When I studied at IIT Kanpur in the mid-1980s, professors with a nation-building mindset announced they would not provide letters of recommendation to students applying for PhD programmes abroad unless they had worked for two years in India. I admired them for that decision, even as it put on hold on my aspirations for an academic career. When I completed my Masters in 1986, I was fortunate to qualify for Wipro, arguably the most coveted job for a systems software career.
The two years I had planned at Wipro extended to 13.
To begin with, Wipro challenged my perception that business involves cheating, and that the employer’s interests are opposed to those of its employees’.
Every year, Azim Premji, who was Wipro chariman, held a session for first-time employees at which he explained Wipro’s six “beliefs”. He also held an annual communications session with all employees. At these sessions, he encouraged questions from employees, and answered them with sincerity. Through these interactions, we came to understand that honesty and success could co-exist. These sessions provided a solid foundation for our personal value system. We respected Premji as an authentic, no-nonsense person who gave us hope that honesty and success could co-exist.
Sometimes, employees complained that Wipro’s no-bribes policy prevented us from competing effectively. Azim Premji’s response was unequivocal: refuse to pay bribes and then negotiate with your supervisor to reduce your targets. Once, Wipro lost a prestigious order to a government department because a vendor offered “free” software. When Wipro appealed and explained why the software could not be free, the customer agreed to reopen the process.
Premji believed in autonomy. At one session, an agitated sales person asked, “Do you know, sir, in Wipro Systems, they buy HCL PCs and not Wipro?” In an era when HCL was our biggest competitor, this was the ultimate sacrilege. Premji responded without emotion: “All our businesses have the freedom to decide how best they want to run them. If they do not find your offering good enough, they will go to competition.”
At one annual meeting, my friend K Srinivasa Rao spoke about how he convinced his father-in-law to invest in a Wipro Finance product but he was embarrassed when it performed below expectations. Premji replied: never recommend a Wipro product to anyone out of loyalty. Please suggest only if you are convinced it is the best in the market.
At Wipro, we created a harmonious, effective environment where we fought together, failed together, won together, celebrated together. When we needed help, we’d cut across teams and approach the right person who would come over and support us – till we resolved it, together. Cooperation was a silent process, often without the manager’s knowledge. We helped others because we learnt from it, not because it would please the boss.
The spirit of customer-focused cooperation, self-driven problem-solving, autonomy and high purpose created entrepreneurs within, and when these people left Wipro, they excelled anywhere they went – earning respect for themselves within the country and outside. Some of them went on to create their own enterprises, respected for their integrity and fairness.
If the greatness of leaders is measured by the influence of their ideas and values that outlast them, we need to acknowledge the Wipro signature irreversibly extended beyond the confines of the group into the entities it spawned. Dr Sridhar Mitta’s NextWealth or e4eLabs earlier, Vijaya’s Alopa, Shanti’s Aarohi, or Mindtree are some examples of successful organisations conceived by former Wipro-ites.
Quest for quality
In 1996, Wipro launched its biggest transformation when Premji brought in Subroto Bagchi to launch “Mission Quality” to reduce error rates to less than three in a million. “What percentage of my time should I spend in quality?” one executive asked. Replied Premji: “Quality is not part of your job, it is your job.”
I got my first exclusive ten minutes with Premji more than ten years after I joined Wipro. We were at an off-site meeting, and he happened to be just ahead of me in the line for lunch. It was a long queue and I got my opportunity to ask the question on top of my mind. Wipro had the goal of being among the top three most admired companies in any business we were in. A recent Business World survey of most-admired companies had come in, and we were ranked 62. How on earth could we get to third, I asked. Premji just put it back on me: you tell me, he said. The realisation sunk in that Wipro was as much my company as it was his, and the joy of finding the right answers could just be mine.
Much of what is written about Azim Premji (and Wipro) is about money. He shot into celebrity-like attention at the turn of the millennium when Wipro shares hit the roof. Now, the incredibly large sum of money that he has given away drives the conversation. That is a reductive way of looking at Azim Premji. The man is bigger than all his wealth, and all the money he has pledged.
Azim Premji needs to be remembered for much else:
- Giving a generation of us the confidence that making money and living values are mutually compatible – facilitating this belief not with motivational talk but through nurturing a platform where we experienced this ourselves.
- Demonstrating that we can actually enjoy being at the workplace, while being totally committed to work.
- Showing that empowerment works. Empowerment of not just senior management but right down the levels. After less than two years in Wipro, a note I wrote could reverse a sales decision. Those on the ground regularly influenced customer-focused practices and quality processes.
- Inspiring us to define and understand integrity in our lives.
- Respect for the individual (any individual, irrespective of rank).
- Inspiring the creation of dozens of companies by former Wipro-ites, where performance and values co-exist.
- A strong connection to customer’s interests and being fair to the customer.
- Nurturing business ethics even when that meant losing business.
In my 13 years with Wipro, I made new friends and admired people around me. I was happy and shared a rosy view of the future. I found meaning. Why would I have I have traded this for a childhood dream to get a PhD abroad?
Kalyan Banerjee worked at Wipro’s Global R&D, later at Mindtree. Banerjee is now dedicated to education, primarily with under-served segments, with non-mainstream methods.