Wipro @ 75 – It’s much more than Mr. Azim Premji !

Wipro is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, which easily qualifies it to transcend from the status of an organisation to one of an institution. Too often, the media takes a skewed view, associating Wipro’s journey with the journey of Mr. Azim Premji (and now his son, Mr. Rishad Premji). But the Wipro’s successful life journey of 75 years is also attributable to its employees, its teams, and its leaders.

As a Wiproite whose career there was a mere 9 years long, I would like to celebrate Wipro’s 75th Anniversary, not by recounting my experiences with Mr Premji (which I have done in a separate post, published last year ), but by recounting my experiences with & learning from 5 other outstanding leaders, with whom I had brushed shoulders during my time there.

Suresh Vaswani

Suresh was my boss for 7 years & his trademark leadership style was embedded in his passion for work, his drive for results, and his mania for productively utilising every minute of his 24 hours.

Suresh was passionate about his work; therefore, office timings and workday concepts did not exist in his dictionary. Once, as a leadership team, we booked tickets to watch an India-Pakistan ODI at Chinnaswamy stadium. There were about 8 or 9 of us there, and I distinctly remember that, in between the match, Suresh signalled to me to step away to the lobby of the stadium, in order to discuss a pending work matter. Imagine my predicament: should I focus on Shoaib Akhtar’s bowling, which was devastating the Indian batting, or focus on the work issue Suresh wanted to discuss with me?

On another occasion, the leadership team was travelling from Bangalore to Chennai on an overnight train, for a visit to our Pondicherry factory. There were about 7 of us, and since we could not get 2AC tickets, we had got 1AC tickets (which was a treat). We were looking forward to getting some good sleep in the 1AC private cabin, but that was not to be. Suresh started a meeting at 10.30pm – as soon as we boarded – that lasted until about 1am, only to reach Chennai Central four hours later. The excitement did not end there: at Chennai Central, there were 2 Ambassador cars waiting to take us to Pondicherry. The debate amongst us was who would travel with Suresh, for if you did so, you could not snooze; he would review any pending topics for discussion during the 3-hour car journey. Since I was the youngest and most junior of the lot, I was bullied into travelling in Suresh’s car. Suresh, for his part, would also nicely nudge those with whom he wanted to close issues into travelling with him.

The passion and intensity of working with Suresh as my boss was immensely exciting, and it invariably brought out the best in me. As demanding as Suresh was from his team, he would give us ample elbow room to work on actions of our choice (or at least, he gave me a lot of freedom to experiment with new ideas). I recall that at our office on the 1st floor of 88 MG Road Bangalore, he allowed me to create a small space, which we called ‘Chavdi’, where we had comfortable mattresses and pillows, for holding small meetings in the traditional durbar way, or if anyone wanted a quick shut-eye. There were many such experiments I conducted over the years – some sane and some insane – and I doubt any other leader would have allowed me to try so many things.

The other key aspect of Suresh during those years, was his enduring appetite to listen to contrarian views, and encouraging a ‘speak up’ culture. He would rarely take a unilateral decision/approach, but would want a buy-in, and would want to hear different views, no matter how senior or junior you were. Before ‘Inclusiveness’ became a leadership jargon, Suresh was already practicing that with his team in the nineties.

I learnt from Suresh : if you work, you must work with 100% passion & ownership. Optimise every minute of your time – whether at work or in your personal life – and lead your team with engagement and involvement, not through authority.

N Krishna Kumar

When I joined Wipro in 1995, KK was a business leader who had been asked to lead the HR function for Wipro Infotech. His trademark smile, his quest for action, and his sensitivity to employee concerns ensured that the brand value of the HR function in Wipro Infotech, shot up during his tenure. I was a rather junior lackey at the time, and KK was my super-boss. On one of his visits to my region, I suggested to him that we should go on field calls to learn HR best practices from organisations outside our industry. He readily agreed to the suggestion, and both of us visited 2 well-known organisations (of the time), listening to what they were doing differently. He encouraged us to practice the principles of ‘design thinking’ while formulating policies & processes, which was several years before the concept of design thinking became popular.

I learnt from KK to avoid the ‘frog in the well’ syndrome, leverage external best practices as steps towards excellence, keep your customer at the centre of everything that you do, and listen with a smile.

Dileep Ranjekar

In 1995, after spending nearly 2 decades at Wipro Consumer Care, Dileep was appointed Corporate HR Head for Wipro. Unlike many of his predecessors in the Corporate HR role, who I am told played a controlling & coordinating role, Dileep was keen that Corporate HR should play a value-adding role across Wipro’s various businesses.

Dileep’s silver grey hair was deceptive, because it masked his eternal youthful spirit (which he still has). At our annual HR Conferences, which were done in exotic locations (of those times) such as Coorg, Coonoor, and Yercaud, Dileep would be amongst the last few partying into the wee hours of the night, but he would be back in action the next morning for the conference’s hard work topics.  

In all our interactions, there has always been one that stood out to me. It was 1998, and I was the HR Head of one of Wipro’s businesses in Bangalore. In my enthusiasm of action & employee focus, I had taken a decision which was much beyond my authority level. The matter had been escalated to the powers that be of that time, and I reckon that Suresh Vaswani (my boss) had intervened to protect me, as my intent had been honourable. After this incident, I was invited by Dileep for a meeting on some other issue at his office (which used to be at Du Parc Trinity, near Trinity Circle). After we finished discussing the stated agenda, Dileep suavely & seamlessly brought up the topic of my transgression. It was a nice, short conversation, and I did not realise the impact of what he had said until I returned to my office at 88 MG Road. I still keep that conversation as a benchmark of how you can give tough feedback gracefully and with respect.

Some years later, I was appointed as the General Manager & Head HR of Wipro Infotech. The promotion had come much ahead of my years, and while I was elated, there were also some butterflies in my stomach; I wondered if I would be able to handle the complexities of the role. I had sought a meeting with Dileep to receive some mentoring inputs from him; amongst the various insights he gave me, he pulled out a thick box file from his cabinet. The file contained his several notes of inputs/feedback to Mr. Premji, some of which were incredibly candid and forthright. His message to me was to continue to have the courage to speak up, no matter the consequences – advice which I have carried even beyond my Wipro days.

My learnings from Dileep are these: speak up, be graceful in giving tough feedback (something I am yet to master), and stay young in spirit and passion.

Vineet Agrawal

Vineet was in the Consumer Care and Lighting business of Wipro. While I never worked directly in his team, I did have several interactions with him during my career at Wipro, especially during the company’s brand repositioning, which he was leading (for the Wipro rainbow flower identity). Vineet was soft-spoken, extremely articulate, and had immense expertise on brands. During the repositioning, he helped us understand not only the importance of a corporate brand, but also how it should be represented. It’s not surprising that ever since he began to head the Consumer Care and Lighting business, it has grown manifold, going well beyond the shores of India.

If there is one thing I have learned from Vineet, it’s this: You don’t have to be brash and aggressive to succeed as a Leader; being soft-spoken and assertive is also a great recipe to follow.

(Late) Ranjan Acharya

Ranjan was my Guru at Wipro for Employee and Leadership Development. I am yet to come across someone else who has such a deep practical expertise in Organisation Development (sans the jargons & complexity), or OD for short. It was a delight to watch him facilitate a session in the classroom:  his participants were completely mesmerised by his profound insights. Though I interacted with him a great deal throughout my career at Wipro, I reported to him for only 2 years, which was equivalent to completing a university course in Organisation Development. The journey with Ranjan on making Wipro Infotech the first company in the world to be assessed at Level 5 on PCMM (People Capability Maturity Model) Ver 2.0 was one of the most enriching learning experiences for me. When we stayed back in the evening after office hours, he would regale us with his stories of his stint in Oman. There was just so much learning and joy to be found by simply being in his presence.

Ranjan was a firm believer in the Strengths philosophy: he would only discuss my talents and strengths with me, never what was not naturally my work style. He had more faith and conviction in my strengths and talents than I had in myself. It is thanks to his reinforcement of my strengths which gave me the courage to successfully explore my entrepreneurial ambitions.

What I learnt from Ranjan has left a deep impact: he taught me many of the OD concepts I know today, as well as knowing and playing to my strengths.

Leaders create Culture; Culture enables an Institution

I consider myself privileged to have experienced a platinum standard of leadership during my career at Wipro. Wipro has become an institution because it was able to attract, build and harness the capabilities of some of the most outstanding leaders in the world. I am quite confident that both Mr. Azim Premji and Mr. Rishad Premji would agree that, to celebrate the spirit of Wipro @ 75, you must also celebrate the contributions of dozens of outstanding leaders at Wipro over the past 75 years.

Here’s wishing Wipro another outstanding 75 years of being a purpose-driven, ethical, world-class institution. May the best of Wipro be ahead of itself; after all, as Sharukh Khan’s character says in Om Shanti Om, “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!” (The movie is yet to finish, my friend!). 

Shabbir Merchant