Focus, Execution, Trust The essential ingredients for success
High-quality public education (to college level) and public health-these are the key factors required to rebuild the loss of income since Covid-19. Azim Premji, a 75-year-old business tycoon, who has remained the Founder Chairman for Wipro, apart from running the Azim Premji Foundation, stressed on these points in his Founding Day speech at the 73rd Founding Day for the Bombay Chartered Accountants’ Society (BCAS). He also talked in the subsequent Q&A session with Naushad Panjwani, Past President, Bombay Chartered Accountants’ Society (BCAS) and the moderator for the session. Welcomed by CA Suhas Paranjpe, President of the Bombay Chartered Accountants’ Society, the topic of Mr Premji’s address was Professional Excellence and Social Responsibility. Corporate Citizen brings the excerpts
PROFESSIONAL EXCELLENCE AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
"Building trust with your stakeholders is one of the most difficult tasks for any organisation. It is about consistently walking the talk on our values"
While at first glance it might seem that Professional Excellence and Social Responsibility are separate streams of thoughts-it is not so. Any success that is attained on the professional front is to be seen within the context of our social structure. Similarly, all initiatives we take for the betterment of our society need to be pursued with the same vigour we associate with excellence in our professional domain. Let me expand on this with a few lessons from my journey in business and philanthropy.
Focus allows one to build expertise and optimise resources
Many years ago at Wipro, we decided that we would be in three businesses only, technology, consumer and infrastructure. Over the last four decades, our relentless focus on becoming better in these businesses and not distracting ourselves by flavour-of-the-season business, has helped us achieve and create a truly winning organisation. Similarly, in our Foundation, we have chosen that we want our work to be focussed on work on the ground to improve the lives of the most undeserved. This focus has built a series of initiatives across domains that are executed by our teams as well as by our partners.
The importance of execution
In a simpler sense, execution is all about drawing up action plans, adequately resourcing them, monitoring progress, and revising the plans based on feedback. This is easily understood in the business context, however, it is just as critical in the social sector too. To give an example, when Covid-19 pandemic hit us last year, we drew up a comprehensive set of plans in humanitarian as well as healthcare aspects. We organised grassroots teams comprising of our 1600 full-time employees, 55,000 employees of our partners, 10,000 teachers and 2,500 alumni of our university. We also committed 1,125 crores for Covid relief. As we, our work, as well as our situation evolved, we realised that focus on universal vaccination was just as important as other initiatives. So, we have added that as a key element of our Covid relief strategy, and committed an additional 1,000 crores for it.
Trust is invisible and sometimes nebulous
However, the absence of trust is often loud and clear. Building trust with your stakeholders is one of the most difficult tasks for any organisation. It is about consistently walking the talk on our values, acting with the highest standard of integrity, and transparency. One of the learnings in our Foundation’s journey is that partners who have built and sustained trust of the communities they work in are significantly more effective in a much shorter time frame in bringing about social change. Unfortunately, the reverse is equally true.
UNIQUE LESSONS THAT I HAVE LEARNT
Focus, execution, and trust are essential ingredients for success in a business as well as the social spheres of life. When it comes to addressing the social problems of our country, there are many unique lessons that I have learnt. Let me share three of these with you.
Tenacity and perseverance
First, we live in a very big country, both numerically and geographically. Consequently, every problem we have also tended to affect a very large number of persons in absolute terms. For instance, when we find a solution to a problem that covers 95% of the population, it still doesn’t solve for 69 million people of our fellow citizens. And there are only 20 countries in the world that have a total population of 69 million. This implies that to improve the lives of the most marginalised, requires significant tenacity and perseverance.
Patience and humility
Secondly, the problems that our country faces are extremely complex. In fact, I think addressing social changes is a lot more complex than running a fairly large business. We have to be prepared to deal with conflicting but equally valid demands, building consensus often as we move just one step at a time with no visibility of the final solution. This calls for a high degree of patience and loads of humility.
Partnering with government and public system
Thirdly, it is important for us to partner with the government and public system as much as possible. In our experience, by and large, officials of the public systems have the right intentions, incredible reach and unmatched resources. They are often handicapped by the absence of domain capability, and/or challenges of the bureaucratic machinery. But by partnering with the government and complementing each other’s capability, we have the best chance of maximising the impact, institutionalising change.
DREAM OF A JUST, EQUITABLE, HUMANE, AND SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
The main implications of the above lessons are that all of us need to engage with social issues around us, and we need to engage with it as early as possible. I’m sure every one of us in this virtual room realises how privileged we are relative to many thousands of our fellow citizens. It is our duty to chip in to improve the lot of those not so privileged. Further, we need to get into it as soon as possible. Just as we need to work on our physical fitness from a young age rather than later in life, it is equally critical that we start to work with our social fitness early too. In fact, if I have one regret in my own philanthropic journey, it is that I wished I had started a foundation much earlier than I actually did. It is only when we come together in this way that we realise the dream of a just, equitable, humane, and sustainable society as envisioned in our Indian constitution.
Naushad Panjwani: What inspires an individual to be a philanthropist? Is it the in-born instinct, values of life, a sense of responsibility, the fallout of some situation or is it a cultivated virtue? What is your inspiration in this aspect?
Azim Premji: My mother set up a fully charitable orthopaedic hospital for children. This was when I was very young. She ran it for 50 years as Chairperson. Every day, I saw her struggles and I also saw her amazing tenacity to serve the most disadvantaged. Very clearly, my mother has been my most important inspiration. I must also mention that as I grew up, I was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship of wealth, which in simple terms means that all of us must see ourselves, custodians of our wealth, not as its owners. So, my mother and Mahatma Gandhi are two key inspirations. I must also add that over the past twenty years as our Foundation and its work has grown, it has been deeply inspiring to see thousands of people who work on the frontline all their life with complete dedication and selflessness. This includes my colleagues in the Foundation, government school teachers and team members of hundreds of NGOs that we support.
Q: Your recent commitment to aid during the Covid-19 crisis stands as an inspiration to everyone. Can you guide us through your sense of social responsibility when you took this decision?
It’s actually very simple. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis in the past 100 years. So, we were clear that we must do everything that we can.
Q: You mentioned that you regret that you didn’t start your philanthropic initiatives early in your life. To the young students who are eager to join the corporate world, what would be your advice on inculcating the culture of giving back to society from an early age?
I think the most useful thing is to go out and engage with the real world. Go to the field. Really experience the problems that our fellow human beings live with-the inequity, injustice, and too often the lack of very basic things including dignity. If we experience such things I am sure every one of us will be moved to do whatever we can. One of the things that I think we should do is to let our children experience these realities from early on. That builds a sense of empathy and humaneness which is the core of trying to do whatever you can.
Q: Your recent aid covers three broad areas -the vaccination drive, food and support for employment. How does the Foundation plan to regenerate livelihoods for 83 lakh people?
Actually, we have already helped 83 lakh people regain their livelihoods. This was through a range of activities including providing agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilisers when it was needed. Or providing working capital to poultry farmers and handicraft workers. Our focus was in the rural areas and with the most vulnerable.
Q: The government (through welfare schemes), the corporates (through CSR and other means) and the NGOs (who have grassroot knowledge of the deprived sections).Is there a need to create some kind of a PPP model to prevent duplication, omission and wastage of scarce resources?
I don’t think any kind of a simple model will help. It is important to collaborate with the government. Our experience is that if you have the right intention and have the expertise, the government will collaborate. But this must be done on the ground. The idea that one can sign some MoU at the state level and things will work is unrealistic, given the way our governance is structured.
Q: Your Foundation is largely focussed on education. In this pandemic, children’s education has taken a big backfoot. How do we get back on track post the pandemic?
You are right, our Foundation is very significantly focused on education. As an operating organisation, we are an educational organisation with a significant presence in the field and running universities. But I must point out that in addition, we have a significant grant-making side which supports hundreds of NGOs that work on issues ranging from gender empowerment to small and marginal farmers resilience to improving local democracy.
We need to do the following things: First, while the schools are closed, teachers need to go into neighbourhoods and conduct classes in open spaces. These are called mohalla classes -they carry no risk of infection and they are the most effective ways of continuing education when the schools are closed. Second, we must get all our teachers vaccinated and then open the schools. Third, let us recognise that one and half years of loss of schooling cannot be ignored. We need to give time for recovery of this loss of learning. And for this, we need to provide support to teachers. The worst thing would be to ignore the past one and half years and just keep promoting children to the next class without helping them learn what they should have learnt. We will create an enormous deficit that can never be filled.
Q: India’s GDP has risen phenomenally post-liberalisation and yet a low per capita income remains a concern. In the pandemic, the gap has widened. What are your suggestions to minimise inequality of income?
There is nothing dramatically new I can say. We must ensure that we have high-quality public education and public health. When I say public education, I mean right up to college. We must also have basic social security for our people. This will create the conditions to foster equality while much else will have to be done.
Q: The beneficiaries of your largesse are the weak, marginalised, challenged and in most cases downtrodden. Is it possible to maintain emotional detachment? Does the grief and misery you encounter get carried with you? Does it affect you?
It is not possible to maintain emotional detachment. I don’t ever think it is desirable to do so. As I said earlier, being empathetic is actually central to being human and so being empathic and emotional makes much good happen in the world.
"IT industry has found traction in a hybrid model of work where people will partially work from the office and partially work from home. The hybrid model will have a huge competitive advantage that it will drive inclusive growth"
Q: You are a doyen of the IT industry. Like with every industry, IT is also going through an evolution considering that the industry has been largely working away from the office in the past 15 months or so. What are your thoughts on the next phase of IT in India?
It cannot be denied that the world is still reeling from the enormity of its impact. For many businesses, there have been significant disruptions. Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Businesses must rethink and reshape their strategies and challenge the parameters within which they had confined themselves earlier.
Within the first few weeks of the lockdown, over 90% of the tech industry was working from home and even today over 90% of people continue to work from home. The IT industry kept the world running even during pandemic times. In fact, the IT/ITES sector in the year ending March 2021 grew at 2-3% and added 1,38,000 net new jobs. This financial year, I will not be surprised if the industry grows in very decent double digits.
IT industry has found traction in a hybrid model of work where people will partially work from the office and partially work from home. The hybrid model will have a huge competitive advantage that it will drive inclusive growth-better participation from all parts of the country and a greater number of women who need the flexibility to work from home. This is a new model. We will have to work together to figure out the optimal approach, so that we strengthen India as the skill hub of the world. The IT/ITES industry is well-positioned to drive the next phase of India’s growth and it will contribute significantly in achieving the ambition of a five trillion dollar economy.
Q: Auditing is a high-risk function-ethics at one end and conflicts at the other. How to maintain this balance? What is the corporate world expecting from CAs?
Ethics, in the context of a professional, is keeping in mind the spirit of the law and not just letter. Any conflict on that front should be governed by what is the right thing to do considering the spirit of the law. And on those matters, anything grey is black. We would expect the CAs and auditors to stand up for values while being sensitive to the legitimate needs of the business. My experience has shown beyond any doubt that sustainable business success can be achieved only on the foundation of ethical business practices.
Q: How do you ensure ethics and values are preserved and followed in a large organisation like yours with close to 200,000 employees? Add to that the vast geographic staff across diverse cultures.
You do it in three steps viz. Communicate, Demonstrate and Enforce. First, communicate, communicate and communicate the values and train people on how to apply those values in their respective areas. Second, ensure that all leaders (especially senior ones) walk the talk and demonstrate the values in their actions. And third, whenever there is a violation of values take swift, effective and visible action.
Q: You mentioned that you work with over 1000 smart CAs in your organisation and many of them went on to become CEOs. How do you build talent and sustain them?
We encourage a culture that is a combination of accountability combined with boundary-less-ness. We want our people to go beyond their ‘job description’ or functional silos and learn and contribute in a collaborative manner to different aspects of the business. We repeatedly emphasise that the primary role of functions is to enable business success within the boundaries set by regulations and risk limits. We identify and invest in bright talent early enough and give them responsibility before they are fully ready. This helps our youngsters to understand business drivers and take early responsibilities which in turn build their core leadership skills.
Q: Personally, in your journey in India Inc, you must have gone through many ups and downs. Any specific experience you can share with us?
When you are part of a business for over five decades, there are far too many experiences. But the best experiences have all come from people, my colleagues, customers, suppliers, distributors and more recently, teachers and children in schools in villages. I can say in all honesty that every one of them has helped me understand my business, society and country a bit better and motivated me to do better both as a leader and as a human being.
UNFLINCHING COMMITMENT TO VALUES
Azim Premji is Founder Chairman of Wipro Ltd, Chairman of Wipro Enterprises Ltd, and more importantly, Chairman of Azim Premji Foundation. After almost 60 years at the helm of Wipro and building it as one of the world-class IT companies, on the kernel of a two million hydrogenated cooking fat business, he relinquished executive responsibility at Wipro Ltd in July of 2019. He is now focused on the philanthropic work of the Foundation. Premji’s success in business has been driven by one fundamental idea: build organisations deeply committed to values, with the client as the focus of all efforts.
Unflinching commitment to values continue to remain at the core of Wipro. Mr Premji strongly believes that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things when organised into highly charged teams. Mr Premji firmly believes that businesses must employ ethical, fair and ecologically sustainable business practices and must actively engage with fundamental societal issues. Wipro’s deep and focused social and environmental initiatives span its worldwide operational footprint, leading to Wipro being recognised as a global leader in sustainability.
In 2001, Mr Premji established the Azim Premji Foundation, a not for profit organisation, with a vision of contributing towards a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. Today, the Foundation’s work spans across education and other critical fields of human development and justice. Mr Premji’s donations to the endowments of the Azim Premji Foundation valued as of end-June 2021, at Rs.2,62,000 crores, USD 35 billion, make it one of the largest foundations in the world. When the pandemic broke out last year in 2020, Azim Premji Foundation and Wipro group committed Rs.1125 crores to Covid relief, and this year, in 2021, the Foundation has increased this commitment by another 1,000 crores.
Over the years, Mr Premji has received various honours and accolades, which he considers as recognitions for the team of Wipro and the Foundation. Apart from being conferred with honorary doctorates by Indian and global universities, the Republic of France bestowed upon him the Legion of Honour. In January 2011, the Indian government conferred on him the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India. The Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy was bestowed on him in 2017, hailing the conscience, integrity, and compassion that have guided his visionary giving with invaluable benefits to both the nation and to the world.