Riding through turbulence

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Sep 13 2010, 05:05am hrs
He was directly involved in one of the most striking cases ever of corporate crisis and renewal. Ed Cohen, Satyams former chief learning officer and now a global leadership and business transformation expert, along with his former colleague Priscilla Nelson, bring out corporate crisis management at its best in their book, Riding the Tiger: Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times. Set against the backdrop of the extraordinary revival of crisis-hit Satyam Computer Services, the book tries to provide insights into how people should react, respond, and lead during turbulent times to achieve organisational renewal, spurred by leadership through learning. In conversation with Garima Pant, the authors share moments from their Satyam story. Excerpts:

What was the first thing that struck you after the Satyam scandal broke

Priscilla: Shock, disbelief. The first state was denial. We didn't want to believe it. We thought it was some big joke out there or some catastrophe. It was sort of a 9/11 kind of a situation, on a different level, but very much like that. I remember being in the office and watching the TV screen with Raju's face on one side and the stock ticker on the other side. And we had a good deal of money invested. And we could see the stocks crashing and it felt as if blood was draining out of our body.

Ed: I was in the States when the news broke and the first three days I didn't sleep at all. And I kept convincing myself that when I finally go to sleep I was going to wake up from the nightmare. I just didn't want to believe and kept thinking that we're going to wake up and this is going to be not real. And Priscilla was here and so it was more real for her. She had the press to deal with. I had decided to take the night off, very rarely have I done that. It was very ironic, because I had said that anything that happens tonight can wait until tomorrow, which wasn't.

Do you regret packing off your bags and get relocated to a company that was involved in the biggest business scandal in India

Priscilla: Not at all. To this day, despite what has happened, we still call it the greatest event of our lives. We have so many friends here and we continue to come back four times a year. I didn't think we would come back. Now that we are coming back again and again, we are restoring trust.

Ed: Our daughter went to high school here. So even when we were in the process of exiting Satyam, we continued to stay till she graduated, as we did not want to leave in the middle of her senior year. So, from that perspective, it was truly for her that we did not leave. Do we look back and wish it had never ended Yes. Or would have ended differently.

How difficult was it to boost employee morale immediately after the scandal broke

Ed: I think there was a feeling that there was a mass exodus. However, there wasn't one until after the Mahindra group took over. So people went into a wait and see pattern, partly because the government stepped in, appointed a new board that came forward and said everyone's position is protected until we see what happens. So they were getting their salaries and what was remarkable was the sort of loyalty that the people had. To fight and save their company for which they had worked hard to achieve its global success. It was over time that people decided to make a move.

How do you think the world sees India after the Satyam scandal

Ed: This incident tarnished India's image significantly, especially the IT industry. When Nasscom stepped in and helped, that helped a little bit. But it did tarnish the industry quite a bit. And it's actually one of the reasons why we wanted to write this book, to let the world know that there may have been a leadership issue that caused this crisis. However, it was also outstanding leadership that came in and saved this organisation. And statistically, 87% of all companies that have had a crisis like this failed to exist a year later. So the fact that Mahindra Satyam and its new avatar exists more that a year later puts them in the 13 percentile range, which is excellent and that's a leadership success and that's what we wanted people to do. We wanted people, who were connected with Satyam, who were part of Satyam and people who are part of the Indian story to realise, yes there was a failure of leadership and there was a great leadership success that occurred following it.

Would you call your book as a one stop guide to come out of all business catastrophes

Ed: I would call it a one-stop guide for how to deal with people in relationships during crisis. It's really how to lead and why to lead and having the courage to lead in a financial crisis.