How To Be a Better Manager – An Interview with N. R. Narayana Murthy

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Narayana Murthy is one of the giants of India’s IT industry. In 1981, he founded Infosys, a provider of consulting and business process outsourcing services, which is today India’s sixth largest publically traded company. Murthy talked with HBR about the most valuable advice he ever received, the advice he gives young professionals, and how he approaches leadership and management.


HBR: What was the best advice you received as a young man, and what advice do you now give to young professionals?

Murthy: The first lesson I learned was from my father who wanted his children to cultivate inexpensive habits. He said, “If you cultivate inexpensive habits, you will not become a victim of money in later years. And, you will not fall into the trap of greed which leads you to do things that you will later regret.”

He said, “You must cultivate the habit of reading.” In those days, in India (actually even today), every small town had a public library from which you could borrow a book free every day. You could also read magazines, journals and newspapers there, whatever you wanted. So, this habit did not cost any money.

He also said, “You learn to enjoy music.” My father was a schoolteacher. We were eight children. We were poor. We did not even have a radio at home. I am talking of the early 1950s. And he said, “Why don’t you go to the public garden and sit there. They play music from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm.” So, we used to go there, sit there and enjoy music for an hour. And, that was free.

And finally he said, “Cultivate good friends and discuss interesting and useful things with these friends. These conversations do not cost you any money.” So the three habits that I learned from my father that I practise and enjoy even today, are: 1. Reading books. (I spend a reasonable amount of time in reading books on physics, mathematics and computer science).  2. I listen to music. I listen to Indian classical, Indian film songs in Hindi and Kannada, Western pop songs, Western classical and music of many nations. 3. I have a few friends with whom I can spend a lot of time. None of these things cost me much money.

The second lesson I learned was from my high school headmaster – Mr. K V Narayan (KVN). I was 13 years old. He taught us the importance of treating public property, property that belongs to the community, with even greater care than your own private property. He was conducting an experiment in chemistry, and he wanted to use sodium chloride (common salt). He was being extremely careful with the amount of common salt that he put into the test tube. One of my friends who was sitting next to me thought KVN was very stingy and burst out laughing. So, KVN stopped his experiment, and came to where we were sitting. KVN asked my friend why he laughed and what was so funny about the experiment. My friend said, “Sir, you are so stingy with common salt which is so cheap. That is why I laughed”. KVN said something that I remember and practise even today. He said, “Remember that this inexpensive common salt belongs to our school. This is the property of the school. This belongs to you, to me, to this class, and to the entire school. Therefore, I have to be extremely careful about how I use it.” He continued, “You come to my house, and I will give you a big jar of common salt free. Because, that jar of common salt at home is my private property. I can afford to be very generous with my private property. But when it is a question of public property, I have to be very careful. I am a small owner of the jar of common salt in the school along with other teachers and hundreds of students.” And, that was an extremely important lesson. I become very angry when I find people not practising this lesson.

The third lesson came from Prof. J G Krishnayya (JGK), my boss at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He taught us the importance of starting every transaction on a zero base and not carrying the hysteresis of bias from prior transactions. Let me give you an example. From time to time, JGK and I would have a discussion on a technical issue. In the heat of excitement, we would say things that would not be appropriate. I was guilty of it more often than JGK. I would spend the night worrying that JGK had gotten upset with me. But, the next morning when I met him, he would be smiling, affectionate and full of charm. He would behave as if that offending transaction did not happen. In fact, my colleagues at Infosys have observed me behaving exactly like JGK did. They know that my comments were purely on that issue and have nothing to do with the person involved.

The second lesson JGK taught me was the importance of using data and facts to come to conclusions. JGK would say, “Youngman, if you use data and facts to arrive at conclusions, then you will not be biased, you will not be opinionated, and you will be fair to the other person.” Again, this is something that I have practised all my life since meeting JGK in late sixties and I consider this a very important aspect of any leader.

 

HBR: What advice do you, in turn, give to young professionals?

Murthy: I have spent most of my time in the corporate world. I have spoken to youngsters all over the world. I have realized that the most effective way of passing on advice to youngsters is to use short, simple attractive sentences to communicate some of these ideas. For example, I tell our youngsters, “In God we trust. Everybody else brings data to the table.” It sticks in their mind, and hopefully has some value.

The second piece of advice I tell them is to practice honesty, integrity, decency and fairness. I communicate these values to them by the adage, “The softest pillow is a clear conscience”. And, they understand that I am advising them to be honest, to be fair to others, to use data and facts, and not be biased. They understand that honesty helps them sleep well, because they know that they have done nothing wrong. Their conscience is clear.

And the third piece of advice I give is about the need for transparency. I use the adage, “When in doubt, disclose” to communicate this powerful attribute of value system. Transparency is a prime value attribute in the corporate world because good corporate governance depends up on transparency. Transparency is also the hallmark of a good professional, a good human being and good citizen of any society.

 

HBR: What is the biggest mistake you made earlier in your career, and what did you learn from it?

Murthy: I have often said that Infosys is an intelligent and enlightened democracy. During the Infosys days, I collected lots of smart people around me. And, we would decide every strategic issue only after we have had intelligent, informed and passionate discussions. On any non-classified issue, I would invite, in addition to internal experts, outside people with experience in that area, listen to them, argue the pluses and minuses, and then come to an informed conclusion. Therefore, by and large, I have avoided making a major mistake. Perhaps, I may not have taken the best possible decisions. As you know very well, in a democracy, you may not take the best decision but you take the best decision under the circumstances (most optimal decisions). With such a strategy, you avoid disasters. The important ingredient for a good decision is to create an open, pluralistic and fearless environment where the best debates are possible.

 

HBR: Who is the best leader or manager you’ve worked with, and what made that person best?

Murthy: I have been lucky to have had excellent bosses. I learned something from each one of them. But I would say that the person that had the most impactful influence on me as a corporate manager was my boss when I worked in Paris in a software company. This gentleman, an Englishman from South Africa, demonstrated to me how a good manager takes bottom line responsibility for the mistakes committed by his assistants, and provides all the help and encouragement to the offending assistant(s) to do what is necessary to resolve an issue or a crisis on time, within budget and with requisite quality. He would remain calm, wise, helpful and encouraging and provide all resources to his assistants who were toiling to complete the job. Only after the job was completed did my boss in Paris give a tap on the knuckles of the people who had committed a serious mistake.

Here is what I mean: One Friday evening, we were testing the operating system that we were building and found a huge error which turned out to be my fault. We figured out the problem around 6 pm. All my colleagues went away. Who would want to stay in the office after 6 pm on a Friday evening in Paris? But my boss listened to me carefully and understood my mistake and the huge work required to reset all the databases so that the entire team’s work did not suffer when they came back to office on Monday morning. I explained that the repair task would take about 24 hours. He just smiled. He and his wife were supposed to go to someplace for dinner that night. He cancelled it. He sat down with me. He told me jokes. He brought food and coffee for me. And I completed the task around 4:00 pm or 4:30 pm next day (Saturday). And, when he was sure that the task was completed properly, he said, “kid, (I was very young at the time), next time you do this, I’ll spank you.”

And the point is, this boss of mine interacted with me like I had done nothing wrong and gave me confidence to complete the job. That was when I realized that a great leader would provide you full bottom line support when the going was bad, and that he would not get upset. But once the task was completed and once we had recovered from the crisis, he or she would show his or her anger. This is something I have practised. There were many occasions when my colleagues felt that I had not got upset in a crisis.

 

HBR: What talents do Indian companies need most right now?

Murthy: First of all, we must become adept in operating in multicultural environments. Because globalization is becoming more and more popular in India, because Indian managers are going to different parts of the world, and because Indian talent is visiting many developed countries to design systems – particularly in our industry, we have to become much more multicultural in our mindset. We have to learn how to negotiate pleasantly in a multicultural environment. We have to learn to understand the aspirations of the multicultural talent that works with us. We have to learn how to motivate people from different cultures. We have to learn to lead multicultural talent.

The second thing that Indian managers have to learn better is the ability to move from being reactive problem solvers to proactive problem definers, or proactive solution definers. Indians are very hard working. They are reasonably smart. But, by and large, the Indian professionals expect their bosses to tell them in detail what needs to be done. Then, they will do it extremely well. What our professionals have to learn is to go into a new situation, find new problems and design their solutions.

Third, we have to become better in communication, particularly in English. The English that we learn in India is highly grammatical but very verbose. We tend to use many more words than necessary to express ideas. We have to learn to express ideas in a simple and straightforward way. If we learn to communicate well, we will become even better.

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