The CEO of a $34 Billion Company Gave Me This Advice on How to Be a Better Leader

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Dr. Vishal Sikka has been the CEO of Infosys, a $34 billion internet technology company, since 2014. With over 200,000 employees in offices across more than 20 countries, Vishal is responsible for leading this team — “sometimes 20,000 people show up to my meetings” he told me — while driving strategy and innovation globally.

Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about leadership and innovation.

I had the chance to chat with him about these topics while at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year Forum earlier this month in Monaco. Here’s a short — but noteworthy — QA-style selection from our conversation about how other leaders and entrepreneurs can foster these two critical business concepts in tandem:

Roberts: What are your thoughts on innovation?

Sikka: It starts with grassroots innovation, coming from people on the ground. If you look at the Fortune 500 list, in the last 10 years — since the first iPhone came out — 35 to 36 percent are not on the Fortune 500 list anymore.

That is an astonishing number. I see that as a huge innovation deficit, a failure to innovate systematically. But, if you look at top five companies in the world in terms of market cap — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook — you’ve seen remarkable growth.

It cannot be a process, it cannot be a priority, or a checklist thing. It has to be something you live and breathe every day. You have to create a culture where people feel recognized, where people feel pleased.

When you think about what motivates people, it is a lot more than salary, and compensation. People crave recognition, people crave purpose, a sense of purpose in their work. So the way to ensure a culture of innovation takes hold, is to demonstrate that, is to live that.

You’ve been in the unique position of having to lead hundreds of thousands of employees for several years now. What advice would you give to someone on leadership?

I think one critical part is to try and understand the perspective of others. Henry Ford used to say that a lot of leadership and success is about looking at things from the point of your followers. About creating a culture of collaboration, of people trusting each other and building things bigger than them.

And it is also about having a passion to get people to lead. Having the confidence, having the courage, having the gall, to tell people that this direction is the right one. It is both a great skill but also a great responsibility. And then to be able to deal with the consequences in case you are wrong, and admitting it.

The time that we are in, everybody is connected, everybody has access to information. So believing that a leader somehow knows more about what is going on than the people on the ground is completely wrong. You have to be in the service of your teams, your primary job has to be to enable your teams to succeed.