I am one of the lucky few who started my career with a start-up in India…a venture that grew rapidly, and could rival any bay area start-up of today in terms of excitement and energy! It is really hard to believe, today, that such a company existed in India and that too in 1983, but Wipro of those days was very much such a startup! (In fact, the global Indian IT companies we see today - a Wipro, HCL, or an Infosys - were all early stage start-ups in the 80s led by young entrepreneurs, exactly like a Flipkart or a MakeMyTrip, or an Inmobi is today). And Azim H Premji (AHP to us insiders), who was all of 23 when he started building Wipro, has done unbelievably well in building such a large, global, long-lasting company - one that even today stands out among its peers for its professionalism, integrity and corporate governance.
I have always been curious to know how AHP went about hiring the first set of key executives who worked with him to build such a great company like Wipro from nowhere. Imagine my excitement, when I came across one such person accidentally, and that too in Chennai! Mr M S Sekhar, a consultant to global companies like Wabag today, was recruited by AHP into Wipro in 1972, from IIM Calcutta. As I got talking with Sekhar, I put my real agenda for our meeting on a back burner, and prodded him to tell me more about his Wipro days. To my delight, Sekhar was as excited as me to talk about those formative days of his career. His first missive was: “Guess how long was my interview with Premji?” 2 hours? "No!“ 20 minutes? "No!” Now desperate me: 1 Day?? “Again, No!”. Sekhar took great pleasure in telling me how his interview with AHP lasted over TWO DAYS!! AHP took him through his plans, sharing how he had seen many more qualified and experienced candidates for the role, and showing him the detailed job advertisement he had released. Of course, what that did was to convince Sekhar to leave greener pastures like Levers, ICI, etc., and jump onboard an unknown company with an absurdly young entrepreneur like AHP!
Many thoughts were racing in my head: AHP decided to bring in the best management grads even when he was running what was then just a small vegetable oil company! He took recruiting as a critical job, and was willing to spend two days of his time to make sure that Sekhar was right for him, and that Wipro/he were right for Sekhar! Even during those days, when family-run companies were fairly feudal, he was a thorough professional, sharing his plans, being transparent, and reaching out for people who were highly qualified, even more qualified than he was!
The next googly that Sekhar threw at me caught me completely off guard: I had always believed that my favorite ex-boss at Wipro, Ram Agarwal(RNA), was a finance whiz, having seen him all the time with a spreadsheet, and hearing him talk numbers ad-nauseum. Now, Sekhar starts with - ’Do you know how Ram came into Wipro?’ He proceeds to tell me that Ram used to be then at Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) as a systems/ IT engineer, and that it was he, Sekhar, who referred him to AHP and, hold your breath, for a Sales role! A sales role at Wipro for selling to consumers, which means distribution, marketing, retail, etc.! AHP then interviewed & hired Ram as his Head of Sales - yes, Head of Sales, that’s no typo! - and Ram then went onto establish the Wipro consumer brand, before moving on to head Corporate Finance, and then helping AHP diversify into Information Technology!! (you can read more about Ram Agarwal here: http://www.wepindia.com/aboutus/Md.aspx).
Aha! I thought to myself - so AHP believed that a high power candidate could do many things. He was willing to bring in a person with no sales experience because he believed that he was hiring a smart, intelligent, professionally qualified person who would figure out what needed to be done. And he leveraged him so well by moving him into different roles as he grew. Maybe that is why senior executives are known to stay for looong in Wipro - getting to do many different things almost like moving different jobs within one company. Actually, all of AHP’s hiring follow this pattern to this date - in 1984, he hired Mr Ashok Soota as President of Wipro InfoTech., when Soota had no experience whatsoever in IT and came from a manufacturing group like Shriram Refrigeration! Vivek Paul, who succeeded Soota, came from GE Medical Systems…and now, Azim Premji Foundation & University, his mega project focused on India’s education sector, has people from IT heading it!
Sekhar was a sport alright, spending time talking about stuff which was nowhere on our meeting agenda, and that too on a Friday evening. Feeling a bit guilty, I decided to wind up the Wipro topic, but not before asking him to quickly recollect other things that stood out in his mind about that period. Interestingly the bits that emerged were:
- AHP preferred candidates who were NOT focused on work-life balance; Of course! Don’t we know that start-ups, especially the high growth ones, need 24x7 folks?! :-)
- He was generous with compensation, and paid as well as other MNCs in the market; Want the best and will pay philosophy?
- He had strong Corporate Governance framework in place from those days; Sekhar remembers the well coded “Conflict of Interest” policy!
- He would do regular performance reviews lasting several hours. Performance goals were well laid out and measurable, which made the reviews very objective.
- AHP made them all feel comfortable enough to disagree with him, and tell him when they felt he was wrong (haven’t seen too many leaders who can do that, have we? :( )
Sekhar fondly remembers how AHP used to get him and other senior executives to join him in his car drive to work, so that they could start work in the car!!
Sekhar still feels that joining Wipro was one of the best decisions of his life, and he learnt more in those 7 years with Premji, than he possibly could have done anywhere else!
And seeking out MS Sekhar, and asking him for a meeting, has been one of the smarter decisions of my life! I got to learn so much about our very own startup role model in India!