Can a CTO be groomed into a CEO?

#vishalsikkaquits: While the blame game is on, it is time to think about why this happened, and if Dr. Sikka really struggled to wear the CEO hat.

One of the strongest criticisms coming from some independent directors at Infosys was that Dr. Vishal Sikka was more of a CTO and less of a CEO. It is well-known that Dr. Sikka is a technologist and is credited with the development of the SAP HANA platform (an in-memory database solution). He also led the development teams at his former organisation SAP. As he took over the leadership reigns at Infosys he was greatly encouraged by the promoters and founders of the company. He was also groomed for the leadership role. However, some are of the view that he was not quite successful as a business leader.

Sanchit Gogia, Chief Analyst, Founder & CEO, Greyhound Knowledge Group said, “Since he (Dr. Vishal Sikka) runs a multi-billion dollar publicly listed firm, it makes matters a lot more complex. The maturity was lacking since they (Infosys) have this huge target of $20 billion by 2020. That could have been avoided. There were instances where it was apparent that there was a lack of experience in leading a publicly listed firm.”

Gogia feels that the onus of ensuring Dr. Sikka’s success was on the founders.

“Instead, they criticized him in public and it was a bloodbath. This has hurt investor sentiment, it hurt brands and it has hurt customers,” said Gogia.

Gogia says Dr. Sikka was not incompetent to lead the company and was a “thorough professional.” But the ordeal that he suffered was unfair. With a bit of support from the founders and more realistic targets, he could have made Infosys shine again.

We also asked an HR professional who has worked closely with CEOs, CIOs, CHROs, about the qualities that a CEO must have.

Dr. Sujaya Banerjee- CEO, Capstone People Consulting said, “A CEO must be extremely passionate about the business and the industry. He must also have ambition. I know CEOs who are passionate but they are introverts and may not be able to demonstrate it. Secondly, he should have the ability to read the environment and spot opportunities — and see where he can take the business. It is the ability to read the business landscape and the market landscape. He should have a realistic assessment of where his own business stands. The third thing is seasoned judgement – the ability to use your experience to make decisions for the organisation. Strategy is really the art of making choices. The fourth one is innovation – it would be a deal breaker if a CEO is not innovative today. It is a survival skill.”

The other CEO attribute that Dr. Banerjee cited is the ability to lead teams and have a “magical influence” on teams and groups of people.

But would a person coming from the technology side find it a challenge to lead the company and move to a strategic role? This is a topic long discussed in the CIO community.

Greyhound’s Gogia is of the opinion that a technocrat may be good with technology but not necessarily good at other functions like Sales, for instance. “Dr. Sikka is a great technocrat but he is not a sales person. Consider a scenario where a senior sales person from Infosys sought some guidance from the CEO, who is a technocrat and not a sales person; that company would struggle at some stage. There was a learning curve (for Dr. Sikka),” he says.

Dr. Banerjee says a CTO or CIO could be both a great technologist and business leader with the right mix of qualities.

“For a lot of technology people, it is really about ‘are you the software person’ or ‘are you leading the architecture’ or ‘are you the backend person for systems and processes.’ There are different areas of exposure and expertise. But these reasons for existence have evolved further for the technology head. It then moved towards services and support. So technology leaders have to see their roles more strategically. They have to move beyond transactions and customer support,” said Banerjee.

She cited examples of exponential organisations such as AirBnB and Uber that have innovated dramatically with technology.

“I believe that if a CIO or CTO is innovative and understands the business well, and if he has the ability to reinvent the business model, recast it and make it the centrifugal engine of the business, he would do a great job in driving or leading the business. If a CIO is still struggling with the backend, he sees himself as the support function and not as the leader of business,” she concluded.


Brian Pereira has over two decades of journalism experience. He is the former Editor of CHIP and InformationWeek magazines in India. You can write to Brian at: brian9p@gmail.com Twitter: @brian9p Linkedin: https://in.linkedin.com/in/pereirabrian

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