Brian Humphries, CEO of Cognizant since April 1, 2019. In an interview with HFS CEO Phil Fersht, Brian moves beyond the business talk and straight to the deep end – the personal, the humble, the lessons learned – and the stakes set firmly in the ground.
I wrote a detailed business piece on Cognizant’s 2019 leadership change after losing its edge in the market: The Life of Brian: Prettying up a baby that’s got a bit ugly. One of our readers, Mike N, commented, “Don’t weep for Brian. I for one believe his hiring reflects the vision of a Cognizant and that he has the perfect timing and opportunity to shake up the old guard and culture. New day dawning!”
True indeed, but to now quote myself from the same piece, “When we’re asked what we think of the new CEO, our honest answer is we don’t know. He has, for all intents and purposes, kept a low profile externally, instead focusing his energies on extensive liposuction internally.”
I’ve managed to breach Brian’s low-pro firewall, finding a leader willing to engage beyond the business talk and go straight to the deep end – the personal, the humble, the lessons learned – as well as the stakes set firmly in the ground… So, without further ado, let’s meet Brian:
Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HFS Research: Good afternoon, Brian. It’s great to get some time with you again today. I want to keep this conversation a bit more informal, and a little bit about you; not just about Cognizant; Did you ever expect to be doing this job today, when you set out, many years ago?
Brian Humphries, CEO, Cognizant: No, I did not. I’m from a relatively humble background, I would say, growing up in Ireland. I can’t say I started off wanting to be a CEO, Phil, because I probably didn’t have exposure to large MNCs until my early 20s. But I started working at a company called Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC, which was acquired by Compaq and later acquired by HP.
So, for the first 18 years, I was there, and, subsequently, moved to Dell, became the President of the Enterprise Solutions Group there. I was most recently in Vodafone as the CEO of Vodafone Business, prior to joining Cognizant. So, I can’t say I’ve had a fully orchestrated career.
“I certainly made commitments along the way, in terms of moving internationally and throwing myself into the deep end of the swimming pool, more than once…”
I think, as the years went by, I had figured out paths of success. I certainly worked and invested in my career. I certainly made commitments along the way, in terms of moving internationally and throwing myself into the deep end of the swimming pool, more than once, to build out breadth and depth of experience. And along the way, you learn lessons.
And this is where, in a 25-year career, Phil, your ambition gets the better of you, and you realise through association with CEOs or other senior executives, that you have an appetite to not work for people anymore, but you actually have an appetite to lead. And that’s effectively what happened in my career over the years. Now, what I realised, becoming a CEO, is that now I have ten-plus bosses. I have a Board of Directors. So… it backfired. [Laughs]
Phil: [Laughs]. Right, right. So…
Brian: Fortunately, they are very supportive of everything I’m trying to do, so I’m one of the lucky CEOs.
Phil: [Laughs]. Well, that’s a good position to be in, compared to others, right? So what do you think it takes to lead a successful organisation in this industry? And, you know, maybe you could share a little bit about what you’ve learned in the first 15 months of this role?
“Look, it hasn’t been an easy start for me, let’s be honest.
…But I think we’re doing all the right things and the fruits of our labour are starting to show up…”
Brian: Look, it hasn’t been an easy start for me, let’s be honest. I inherited a quarter that was well below Wall Street expectations. I found out the news of that probably one hour into my first day at Cognizant. I’ve mostly been dealing with a lot of significant leadership changes, much of which I have initiated in our organisation, and then, of course, we had two exogenous events, with COVID-19 and ransomware. But I think we’re doing all the right things and the fruits of our labour are starting to show up, and I think Wall Street, and our employee base, will more and more give us credit for that.
Phil: And has your view changed about leadership since you’ve taken on this role?
Brian: I’m not sure that the principles I think about, in terms of leadership, have fundamentally changed. But certainly, I’ve learned valuable lessons along the way.
For what it’s worth, the principles that I have always adhered to, and I believe that I will continue to adhere to, relate to the importance of a purpose, of vision, of clarity of strategy, of having an operating structure where roles and responsibilities are truly, clearly defined, and accountability is defined within that; of having a culture that supports the focus on clients, and innovation, and collaboration – not just internally but with a partnership ecosystem. And then getting a leadership team around you that’s harmonious, where we pull in one direction. And, Phil, I know you’ve seen some of the changes I’ve made, in the last year, and will continue to make, across the company.
“Some of the things that I’ve been very focused on, in terms of leadership, are things like being a catalyst for change whilst being very respectful of the history and the pride of the company based on everything they have done.”
That said, joining Cognizant has been an incredible life experience for me, and the speed with which these events arise has been invaluable in terms of developing more as a leader. And this is somewhat unique for me, relative to my early leadership roles, in the sense that I’m the first non-founder CEO of the company, and I am also the first Caucasian CEO of the company. This is a company that’s had a remarkable track record, but, of course, in more recent years it wasn’t truly hitting its stride. So, some of the things that I’ve been very focused on, in terms of leadership, are things like being a catalyst for change whilst being very respectful of the history and the pride of the company based on everything they have done.
“I’m continuously trying to gauge how fast is too fast as a pace of change.”
I’m continuously trying to gauge how fast is too fast as a pace of change. My experience tells me, and when I speak with other CEOs, that invariably CEOs wish they had moved faster, not slower. For every CEO that wished they had moved slower, nine wished they had moved faster, but gauging that, implementing that, and contextualizing that to the organisation was really important. How to tap into the past as you’re thinking about everything that needs to change – that what is changing, what is good for the company, and what is good for the employees – is important, but also what doesn’t need to change. And, of course, figuring out which leaders still have a lot more to offer. Their context is, of course, very valuable, but making sure they still have the fire in their bellies to take it forward.
Then, of course, there is India. I’ve been exposed to India before, but Cognizant has a very proud attachment to India, with 200,000 employees based there, so it’s been important for me to really embrace India and to understand the culture more than ever before. And, for that reason, certainly pre-COVID, I was in India every seven to eight weeks for a week at a time.
“You know, there are lessons to be learned, and I can’t say there is any week that goes by that I don’t self-critique around a meeting that I could have conducted better, or a conversation I could’ve been more succinct in, or perhaps more motivational in, or perhaps be more searching…”
You know, there are lessons to be learned, and I can’t say there is any week that goes by that I don’t self-critique around a meeting that I could have conducted better, or a conversation I could’ve been more succinct in, or perhaps more motivational in, or perhaps be more searching, in my inquisitive nature, as I’m trying to conduct operational reviews, and client engagement reviews as well. But it’s all been good, and I feel more or less on track, notwithstanding everything.
Phil: Good. That’s good to hear. And looking at this lockdown we’ve been in, how has that treated you? What would you personally take away from the last three months of your life?
Brian: This is where the professional and private life of CEOs blur, because it is somewhat of a lifestyle, if you choose to become a CEO of a company; and you’re CEO of a company, yourself, Phil, so you know this. On a professional level, let’s just say it’s been an abrupt transition. Prior to COVID-19, I was travelling literally 90% of the time, and so we’re all now dealing with a massive new reality. And that new reality is very real for me, because naturally in the services industry, you’re dealing with COVID, not just in terms of the demand side of economics, but also the supply side, so the fulfilment side is very important.
“With 300,000 employees in the company, valued employees, talented employees – their health and wellbeing has always been top of mind for me.”
With 300,000 employees in the company, valued employees, talented employees – their health and wellbeing has always been top of mind for me. Those employees are also the intellectual horsepower of the company, and they are the people who do the projects, who do the coding, etc. So, as we started thinking about the demand side of COVID, by definition, the fulfilment side became very important, and enabling a work-from-home culture very rapidly was the first task we all had to deal with.
We had fortunately triggered business continuity very early in March, given what we had seen in the Philippines. As far as I’m concerned, our employees did a fantastic job; they conducted themselves very, very professionally, in what would’ve been very challenging conditions.
In the midst of all of this, on a personal level, I’ve found myself at home with my wife and two boys. And while it’s great to see them on a daily basis, between COVID and, in parallel, a ransomware attack, March and April are somewhat of a blur. Mornings blended into evenings, and nights, and weekends where they were one and the same as the normal work week. As I look back now, I think there were probably 60 days of seven-days-a-week working probably 15 to 18 hours a day.
The good things, as I think about it, are that we, as a company, rallied together. As a CEO, I always value the empowerment of the company. We have had the entrepreneurial spirit when needed, we’ve had structure when needed, we’ve helped our clients, and we’ve certainly invested heavily in society.
“What I have missed, what I would view as one of the bad things of COVID-19 on a personal level, is the human interaction that is afforded to you as a CEO. It’s one of the perks; you get to meet fascinating people in different walks of life and in different industries. I have missed that.”
On a personal level in the context of this, it’s been good to sleep in one bed for three months, as opposed to different hotel rooms every night, and good to see more of my family. And of course, it’s good not to be jetlagged for once in my life. The bad things, of course, come hand-in-glove with that, and impact on life and society will always remain top of mind, and the economy at large.
I do feel greatly for people running smaller companies, who may have very different liquidity patterns, and whose very livelihood could be taken away in this [environment]. But, on a personal level, I must admit, I haven’t missed flying. What I have missed, what I would view as one of the bad things of COVID-19 on a personal level, is the human interaction that is afforded to you as a CEO. It’s one of the perks; you get to meet fascinating people in different walks of life and in different industries. I have missed that. But, of course, we’re all getting used to Webex and Zoom.
Phil: Right. So, I mean, we’re at an interesting stage in second spikes of this disease, the economy is on a knife’s edge, supposedly. Meanwhile, Wall Street seems to be doing just fine, and tech is the star stock. Right? But how far do you think this is going to go, economically and socially, at the moment? As you look out, maybe a year, a bit beyond that, do you think this is going to hit us deeply, what is happening right now? Or do you still feel that it’s kind of unraveling, and it’s hard to tell?
Brian: Well, I think it’s both. I think it will hit us, and I think it is still hard to tell, because I believe the dust is still settling, and this is happening against the backdrop of racial injustice that we saw in the US which is giving rise to a lot of dialogue across the world.
Specific to COVID-19, I review the data on the Johns Hopkins website every day, and it’s clear we’re not through this. We’re talking about some of the biggest economies in the world, like the United States, where levels are still extraordinarily high and increasing, albeit in different states of the US. But the US, as you know, is porous, so if it’s happening in one state, it’s very easy to spread and have another spike.
And I’ve been very surprised by the equities markets and how bullish they have been. We’re almost back now to Q4 2019 levels, despite the fact that in November/December of 2019, nobody was talking about COVID-19 and the massive impact it would have on society.
“We’ve actually been doing better than I anticipated in early May. It’s still somewhat unclear as to why. …Is the macroenvironment better than expected? To be determined. Are we out-executing the competition; are we more competitive? Is our increased client centricity paying dividends? We will see.”
So, I think this earnings cycle is going to tell a tale around the extent of the damage. People are fixated on whether it’s a U-shaped, or V-shaped, or W-shaped, or indeed an L-shaped recovery. I think it’s too early to tell; many companies have withdrawn guidance as well. I will say that, regardless of the environment, my goal as CEO of Cognizant is to refine our strategy, make investments, and out-execute the competition by delighting clients at every opportunity. That is both from the commercial engagement point of view, but also from a delivery point of view as well.
We’ve actually been doing better than I anticipated in early May. It’s still somewhat unclear as to why. We will watch the earnings cycle and really try to understand what is behind that. You know, there are many reasons, of course. Is the macroenvironment better than expected? To be determined. Are we outexecuting the competition; are we more competitive? Is our increased client centricity paying dividends? We will see.
Or are we simply fortunate that our exposure to clients, and industries, and geographies, is a little bit more serendipitous than, perhaps, others’? So whether it’s industry alignment, we have less than 13% of our business in retail, travel, and hospitality, consumer goods; that’s very different from others out there. We are heavily North America centric, as you know, 76%, and, of course, we’re focused on Global 2000 clients, for the most part, which tend to be more resilient and have stronger liquidity and balance sheets than others.
But, I must admit, in early May I was quite pessimistic, I remain convinced that 2020 will be a very, very challenging year. Markets that may have been growing 5 or 6% as an industry may now be declining 5, 6, or 7%, so somewhat of a 10-point swing relative to prior expectations. And I actually think, it’ll really get us into Q2 2021 before we start getting into easier compares again, because, let’s not forget, Q1 2020 was reasonably good for everybody, because COVID kicked in only in March.
Phil: So, an area we’ve been talking a lot about is that one of the better outcomes of what we’re going through is this drive to unleash people, to really think about the talent we have that’s our lifeblood. What’s your feeling? What’s your view as we look out at the next year or two, in terms of empowering your people? We see this cross-pollination of talent across business domains and IT domains more than ever before. How do you see that evolving? And I know you guys have been very vocal with your support for Black Lives Matter and some other social issues as well. How do you see the whole people side of this evolving in our industry?
“Look, I think you hit the nail on the head. People are the core of this business model.”
Brian: Look, I think you hit the nail on the head. People are the core of this business model. While we will always have tooling and automation, at the end of the day, this is a people business, and our intellectual property is largely in the hands of the people we’re able to attract and develop in the company. It’s quite interesting, because I’m a member of the Business Roundtable, and we’re having broader discussions around this. Historically, you go and attract the greatest people you can into your company, and then you develop them, then you train them, of course, you clarify their roles and responsibilities, you empower them, you reward them, and you motivate them. Sometimes some of that motivation is monetary, sometimes it’s technical, but you ultimately develop them, and reskill them, and get them ready to always be on the front foot, and expose them to clients and execs, etc.
“Are we over-spec’ing roles, and are we hiring based on a cookie-cutter profile? Or should we be hiring based upon attitude, and competency, and approach? And that’s something I’m, frankly, spending a lot more time thinking about.”
There’s a big discussion right now, in terms of looking at the average job description of companies. Are we over-spec’ing roles, and are we hiring based on a cookie-cutter profile? Or should we be hiring based upon attitude, and competency, and approach? And that’s something I’m, frankly, spending a lot more time thinking about. As Cognizant, we have three quarters of our revenue in North America, and two thirds of our employees in India. We have been one of these companies that has been, I would say, an incredible story for talent in India: to join a company, be developed, to rotate, ultimately, from a delivery role into a more market-facing role in North America or internationally, and, lo and behold, to ultimately get yourself through to the executive committee of the company.
I’d like to think that that path will remain. But, Phil, in the same vein, there are many things that are happening in parallel. Part of my goal is to globalise Cognizant. That includes how we think about the brand, whether we are associated with Indian pure plays versus how we think about Deloitte or Accenture, globalisation of the leadership team, who we attract, who we retain, where they are located; and, of course, diversifying the revenue base.
“For me, it’s also about how we distill ourselves down to be able to attract diverse [talent], and to be much more inclusive, as an organisation, around what is a leader in Cognizant, what does it take to be successful in Cognizant, and how do we think about attracting, developing, and retaining people.”
For me, it’s also about how we distill ourselves down to be able to attract diverse [talent], and to be much more inclusive, as an organisation, around what is a leader in Cognizant, what does it take to be successful in Cognizant, and how do we think about attracting, developing, and retaining people. What are the campuses, onshore, that complement our Indian offshore model? How do we think about diversity? And are we willing to impose more rules around that?
Our executive committee, as recently as last week, we formalised the notion – we are going to implement the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule will ensure that we have a diverse set of candidates for every single slate, and that starts with our Board of Directors. But it also starts with me, as the CEO, in terms of hiring a more diverse leadership team around me. So, we have a vision, and we have a notion of this. But a lot of this, ultimately, leads us to taking concrete steps to implement that vision.
Phil: Okay. Good. That was well explained. I very much appreciate what you are proactively doing in support of, I think, a very sensitive issue. To close out our conversation, I have to ask; where are you going to be, what are you planning to do, when Liverpool finally gets their chance to finish off the longest Premier League season of all time?
Brian: Well, maybe, Phil, I will go online and buy you a jersey so you don’t have to wear that Tottenham Hotspur jersey anymore that you seemingly cherish. [laughs] But…
Brian: It seems like I’ll be here, watching it; albeit, I must admit, it’s not so enjoyable to watch football these days with empty stadiums and fake sound. I keep telling my kids that when I grew up, you were getting used to Liverpool winning every year, and it was almost a foregone conclusion. And now it’s been 30 years since the last victory, so I will certainly cherish it.
Phil: Brian, do you take any inspiration from Jurgen Klopp when you go about your job? He’s certainly has a certain style about him!
Brian: It’s hard not to like Jurgen Klopp. He lives and breathes football and taps into the club’s rich history – so there are some parallels to be drawn. What I like about him is his intensity, his attack mindset, his competitiveness, and his focus on building a team rather than a collection of individuals. I’m certainly aligned! And of course, we all, like him, have to laugh at times!
Phil: There you go! This has been a wonderful conversation, I’ll look forward to another one soon, but I really enjoyed the time today, Brian. I appreciate your time.
Brian: Phil, thanks. Good to see you.