Lessons from tech’s week of leadership woes
It was a strange week in which three of technology industry’s high-performing companies saw leadership shuffles. First came the news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs went on medical leave, and that sent the shares of Apple Computers plunging before the company recovered on news of sold quarterly profits.
Miles away from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, search giant Google’s Mountainview head office saw CEO Eric Schmidt become executive chairman and co-founder Larry Page become CEO.
In Bangalore on Friday, Wipro chairman Azim Premji announced the exit of co-CEOs Girish Paranjpe and Suresh Vaswani and in their place came a single CEO, TK Kurien, amid worries that the company was growing slower than its key rivals.
All three companies tell different stories, but underline an important commonality in the IT and technology industry.
In the good old manufacturing industry days, leadership was mainly about managing assembly lines and finances and marketing in a set-up in which labour was a small part of costs. On top of this, the workers, largely blue collar, were happy to focus on wages and do routine work. Things are different now. Jobs’ showmanship is so important to Apple that its shares took a knock. Larry Page may be a great techie, but he is just a first among equals in a company full of bright, young computer engineers. Leadership in such a context is not about exercising efficiency or authority, but about leading innovation, change and being accountable both inside to employees and outside to shareholders in a context were employees are in effect business partners. Motivated employees and innovation are critical to technology firms. The problem is that the old fashioned style of squeezing more out of employees can backfire. Even generous Google has seen the exit of some bright minds, because opportunities beckon outside.
Wipro may be in a similar plight, on a larger scale. The company has always been known as a good employer, but ambitious minds in a competitive industry demand more — in terms of pay, working conditions and growth opportunities.
Even industry leaders such as Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys are suffering from attrition at various levels.
Wipro has been relatively conservative in its approach to rewarding and retaining employees — it has been slow and limited in boosting stock options and prefers (as the general belief goes) to hire high performers than ambitious leaders. When even Google faces exits at high levels, the challenge is more for Wipro. In the coming days, this should concern chairman Azim Premji as tongues wag about the imminent rise of son Rishad to fill his father’s shoes.