The chief of Cognizant says an organization’s culture is passed along via its rituals, heroes and legends.

August 31, 2013

Francisco D’Souza of Cognizant, on Finding Company Heroes

By ADAM BRYANT

This interview with Francisco D’Souza, chief executive of the information technology company Cognizant, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were some early lessons for you?

A. I was very fortunate in my upbringing. My father was a diplomat, and so, until I was 18, we traveled to a new country every three years. After finishing high school in the Caribbean, I wound up in Hong Kong when I was 18. We realized that there were few universities that taught in English, and so I went to one in Macau that focused on working professionals. I went to school at night and on weekends. My days were free, and I got a job as a bank teller. It was a small bank, and they still used a punch-card system. I had taught myself as a teenager how to program. I went to the branch manager and told him he ought to consider new technology. He said: “Fine. Help me figure it out.” We bought a computer. We wrote the software, and I wound up supervising a couple of people when I was 19.Q. I can imagine that some kids would resent moving to a new country every three years.

A. I was somewhat indifferent to it because I expected it, and I knew nothing else. In hindsight, I wouldn’t do it any other way. It really did shape who I am today.

Q. In what sense?

A. We learned how to love the world. There’s this great richness of diversity, yet people are far more similar than they are different. You’re not as likely to learn that when you grow up in one town, in one environment, in one culture or in one country.

The second thing is that it was an environment of scarcity in many ways, because my parents weren’t particularly affluent. You learn how to find opportunities where they don’t exist and capitalize on them. You have to find ways to make the most of everything, from the littlest things to the biggest.

Q. What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned during your career?

A. We started Cognizant in 1994, and there was a period early on when I personally knew everyone in the company. Now we have 160,000 employees, and there were several personal and rapid transitions over that time.

The lesson I learned is that when you have to evolve that quickly as a person, you need to be aware of two things. One is personal blind spots and the other is personal comfort zones. Those two things can be real gotchas.

It’s very hard to see your blind spots, by definition, and it’s very easy to fall into comfort zones, because people like patterns and a sense of familiarity. I’ve tried consciously to say, “What are the tools I can use to identify these blind spots and push through comfort zones?” And I always tell myself that if I wake up in the morning and feel comfortable, I’m probably not pushing myself hard enough.

Q. And what are the tools to help you see your blind spots?

A. One is just talking to other leaders. The conversations with them help me because they are, in a sense, a mirror — I can assess what I think they’re doing well, and where I think their blind spots are. It’s easier to see someone else’s blind spots than it is to see your own, of course, and you can use that to reflect on what your own blind spots are.

I also learned a lot from the people who work for me. Before I took over as C.E.O. in 2007, the board gave me the benefit of some time. I worked with a coach for a while, and he talked to about 20 people who worked for me, above me and around me, and to my board. It was difficult feedback, but very enlightening. That helped me identify a couple of my blind spots.

Q. Can you share one?

A. There was a lot of feedback from my team that people had confidence in my ability, but they also said that when I criticize something they’ve done, the weight of that is very pronounced and significant. It made me understand that the weight of my words was a lot heavier than I gave myself credit for, and it led me to be much more thoughtful and measured in how I give feedback.

Q. What’s unusual about your culture?

A. We’ve organized the company in a way to make sure that we continuously delegate and empower people on the front lines. As we got bigger, we would take larger units and break them down into smaller units and give individuals a sense of ownership, creating very clear success metrics around those individuals.

But when you decentralize and empower, you have to make sure you don’t wind up with lots of microcultures, because every leader, every manager, puts his or her stamp on the culture. Culture gets passed along not by writing it down, but through the rituals you have in the organization, the legends you refer to, and the heroes of the organization. So we institutionalized a set of things to create rituals, heroes and legends.

For example, we have a tradition of naming the associate of the year — we use a process in each region to find the single associate who contributed well above and beyond and, through his or her actions, exhibited the traits of the culture that we thought were important. We similarly institutionalized a ritual that we called the project of the year. And we rent stadiums around the world and bring all the employees and their families for a celebration, with entertainment and awards.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I’m looking for passion. The person I’m hiring needs to have passion for what they’re doing, and they need to understand where that passion comes from. They need to be in touch with that. You need to know what drives you.

And you need somebody who’s got just raw smarts and talent and an innate ability to learn. Because the thing about functional expertise is that unless you’re in some very specific area, almost everything that we need to do our job becomes obsolete quickly, and the half-life of knowledge is becoming shorter and shorter. So do you have the personal agility to continuously renew those skills, to reinvent yourself?

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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