Turning on a Dime

Date:   Sunday , April 01, 2012

Many people ask me why I prefer to work with firms that are perhaps not performing at the peak of their potential. Or which are in a very early stage of their development. Not that they are not profitable or successful - they are - but that they have scope to grow many times more and create even greater value for their stakeholders. I look at it this way - it is of course fun to live in a beautiful cottage in a peaceful neck of the woods. But it’s much more engaging to build a house from scratch in tiger country. And that’s the thrill of a turnaround or transformation.

I didn’t exactly start my career knowing this or looking for such opportunities. Initially, in the case of Nortel India or Bangalore Labs they seemed to find me. But when I managed ‘IdeaSpace’ Vysya Bank’s captive IT department that was spun off as an independent unit, I realized I enjoyed this.

Later, along with friends we co-founded a Business Processing startup Quintant which later got absorbed by iGATE (now iGATE Patni). There the challenge was to integrate a much larger IT firm (iGATE) with a fledgling BPO firm (Quintant). The cultures of the two organizations were quite different, with one being a mature, profitable firm and the other being a high-potential startup. Though the customer organizations could potentially benefit from the offerings of both the firms, the decision-maker in both cases were different - CIO in one case and the Business Head in the other. We realized that we had to find a captive ground as we could not continue with two disparate business messages and value propositions.

So we held a brainstorming workshop that brought together the best and brightest from both the arms of the firm. The result of that workshop back in 2004 was the term ‘iTOPS’ or Integrated Technology and Operations, which still is concurrent in the now $1 billion iGATE Patni. What the phrase iTOPS did for us was to make our value proposition easy to understand, that is, use a combination of technology and process excellence to ensure that our clients’ businesses were optimized. We used our technology skills to create platforms that allowed clients to pay-per-output instead of time.

The joint brainstorming exercise enabled the executives to get to know each other, to appreciate the value that the other brought to the table. It also brought a dramatic change in the go-to-market of the firm and was the precursor to the unified salesforce and centralized delivery function, that led to iGATE’s ability in 2011 to acquire a much larger competitor, Patni.

I think that for a successful turnaround you need to focus on dramatic, painful change not incremental process improvements. Looking back at my experience in iGATE, IdeaSpace, Bangalore Labs and Nortel, I’d summarize my key learnings for transformation as:

I. Establish the new leadership team clearly and as soon as possible

II. Stabilize your client base

III. Manage all your stakeholders - employees, clients, investors, influencers, media

IV. Envisage business value that integrates the various skills and offerings of your organization

V. Clarity in the organizational structure - to be aligned with the business value proposition

VI. Financial restructuring

When I took on the role of CEO at CSS Corp, these were the learnings that have helped me to hit the ground running. I used the first 90 days to understand the organization and get to know the key stakeholders, especially our customers.

CSS Corp has a large proportion of its business coming from the tech support space, however in the recent past through acquisitions the organization has added substantial amounts of business in the carrier networks and infrastructure management areas. I met with all of the key clients to understand their expectations from us. I then started identifying the new leadership team. I wanted to span it out in terms of geography and business unit, tenure and energy. Diversity is important to me and though that journey is still ongoing, the new leadership team is a start in that direction too. This new leadership team has a twofold objective - to empower the team to make the changes a reality, and to send a clear message to the larger organization on the skill sets that are required to succeed here.

The next step was to identify an integrated message that would appeal to our various client segments. CSS Corp has largely grown through acquisitions, from the days when it was known as Slash Support and primarily into tech support. It has now acquired/merged with firms that bring competencies in testing, carrier networks, outsourced product development and IT services. So the challenge is to identify a business value proposition that is concise and yet captures the diverse skills and value that we bring to the table. An exercise was conducted and through that we identified that we are actually the folks that engineers call when they need help, encompassing the entire product lifecycle. This idea is now being crystallized into a marketing message and to tell our folks that we are engineers and we add value in making technology available to all.

The trend in the IT industry is to move towards in a non-linear growth model that involves IP, frameworks and platforms, a productization of the services in many a ways. CSS Corp has some of these already in place - Cloud Buddy and a white label support platform under license to clients, but we are now investing even further in creating in-house IP and filing patents.

An organization works best when its structure, recognition and incentive programs are all aligned to the goal. This is the area that takes the maximum time and patience as we have to understand individuals’ goals and then align them to the larger aims of the organization. This is critical as in a services firm your customer happiness is directly proportional to your employee happiness.

If I can get all of these other elements fixed, then the financial model almost invents itself. We would like to go public in the future, and all the measures undertaken today will help us set stage for that ultimate goal.

To paraphrase, I prefer the word ‘turning’ to ‘turnaround’s since we cannot ignore the speed of change in the IT industry. We have to frequently take short turns to stay on track with the way technology is taking us. I entered the industry when phones weighed nearly a kilo and floppies were still the norm. It’s been a wild and exciting ride and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

CSS Corp, a global information and communications technology company designing, developing, deploying, and managing end-to-end IT and network services. With a workforce of more than 5000 individuals across 20 locations worldwide, the company has established a strong global foundation to continue supporting its international customers and growth aspirations.