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‘Venture Capitalist on the Inside’: Innovation in a Tech Services Company

Q&A with Ravi Kumar S, CEO of Cognizant
January 2024

Ravi Kumar SA recent initiative at Cognizant, the IT services and consulting giant, to tap into the creativity of their nearly 350,000 employees has already yielded results. The Bluebolt program enables all employees to submit ideas for client-facing innovations, which the company may dedicate financial or human capital resources, if approved. In less than a year, Bluebolt has yielded 104,000 ideas — 20,000 of which have been implemented with clients as ideas to enhance the value of their relationship with Cognizant. The company has also conducted 93 Bluebolt “hackathons,” including 36 alongside its clients, bringing grass-roots innovation and collaboration together into a powerful combination.

The idea, said Ravi Kumar S, Cognizant’s CEO, who joined in 2023 after nine years as president at Infosys, is for the company to be “venture capitalists on the inside”: to encourage and tap into the great ideas.

“Our clients tell me about not just about the quality of our consultants, but also about the many ways our products have provided value to their organizations, sometimes in unexpected ways,” Kumar said. “How can we provide and instill an entrepreneurial energy across the company? If you limit innovation to simply having an innovation department, then you’re doing a disservice to the company and to all your people. If you have an idea, write it down, share it with us, and we can provide resources.”

To learn more about his approach to leadership, his first year on the job at Cognizant and his long-term plans at the company, Spencer Stuart’s Jason Hancock recently sat down with Kumar. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jason Hancock: What are the biggest trends you’re seeing as a leader today?

If you want to be trustworthy, agile, and resilient, then you’ve got to be both flexible and disciplined at the same time. When you start playing around with that idea, you encounter a pretty interesting leadership challenge.”

Ravi Kumar S: One thing that stands out is that as trust in public institutions across the spectrum is falling, corporations have a unique opportunity to use trust as an important way to create differentiation with their stakeholders being the voice of and for clients and investors.

We’ve always looked at institutions with a certain linearity, I think because that’s easier for humans to comprehend. The nonlinearity of what we have been dealing with in recent years — be it the pandemic, or climate change, any number of other issues — means you need to have a nonlinear way of thinking about how you actually run your business. The level of agility you need today is so high because the level of change has been so tremendous. On the other side of the spectrum, institutions are expected to be resilient as well — there’s so much change and people are seeking certainty.

Summed up, if you want to be trustworthy, agile, and resilient, then you’ve got to be both flexible and disciplined at the same time. When you start playing around with that idea, you encounter a pretty interesting leadership challenge.

This links up to one thing I keep saying to people about Cognizant, our goal is to be seen as the “TikTok of system integrators.” We want to listen very carefully and respond very fast. That's what most new age social platforms do well. We thought that when the pandemic ended, everything would be stable again, but the reality is that we have a new normal based around uncertainty.

Leading an enterprise is such a critical challenge for any organization, and the circumstances of today are creating tectonic shifts in what it means to be a good leader.

Jason Hancock: When it comes to the talent equation, how do you seek out and cultivate your talent? And how do you create a culture that can embrace, as you put it, both flexibility and discipline?

Ravi Kumar S: To answer this let me step back and give you a little bit of the United States in terms of the workforce metrics. In the United States, 3.5 million people have new jobs every month, there are 300,000 net new jobs created every month, and there are 8 million open jobs available. It’s a huge dichotomy. And it’s not really a new phenomenon. All of these numbers, give or take, remain mostly the same over time.

So, what's going on here? It’s that there’s a section of people in the U.S. who do not have any upward social mobility in their jobs, so they move from job to job because they aren’t finding the American Dream. They don’t have upward social mobility. They’re stuck in a low-value job, they’ve been stuck for a while, so they keep moving.

Our goal is to be seen as the 'TikTok of system integrators.' We want to listen very carefully and respond very fast.”

I think the world needs more learning infrastructure. It needs an attitude that creates upward social mobility jobs. And that’s what we want at Cognizant. We want to be a learning organization, right from the top, enabling internal mobility and creating internal talent for the market. You can thrive on this infrastructure that creates bridges between jobs and fashions that upward mobility. We’re investing heavily, in classes and schools, and we’re investing in smaller cities as well as larger ones. This is important because our company and our industry—the world of tech, digital and consulting services — we play a big role by lending our human capital for our clients’ transformation journeys.

Technology is in the middle of every transformation across the world, yet there’s a severe shortage of tech professionals worldwide. If you’re looking for future leaders, then the total is so small that you cannot grow fast enough simply by training people currently available in the market. We have to build new talent pools that don’t exist yet. We have to look to alternate talent pools — more diverse backgrounds, or different types of STEM backgrounds that are more established in schools.

At the same time, the skill set of a digital leader is changing so fast; the lifetime of any given tech skill is getting shorter and shorter. What’s more important than finding a particular skill is finding lifelong learners: people who learn, unlearn and relearn, and repeat the cycle on a regular basis. The onus is on institutions to hire and cultivate lifelong learners and give them access to a training infrastructure that enables them to be constantly ready for new skills needed in marketing. For these reasons, we recently launched our Synapse skilling program. We will train 1 million people over the next five years to prepare them for the jobs of the future, and we are developing a consortium of employers to hire these reskilled workers.

Jason Hancock: Tell us about the relationship with the board and how you leverage your board on a day-to-day basis outside of just the quarterly meetings.

Ravi Kumar S: I'm on a few public boards, so I see the other side. Being a director is very different from being an executive. Boards are probably the best representation of team play. They're not directly accountable for results, yet they're equally responsible for steering the results in some ways. A perspective from an outsider can be very valuable because they can share experiences you may have never had or even thought of. And because they’re not employees, they’re likely to be more neutral and less emotional about recommendations than an executive might be. I'm always fascinated by the diverse perspectives you get with a board. The executives I work with inside this company, they all belong to this industry and this company. A board is cognitive diversity.

I am excited to come to work because I draw energy from our teams. I look at my job as an honor and a privilege. I mean, how many jobs in the world give you that opportunity? How many platforms give you an opportunity to impact 350,000 employees and their families?”

The other interesting thing where a board is important is that my goal as a leader is to keep watching out for my blind spots. Your direct leadership hopefully tells you the bad news, but sometimes they may feel more comfortable telling someone else. I will sometimes tell the board to interact with my leaders, outside of my presence, so they can get the unbiased truth. The CEO can be a lonely job, and the board can be a very constructive part of revealing those blind spots.

Jason Hancock: What gets you excited about your job every day?

Ravi Kumar S: One is that I draw energy from the teams I work with. I am excited to come to work because I draw energy from our teams. I look at my job as an honor and a privilege. I mean, how many jobs in the world give you that opportunity? How many platforms give you an opportunity to impact 350,000 employees and their families? I can't think of any other jobs that way, which is great. And as long as I have humility, I will always think of this job as a way to express myself. I cherish the ability to make an impact on our company and on people’s lives.

When I was leaving my previous employer and coming to Cognizant, and I shared my departure on social media, the comments on that post had a big impact on me. You always think they all remember the big changes that happened, the big concepts, the data. But it’s the small things I did for them, and how that made them feel — that’s what they remember. I think that’s more important than what the outcome is. That experience of going through the comments was a reminder, at the end of the day, to resolve to do those small things because it makes a permanent impression that they’ll hold on to for years.


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