Checks and Balances

When former CA Chairman and CEO Sanjay Kumar pleaded guilty last week to the charges of financial fraud and other offenses hanging over him, a lot of people were surprised. I wasn't one of them.

I had a feeling that Kumar would eventually plead guilty to the charges, despite his innocent plea in September 2004 following his indictment by a federal grand jury. In fact, I was almost certain of it.

A couple of weeks after the indictment, I wrote an editorial in which I reminded readers that Kumar was innocent. My point was that he hadn't been found guilty of anything, which, under our legal system, means innocence. In that piece, I also recounted an anecdote about his mom that Kumar had shared with me a couple of years earlier. It had to do with some very wise guidance his mom had given him when he was a youth. Referring to that anecdote, I made this comment in the editorial:

"I have a hunch that his mom gave him some more sage advice when he was a kid: If you goof up, acknowledge it, make amends, be forgiven, and move on. If you didn't goof up, stand up for yourself."

It turns out that comment touched Kumar pretty deeply. I know, because he called me a couple of days later to tell me.

"I wanted to let you know that you were dead right about my mother," he said. "You captured her essence in that article, to the point where somebody actually shared it with my father. This moved him to the point where he called me last night. ... I really appreciate it, because you really captured what she was all about, and what she passed on to me, in a very, very eloquent way."

It's also worth mentioning that Kumar never professed his innocence to me. He simply thanked me for what I had written and said he hoped we'd have a chance to sit down and talk about it all someday.

So no, I wasn't a bit surprised when Kumar acknowledged last week that he had messed up. In the end, he did what his mom, who passed away a couple of years ago, would have expected him to do.

I'm not making excuses for Kumar. What he did was wrong, and justice must prevail. But it's important to remember that decent people do stupid things. It would be tragic if the miracle Kumar worked at CA -- transforming it from the most intensely feared and loathed software company on the planet to a respected and valued business partner -- is forgotten because of all this. Vilification, in Kumar's case, is unwarranted.

I was discussing Kumar's guilty plea last week with Hyperion CEO Godfrey Sullivan, who shared some interesting insights about the dilemma people face when expectations of them are set too high.

"When you set growth targets that are too aggressive for your business ... you really force people out onto the ethical edge," Sullivan said. "They'll do whatever it takes to close a deal."

Perhaps Kumar had set his own bar too high, I don't know. I do know that companies need a firm set of checks and balances in place, which is something Hyperion considered two years ago when it decided that the roles of chairman and CEO should be held by separate individuals.

Maybe if that had been the case at CA during Kumar's tenure, as it is now, the trauma suffered by Kumar's family and his company -- and the wrongs that precipitated it -- could have been avoided.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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