The speaker? N R Narayana Murthy, chairman of the board and chief mentor at Infosys Technologies Limited.
For the next hour and a half, the audience was mesmerized by Murthy's hard-hitting lecture and Q&A session on 'Good Corporate Governance" A Mindset or a Checklist?'
Narayana Murthy, who was introduced by Prabir K Bagchi, senior associate dean of GWU's School of Business as the 'conscience-keeper of India's businesspeople and leaders and the 'sage of Bangalore,' was uncompromising in his argument that even under the most extenuating external pressures, a commitment to values and ethics should always be the guiding principle of any company, above profit and the need for growth.
He said it is imperative that the current generation conducts itself in a manner that creates role models for the younger generation. The younger generation, he said, was the future because 'the future is all about youth, youth is all about energy, about new ideas.'
Consequently, Murthy declared, "It's better to lose a billion dollars, than a good night's sleep."
"A civilized society is one where each generation works hard, makes sacrifices, so that we leave a better society for the next generation. That responsibility likes much more with us than with you," he told scores of business majors lapping up every word he spoke.
Asked how he faced the challenges of growing his company and reconciling the values and ethics he spoke of the pressure to make profits without making any compromise. Murthy said it is a fallacy that growth is hampered by honesty and that everything from fudging the books to giving bribes and kickbacks is part of doing business.
He acknowledged that "there have been occasions when officials in my country have demanded bribes and we have said no, and that was the only time."
Murthy said, "The other day, the CEO of a Fortune 10 company asked me if there is one attitude in my view that is the most important -- above any other, never mind whether in corporate leadership, national, political whatever. And it took me less than 10 seconds to say, courage, courage to dream big, courage of conviction, courage to go against traditional thinking, courage to take risks, all that."
But he reiterated that this did not mean any compromise of values and principles "and that that's where having leaders who promote this culture was extremely important so that it percolates all the way down to the trenches."
"As long as the leaders articulate the value system very clearly, as long as they show by example," he said, "the company can hold on its own in any environment, even faced with intense competition and avoid the pitfalls of the likes of Enron, WorldCom, Qwest, Tyco and others."
Murthy, who spoke fondly of his parents and his lower middle-class upbringing talked about the values instilled by both his father -- a teacher --
Of how Infosys survived through the years since its founding in 1981, more than a decade before India's economy was opened up, he said, it was because of very simple facets of entrepreneurship, of capturing an idea and taking the power of that idea to the next level and the next. "Not a complex sentence, no ifs, no buts, no nevertheless, no howevers."
Murthy also noted: "We were very lucky there was no market in India for us at that time, so we had to, perforce, look at it in the global market, which meant that right from day one, we created a global mindset. We prepared ourselves for the best of competition."
Murthy declared that "corporate governance, to me, is about maximizing shareholder value legally, ethically and on a sustainable basis, while ensuring fairness to every stakeholder -- the company's customers, employees, investors, vendor-partners, the government of the land and the community. Thus, corporate governance is a reflection of a company's culture, policies, how it deals with its stakeholders, and its commitment to values."
He said this was the very antithesis of corporations like Enron, WorldCom, Qwest, and Tyco. These companies, he said, with their 'stock-option fattened, superman-superwoman CEOs who could do no wrong in the eyes of their admiration-heavy boards, and who were seen as demigods with lax oversight by boards making these CEOs more or less omnipotent, where corporate allies were required to primarily serve their interests,' created a climate that led to their eventual collapse.
"These corporations exemplified entire organizational cultures dominated by greed, arrogance and utter disregard for law to the immense cost of shareholders," he said, pointing out that the scandals at these firms and others "resulted in a loss of more than $7 trillion in market capital, the largest in the history of capitalism."
He said that "corporations must integrate their value systems into their recruitment programs. They must mandate compliance with the value system as a key requirement from each potential employee. They must ensure that every employee owns responsibility for accountability and ethics in every transaction. Corporations must publicly recognise internal role models for ethical behaviour."
"They must reinforce exemplary ethical conduct among employees, through reward and recognition programmes," he added. "Ethical standards and best practices must be applied fairly and uniformly across all levels of the organisation. Any non-compliance must be swiftly dealt with and publicized. Additionally, there should be strong whistle-blower mechanisms within the corporation for exposing unethical or illegal activities."
Murthy said: "The need of the hour is for all voices in the corporation to unanimously extol the value of decency, honesty and transparency." He noted that at Infosys, "every Infosysian is encouraged to act according to our belief that 'The softest pillow is a clear conscience," and that "every employees remembers and follows the adage, 'When in doubt, disclose.'"