For Francisco D’Souza, the crisis that has battered the global economy has become less about despair, and more about hope.
When he assumed the role of CEO of Cognizant, D’Souza was at the peak of his game, watching the value of the Nasdaq-100 company he helped found in 1994 go from zero to $3 billion in a little more than a dozen years. Cognizant stock appreciated 10,000 percent since its initial public offering, and the company was hiring nine to 10 people every hour of every day.
And then the economy crumbled.
In addressing MBA students as part of the Tepper School’s W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, D’Souza had one wry piece of advice for his audience.
“Please try to avoid taking a CEO job before the worst economic crisis in recent memory,” he said, as he displayed a PowerPoint photo of himself superimposed with the crosshairs of a target.
Headquartered in Teaneck, N.J., Cognizant provides information technology services and consulting across a wide variety of industries. Many of their customers were hit hard by the recession, and by 2008 — the year after D’Souza became CEO — it was apparent that tough times were ahead.
“Banks were falling all over the place,” recalled D’Souza. “I would wake up every morning and not know if one of my clients had fallen.”
Under his direction, Cognizant’s leadership team went into full huddle mode, following a principle he learned at the Tepper School: Draw from an unassailable fact base when making decisions.
Though the Internet barely existed when D’Souza earned his MSIA in 1992, the education he received — and the way of thinking he acquired — guided him through the crisis, as well as earlier challenges, such as the bursting of the dot-com bubble.
“These are the times I’ve gone back to fundamentals and asked, ‘What would my professors at Tepper do?’” D’Souza said.
His management team met once a month throughout the crisis in Frankfurt, Germany, reviewing every customer and playing out scenarios so they could form a plan of attack. It was in one of these meetings that a team member drew an analogy between business growth and the Tour de France: Bicyclists in the fabled race gain advantage by their performance in the mountains, not on flat stretches, he said.
It was then that Cognizant formed its strategy: “We see all of our competitors pulling back. We’re going to use it as an opportunity to get stronger, faster.”
Cognizant developed a branding strategy around a theme for its 60,000 employees, who were worried about their future. Known as “shining through the fog,” the motto stressed hope and fortitude. It became so successful that some of Cognizant’s clients borrowed the campaign for their own employees.
With tight leadership and crisp execution, the company added 10,000 more people in 2009, put together more deals than in the prior three years combined, and expanded markets in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
As a result, Cognizant was able to realize steady growth, and finished far ahead of where they’d expected.
As D’Souza pointed out to the audience, some of the academic specifics of his degree might have had a shelf life, but the strategic thinking he learned is evergreen.
“Tepper taught me an approach,” he said.