learn from others' experiences, the good and bad, success and failures.

At the same time, there is no substitute for experience. Real world is very different from what you read in case studies, right? Future could be different. The example of this pandemic.

I am not sure if any of the business schools were discussing a pandemic in the last 10 years. So all these experiences you have learnt from others, is not relevant in the current situation. Then the most important thing is what I call learnability.

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If you can learn from the past and apply to new instances and that is the most important capability.

Describe your management style.

I was with Infosys for most of my life. So my management style in many ways will reflect the traditional Infosys management style and Infosys always believed in the management style of leadership by example.

Leaders are the ones who set the tone at the top. So it is very important that they walk the talk and leaders should not ask things he/she is not willing to do.

For instance, you as a leader need to be seen as honest, transparent, and ethical, if you want others to be. If I expect my people to work hard, I should work hard. If I expect my people to be transparent, I need to be transparent. If I expect to build a company that is non-hierarchical, then the leader has to be non-hierarchical.

As a leader I should be the role model. I should be the one who sets a high level of standard, anything I want the organisation to achieve.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person or collectively?

I am a person who believes that decisions have been co-created, because it brings in a wider set of conversations, where all the views are heard. Of course, there are times that one cannot take decisions in a collaborative manner.

Also Read: Like A Boss: Kris Gopalakrishnan on the 80:20 hiring rule, why colleagues must feel appreciated and what he’s learnt from Satya Nadella

But I still believe in conversations and hearing the views. Because that way the chance of you getting it executed through the team is higher, because they have seen how the decision was made and why.

Once the decision is made, it is made. It has to be followed through. I am not a person who believes in running-debate society kind of environment.

At the end of the day, responsibility rests with the leader. It is not a dilution of responsibility. But credit always goes to the team.

What kind of leader do you want to be, liked, feared or respected?

I have read somewhere that fear is never a sustainable tool. I would like to be a leader who is respected. Then it is a two way path. Respect has to be earned, I cannot demand it.

Your performance is equally important. Because your performance combined with other points I made earlier, will create recognition and respect.

What does your support team look like?

Right now, my support team always has one or two people who manage my office. They manage all my appointments and calendars. All the material and backend prep for the meeting. They schedule and keep track of things. Some amount of email management.

Usually I have key people in support positions. I would have a head of finance who looks after finance from an overall perspective, head of compliance, things like that.

But I think as a leader of a large corporation, you need support teams more than a team especially when you are driving change. These teams have to be created that will drive that change across organisation working with their peers and wider management and subordinates.

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So for example, if you are driving change in human resource management, then it has to be a combination of people from HR, and one of your business heads.

A business outside or a business leader that you draw inspiration from?

You can learn a lot from peers and business leaders. First and foremost I was extremely lucky to have a set of peers who were phenomenal at what they did.

Apart from them, I have always looked up to Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs for innovation. If you look at Indra Nooyi, (former CEO, PepsiCo) she is a person who balances profits and progress. John Chambers, (Chairman Emeritus, Cisco and CEO, JC2 Ventures), who believed in what startups can do to drive innovation, economic growth and job creation in the digital age.

So, there are a number of people whom I have taken inspiration from.

Which management book has influenced you the most?

Over the last 4-5 years I have stopped reading management books. I read more Bhagavat Geeta – (which says) you do your work and rest you don’t worry about (chuckles).

I am also a physics buff since I have masters in Physics. It does change your thinking.

You become a lot more numbers oriented, data oriented. Physics teaches causality. Cause and effect. It also teaches you uncertainty principle. You cannot measure everything. Some of these are interesting things to remember.

Because, humans are not predictable. Humans don’t behave the same way as another set of people. Probably some of these thoughts got influenced by my Physics background.

Also, I am not a person who believes in one role model or book. There is no perfect book or perfect human being. But every book or human being is perfect in certain ways. So my view has been to learn from whatever that is.

Do you socialise with your team outside of work?

I do socialise with the team outside of work. But time is always a constraint.

And I think it is important to get to know your team and the team to get to know you. That creates a sense of joint purpose. It creates a sense of collaboration and that requires social interaction.

What would your key management advice be?

There is no time in which an organisation can standstill. Either you are moving forward or moving backward. You will never stay still. Which means that there is a need for continuous innovation and continuous change. Both of them sometimes are uncomfortable to people.

Change is uncomfortable and innovation creates change. Innovation changes the status quo and that is also uncomfortable.

But both of them require leaders who would believe in that change and willing to try new things, and willing to create or adopt innovation. That responsibility falls with the leadership. Leadership is important in both good times and bad times.

What does it mean to be a leader during a pandemic and weather this storm better?

You need to make choices and those are tough choices to make. It is a must to make them, whether it is WFH, exiting the market, redeploying sources or taking a pay cut. Of course my original construct still remains that it is best to be done in conversation mode. But they have to be made. It is very important to make them.

Even after this is over, the world will achieve a normal, maybe a different normal. So if you are in education, the hybrid learning process that you are establishing today will continue and will open up new markets for you. If you are in healthcare, teleconsulting will continue.

So, leaders should look at the long term while managing the short-term and be prepared. In no ways should the leader assume that the new normal is going to be similar to the old one. It is one of the mistakes one could make: “Ok, this will get over. People will forget and we can go back to normal, which is the status quo.”

I don’t believe it.

Every organisation has to look long-term in this new normal and come up with strategies that will make them relevant to their customers, their stakeholders. It is all about balancing short-term and long term.

The people versus business question? What are your thoughts on that?

This is also where the question of long-term vs short term is taken into account. Let us say you are in hospitality or IT, where people are your biggest assets. How do you balance both?

When you come out of the crisis, you would still need your best resources to be with you to make this transition we talked about. Your short-term decisions should not completely annihilate you in the long term and some of these choices are tough to make.

But leaders’ responsibility to organisation is high and make sure that the organisation survives. Without the organisation, employees don’t exist. At the same time you have to fair in every transaction you make. So this is a decision that requires serious thought.

Follow the entire Like A Boss series here.
First Published on Oct 26, 2020 11:02 am