Leadership

Desperately Seeking Boring Leaders

800 371 Kamal Karanth

Start-ups, like the best-run firms in the world, need CEOs who are known by the brands they lead, rather than their own personalities. Would it be too much to ask for boring leaders than stylish ones?

I once asked a class full of MBA students to name the top unicorns in India. They named the obvious five — Ola, Flipkart, Snapdeal, Paytm, and Oyo. For the remaining names, they had to google 🙂

Then I asked for the name of the founder of the most profitable start-up in the country. The silence was deafening. Finally, someone came up with the name of BookMyShow. However, nobody could name the founder.

In that room of 100-plus students, most of them wanted to become entrepreneurs. But every time we talked about a start-up, invariably, it was about a company that had a larger-than-life founder or somebody who had raised significant funds.

Most of them felt it was survival first, so valuation and fundraising were more important than other aspects of a start-up. I couldn’t blame them as their perceptions are based on what all of us are reading, viewing and listening to.

Poster heroes

The other day I heard a prominent VC talking about the founder of a company that had recently entered the club of unicorns by raising another round of funding. Yes, it was a PR exercise, but still, when you have a company, a senior leadership team, and a unique service or differentiating product, why this focus on the founder alone?

From their last holiday to the posters they keep in the office to their latest tweets, there is way too much attention on the founders. It’s not just through PR or media alone that we know each and every detail about them — from the colour of their socks to what they do on their weekends. It seems like they themselves too like it this way, otherwise wouldn’t they be running a different kind of marketing to represent their firms better?

How many of them write blogs or podcasts or YouTube channels to promote their industry or position themselves as thought leaders? Instead, we only get to hear about their weird habits, wealth or latest tweet fights with competitors.

They seem to like the feed their PR and marketing teams send to media about their persona.

Their investors also don’t seem to find it risky to over-promote the founder over the company/idea they invested in.

Faltering founders

Many of these unicorns have struggled with toxic work cultures, governance issues, exits of key senior managers. Yet they win awards from leading media houses. What explains this romanticism about founders more than the companies they founded? We have all got carried away by the freakish behaviour of founders, which makes for great TRP.

I once met the founder of a unicorn. The agenda of the meeting was to discuss her next set of leadership hires. She came 15 minutes late into the meeting and received a call within the first five minutes of our conversation. She excused herself and walked away into her cabin. As we waited for her to return, her EA came by, stating the meeting was cancelled. I believe she had to attend to an urgent matter from his investors. She never apologised for walking out of a scheduled meeting. Worse, she even stopped responding to emails.

The truth is that there are still many start-ups that have founders who are grounded and are well-run.

However, we only remember start-ups whose founders’ persona is built through media. The Cofounders who take on VCs in public, Founders who get fired by boards and entrepreneurs who are fined by the SEC still find more mindshare than the firms that are well-run.

Unfortunately, everybody thinks they are the next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. As the news of Binny Bansal broke recently, I heard a senior executive telling his colleague at the airport that he wouldn’t mind the publicity for a billion-dollar exit. Such is our love for money and fame!

Boring Leaders

Beyond the start-up world, the best-run firms in the world have CEOs who are known by the brands they lead, than themselves. Would you be able to name the CEOs of United Health, Exxon Mobil or AT&T? These firms are ranked among the top 10 in Fortune 500’s list for 2018.

Moreover, I am sure that you have heard of Mark Zuckerberg, Carlos Ghosn, Elon Musk. So, now you know how our mind is influenced by the personalities than the most valuable firms!

Is there a way start-ups can get over their habit of building their brands around their founders after securing funding? I would suggest the Oyo way. It has quickly brought a seasoned proven professional like Aditya Ghosh in spite of having a larger than life founder in Ritesh Agarwal.

Nandan Nilekani recently said Infosys has become boring again and that it is a good thing. His comment is apt for the start-up world too. VCs need to fund founders who can create great companies rather than news.

We love to hear #charismatic leaders speak in forums, Are they ‘the same’ person to work with?

800 371 Kamal Karanth
We love to hear charismatic leaders speak in forums, they inspire through articles, their public personalities are magnetic! Are they ‘the same’ person to work with? Not all I guess! A couple of times I went by my one-off personal interactions and chose to work with some publicly inspiring personalities.  I think leaders or anybody for that matter don’t match their public behaviors in private! It’s not easy to be somebody else all the time. People who worked with me can vouch for that 🙂 The real “Self’ has to eventually appear, isn’t it? We used to see benevolent behavior from that boss except when he was one to one with us. After giving a very motivating Townhall speech, answering the irritating questions with a dignity he would turn up to next meeting with utter disdain to his reportees. He used to bark at his secretary, driver, office boy as though they were all stress relievers to his recent townhall. As much as we hail the leaders in public for their designations and influential roles they play, we only remember them for how they behave in private, dont we? After all, whenever somebody asks us how is that leader in private, we end up saying, nice guy or jerk! The private experience of the leader spreads faster than what the publicly portrayed image!

Why Leaders cannot Listen

800 371 Kamal Karanth
Why is it difficult for leaders to Listen? We keep reading about the Gyan around why listening is great art, many of the leaders don’t listen, some of your role models, inspiring leaders listened to you, etc. etc.

Leaders- Do they need to feel Belonged ?

800 371 Kamal Karanth
Whom would you give credit for the recent Chennai Super King’s IPL victory? Dhoni’s leadership or his experienced team or CSK’s ecosystem. Some of us said it wasn’t difficult to spot how relaxed he looked here compared to his previous stint. Much of this crew were there at Pune too. I would attribute the victory to the ecosystem of CSK which made him feel belonged.

After all, aren’t champions supposed to be performing in different environments and the surroundings shouldn’t matter?  Many corporate examples tell us that the ecosystem is equally important for the leaders to produce the best results. Think of successful corporate leaders who couldn’t reproduce their magic when they switched camps. Groupon’s Andrew Mason, Marisa Meyer, numerous CEOs at HP all had excellent past track records. But, they aren’t remembered the same way like they did with their previous ventures.

Ecosystem Influence

 Leaders are human too and they need a sense of connectedness, support, familiarity to perform at their optimum level. That also explains why leaders bring their ex-colleagues when they take up new assignments. They want a few faces which give them a level of comfort. Additionally, CEOs need all the stakeholders to be successful in their new jobs. Board, partners, Immediate reportees and extended teams. Yes, CEO’s are cynosures of success and villains of failure. Nobody can ignore their entire ecosystem in the background for them to go either way. Most leaders are told to build that ecosystem or manage them well. It’s called shrewd politics at one level and stakeholder management at another. Nevertheless, every CEO you talk to will acknowledge the power of ecosystem that they inherit or create.

Replicating Success

Many CEOs with long tenures are reluctant to move jobs. This in spite of attractive offers is due to the fear of the ecosystem change. CEOs who jump the ship negotiates funny things to keep the status quo as much as possible. They bring in their ex-secretary, negotiate for the same city operation even if the Hq is elsewhere. All said and done you can only replicate your comfort zone to a limited extent. Could this be the reason many boards opt for internal succession than outsiders in most cases? The ecosystem connect to the internal contender would be crucial in many cases than the outsider perspective.

Therefore the premium for CEOs who can create magic in new settings is high because they are a rare commodity. Some of us are used to our bosses, few to the culture, many to our team and place of work. A leader is able to perform if he gets all these in the right doses.

Leadership Transition- change is not welcome!

800 371 Kamal Karanth
Getting calls from past colleagues in quest of new jobs is a normal occurrence these days. I typically do ask the real drivers to such aspirations if it’s just another bad day in office. Some of these calls provide good intel if the calls are from competitor mates. One such call recently turned into an interesting insight. My ex-colleague explained the reason for his turmoil. He has a new CEO and I promptly asked: “how’s he?” My ex-colleague explained that the new CEO is attempting to change almost everything from people to structure to process to technology … his question was, “till recently we were the most happening company in this industry and it seems like in the last year or so nothing is good! How can things become so bad overnight?”

Collateral Damage

Organisations should budget for some collateral damage is expected with every leadership change. Few resignations have to be expected. After all, not everybody is going to like new leaders. In today’s work-world, most people change jobs every 2 years but can’t digest when new people are to lead them every two years in the same company. Our preferences seem to be to accept the way we work differently in a new place than having to adapt in the same place.

The new leader also has to go through the same change which he/she inflicts on others. S/he wouldn’t know when to press the button or to keep quiet. The first 90 days book subtly suggests being observant than action. It’s difficult being a leader when you are unwelcome which is quite common during turnaround situations. Once when I landed in a similar situation, I had a resignation that greeted me on day one.  Some of my reportees were pessimistic if anything can be changed even before I had arrived.

Insider Vs Outsider

In my view, leading turnarounds is a far easier task than succeeding a business which has had a successful track record. During turnaround situations, your bosses back you up as they are only interested in bottom-line results than collateral damage. In sustaining success, the organisation expects you to retain the goodness of the past (people, structure, culture, process) while delivering improved results. The logic is that if the previous guy could produce in the same context, why can’t you repeat/better the same. This gets compounded when the new leader comes from within the organisation.

Starting from “I was your peer”; “you took the lift when I was taking the stairs”; and “don’t you know my track record?”; to “let’s talk about how you will take care of my interests”; – the first few weeks are a bargaining battle. Lots of posturing happens and suddenly the leader feels lonely in a united successful team.

Leading a Succesful team

Once when my boss chose me to lead a successful team as a successor from within, I had a nightmarish beginning. It actually started with him giving the brief about the leaders I was going to lead. He started by saying “Rita has been with the company for ten years and she is the cat in her industry domain”; “Nathan is one of our finest sales leads, he actually does not need a job as he comes from an affluent background”; “Sirin is from NYU and she is the best HR person we’ve ever had”; “John, as you know, is the best Operations head we’ve had”.

Please! Don’t Be A Leader!

800 371 Kamal Karanth

EMOTIONS

Please! Don’t Be A Leader!

25 MAY , 2016

It sounds mean of me to say so, after chasing leadership roles for decades I sound like a hypocrite to put a title like that, but I mean it, let me see if I can impress you to think so today.

Rewind to your day one in any of your new employers induction programs, either the leaders or HR would be flashing their top talent (mostly it would be people who have ‘managed’ to attain higher positions in their company). And with a beaming smile they would tell you that’s what you can become if you perform and develop. We suddenly feel gratified that we have joined the right company and our future is secure.

You then start day dreaming about what you can become looking at a handful of people who also have hung around for long. Is it right for employers to brandish that they manufacture leaders or for employees to aspire they can become leaders without any capability that they can identify for themselves. I would like to believe that one has no choice but to aspire to be a leader as otherwise you are deemed to be seen as:

  • Non aspirational, somebody without drive (meaning you are lazy 🙂
  • non-competitive, how else can they pressurize you if you are not part of a rat race ( they will start worrying why they even hired you)
  • Can’t be moulded into the organisational needs ( you will be seen as non-flexible, meaning you won’t do things beyond your Job description)
  • Bad example to others, everybody likes people who do the ra ra and say hail the organisation and its leaders/li>

When you say you don’t want to be a leader you are stating that you don’t believe either in the role or the value the role creates for others, more than anything else it irks the guy sitting at the top that you are taking a dig at him. It also puts your manager and HR in an awkward position to motivate you to work harder or learn things which otherwise you may not. Ever tried saying you don’t want to be in leadership roles that organisation has thrown at you? I have 🙂 and paid the price once. I have told never say never again to myself from that day.

Saying no definitely brings an unnecessary pause to your career by being parked in roles which makes you regret your decision to be forthright to your boss and HR. It also exposes you to be passed over for promotions, reporting to your juniors, peers (it’s no shame, but let’s face it, how many of us would like to report to whom we consider junior or peers).

You also become less important to key projects or key happenings in the organisation, essentially you will dread being honest once you say no to any growth role that the organization offered you.

There are times when you say no due to personal reasons, the timing would be wrong, you are going through a break up, parents would be needing care, attention is required for kids’ education, spouse’s job would be at a crucial phase. Maybe it pays to cite some personal reasons and say no than being honest about your lack of aspiration.

Sometimes U can be real about your lack of conviction on your abilities or intent. If you are in a congenial atmosphere of trust and respect it’s likely that less harm will be inflicted on your existence and peace. Such supervisors and organisations are rare but not impossible to find.

Should Leaders Be Allowed To Serve Notice?

800 371 Kamal Karanth

CHANGE

Should Leaders Be Allowed To Serve Notice?

30 AUG , 2016

On a Friday morning I received a cryptic email from my Vice President’s Executive Assistant. It said that our super boss had resigned in the morning and it was also his last day at work. As this person was instrumental in hiring me, I worriedly called one of my friends who is also my confidant. He told me it was a common practice in his organisation to relieve senior leaders immediately after they resign. On most occasions, it’s within a day. OMG! I told myself, this is the scariest part of being a leader!

Imagine the series of things organisations do when they hire externally or promote somebody to a senior role.

  • They start talking to one and all about this great talent they have hired and willing to wait for him/her to join
  • If it’s internal promotion they go to great lengths talking about her/his credentials and achievements
  • Write grand introductory emails on his/her first day at work
  • Organise town halls meetings to welcome him/her
  • Take him/her on multiple welcome lunch/dinner meets to engage them with new stake holders
  • Take him/her on multiple welcome lunch/dinner meets to engage them with new stake holders

Turn this on its head while similar people are leaving the organisation:

  • No announcement is made about the person who has resigned till the gossip mill has ensured everybody in the organisation has become aware of it. Perhaps the organisation is busy looking for a replacement and forget to be transparent about the departure/resignation? It could also be a dilemma of whether it is appropriate that an announcement be made without a replacement in hand?
  • Most people departing an organisation don’t even get a well-deserved goodbye/thank you email from their supervisor or HR. Why bother about people who are leaving, huh?
  • Many a times people don’t want to give a grand sendoff by calling a group to say a few words in public. Imagine your own brand enhancement as an employer when senior employees go with their head high!
  • Senior people are mostly left in the lurch than any honourable sendoff dinners by senior management
  • Journalists force some of the organisations to confirm the exit, some are vague or don’t come on record either.

So what forces organisations to be tentative, hesitant, non-communicative, evasive or abrupt when senior leaders resign? Some of the explanations may perhaps be:

  • Loss to competitor – Most of the preparations/damage would have been made in advance by the executive. The person could attempt anything against his employer after announcing his exit, and from an organisation perspective very little can be done to protect it in last minute hasty exits. Personally, I would rather make it emotionally difficult for the person to do anything against you or the organisation by treating him well during the exit. Wouldn’t it be a great idea to take the person to his existing customers with his successor to firewall your customers even better?
  • Fear of the ‘resignee’ spreading negativity – If you believe that the organisation has a strong culture with adequate leadership strength, one individual can do very little damage to its morale and reputation. Also a meeting to set expectations on operational and behavioural patterns just prior to departure will abet in preventing any unconscious attempt by the employee to make unwarranted derogatory remarks.
  • Move on faster: This is the most commonly used philosophy provided the organisation is ready with the second line of command and the role is not a significant customer interface. This one makes sense to me depending on the context.
  • No glorified exits: Organisations believe that by giving grand exit parties to senior executives they would be giving the wrong signal to the remaining employees that leaving is attractive. Sendoffs are symbols of organisation fabric, in a work world where nobody is permanent, talent is rare and alumni comebacks are common, it makes business sense to be generous while senior employees leave

I once heard of an interesting experience from a friend. Once he had made up his mind to quit, he called all of his direct reportees each on their own and told them of his intention to quit. Later that same evening, he met with his boss and submitted his resignation. His boss asked him to leave his laptop behind & meet her the next day.

Leadership

‘Fair’ Leaders Don’t Leave Great Memories!

660 330 Kamal Karanth

Who is the leader you fondly remember the most? Isn’t it somebody who blessed you those extra favours?

Most leaders aspire to be fair or think they are fair to their team members, organisations strive to have checks and balances to ensure favouritism doesn’t get the better of leaders. One of the roles HR plays is to ensure the policies and practices of organisations are fair to all. But in the true world don’t we spend significant time criticizing how unfair some of our bosses are, how HR doesn’t/can’t check the unfair behaviour of leaders? Well, I don’t think I qualify to offer advice on how unfair practices can be minimised, but I would make an attempt to highlight how we have corrupted our ‘memories’ with people who possibly influenced us through their favours on us.

Back in time I was checking through the last 3 years increments data in my new assignment, 3 of the hikes in the previous year caught my eye which were in excess of 70%. One of them is worth discussing, a guy who was at 1.2 million salary per annum was moved to 2.8 million, now I know its a obscene 3 digit hike and I found no earth shattering qualifying criteria, now I dont know how it was even allowed by HR, when I quizzed the HRM he smiled and said “you will soon know”. The guy who benefitted from this hike had atleast half a dozen bosses subsequently, but whenever I spoke to him I realised he only looks up to one boss, you know who 🙂 We can’t blame him can we? You and me will happily have portraits of such bosses in our homes!

When I close my eyes, and think about my senior leaders whom I remember the most, I am reminded of 4 sets of people,

The last two are the topic of discussion today, yes it would be ungrateful to forget the guys

Who demonstrated to me that they took some discretionary decisions to either give me a plum new role or sent me on an overseas assignment to name a few. Discretionary bonus and increments have not been my lucky forte yet! Yes’ there have been many people who were highly professional, who worked without emotion, but were fair in recognising my efforts, but they were equally impartial when they dealt with my peers. So, it takes an extra effort to remember them 🙂

Now let me ask myself If I was fair, impartial in my leadership stints, I would like to believe so 🙂 Nobody has filed a discrimination case yet! But I know I took many discretionary calls which went beyond the metrics and policies that were laid. Giving a 3-digit hike to people was one of the fantasies which I have not executed yet 🙂 I think I was little stingy on mega increments and maybe quite short on showering ‘out of turn’ promotions compared to the expectations my team would have had from me. But, I am sure many of my team members would list out how I favoured a few when some had to wait longer or had to leave for greener pastures to find their fair share.

So, who are these leaders whom we always label as biased or who have favorited? In my view these leaders

  • Typically question the status quo and are people who say things ‘as it is’
  • Make faster decisions and are the kinds who would say ‘I will get it done‘
  • Feel responsible for their people and would go the extra mile to get things down
  • Take non-populist routes as resolutions related to people
  • Recognise their team members’ impromptu

No wonder these are traits which suit us when we are the beneficiaries of these gestures. As it turns out whenever these behaviours get played out there will also be people who are adversely affected due to this and some of us have been on that side too. Thats when the leaders get brickbats for the display of the above emotions. The advantage of being at the top is you possibly won’t know about the adverse reactions as you would have locked yourself in a corner room or surrounded by people who are benefactors of the discretionary decisions.

  • Let me check with HR and come back to you
  • I know your salary is below market, but we need to also consider parity within the organisation
  • The policies in the organisation are there for a reason and we need to be ‘fair’ and consistent with all
  • This years’ timeline is over for these recognitions, keep your performance consistent next year as well for you to be considered.
  • Are the types who would say “I will try my best but no promises“

It’s a no brainer why we don’t like the above-mentioned fence sitters when it comes to decisions which needs to always go in our favour. That plum role, the overseas trip, the next award, out of turn promotion, above average increment, discretionary bonus, the best seat in office, working from home, irrational leave approval, that expensive gift paid through the company……. It’s a long list of exceptions we want ourselves and remember those people through the materialistic gains.

It’s politically the right thing to applaud in public or with colleagues about leaders who are impartial or fair. But when it comes to leaders whom we favour the most or send birthday greetings to, it would be to people who gave us those extra benefits. Nobody remembers the leaders who tried to be fair to the employer and our colleagues!

I know, like me, you too aren’t the type who feels guilty about deserting those impartial leaders who demonstrated character and showed a thing or two on leading the right way. If you ‘do’ then send those souls a ‘Hi message via WhatsApp and feel a touch liberated for the day!


The memory of leaders who don’t add ‘wings’ to our dreams always fades away! For some reason, we all think we were born to fly!

leaders

Narcissists make great Leaders!

800 371 Kamal Karanth

Yes, the title was to get your attention. But you will agree with me after a few minutes about Narcissists.

Many of us publicly admit that we join new employers in search of good supervisors, work harder in our organisations when we like our bosses, leave companies becoz of bosses; Today I am deliberately leaving out obvious things like role, money, brand, organisation culture. These we know are the other parameters in joining, staying and quitting jobs. Let’s get back to the bosses now,

If you are asked what kinds of bosses you like, would the obvious answers sound like

  1. Leads by example
  2. Delegates, gives you space, trusts you
  3. High on integrity, fair, charismatic, thought leader, visionary
  4. Decisive, purposeful, relationship driven, humane….

The list can go on depending on what you have experienced or aspiring for. Not many of us can choose our bosses. But, I am sure we all have the rights to comment, judge, criticise them in our circle of influence. Today is one such exercise of commenting on ‘one’ type of leader.

How many of you have you ever worked for a leader who is a narcissist? Some of you who have worked with me please lower your hands if you have raised it! And for the rest, do I see many of you nodding your head in approval? I know we don’t need to rush to Wikipedia for the definition of a narcissist. A trait which all of us recognise as we see some of it in the mirror daily. That can be called healthy narcissism? Now, to my next question, would you like to work for a narcissist boss? Did you say never? think about it again. I think you should work for one. Not because I want you to learn on ‘how not to be a Narcissist’ but for the benefits you get working for one. Now don’t frown again, I’m not playing mind games here.

 Traits of a Narcissist

  • Special: Narcissists perceive themselves to be unique and special people. Who doesn’t want to be working for people who have high self-esteem?  Are you the kind who likes to constantly motivate your boss to get rid of his/her inferiority complex? Sounds like a nice thought though!
  • Positive: Narcissists think they are better than others. That sounds like most of us!
  • Inflated: Narcissists’ self-views tend to be greatly exaggerated. All of us belong to this category. Imagine yourself while you are being interviewed or during your appraisals.
  • Selfish: Their behaviour portrays them as being selfish. Now selfless people in work life are a rare commodity and we all are selfish, so I would accept that.
  • Oriented toward success: Narcissists are oriented towards success. None of us come to fail to work, we all want success for us, our teams and organisations.

So, tell me if these are the traits of a Narcissist, why wouldn’t you want to work for one? Or if you could tick against all these qualities for yourself ‘feel’ proud to be a narcissist. At least you can be honest to yourself. Am I playing with the term and a few qualifying parameters to support them? Yes, but I know you are smart enough to get the drift!

Narcissist Leaders

Narcissism is a thriving trait in leadership. Some of us develop it after we reach leadership positions. Many of us are born with it. I think it’s an essential trait to have or cultivate to be a successful leader. Leadership is a tough act; people throw a lot of muck at you. You are always under pressure. So, you need to be positive even when the boat is sinking. One must feel better than others to negotiate out of difficult situations.

But, some of these traits that protect are also the ones that can go against you. This depends on where you demonstrate them. It’s difficult to have these qualities and also to contain them as they are part of you. First of all, knowingly or unknowingly narcissistic qualities raise their head even without you realising them. Therefore,  the ‘gurus’ talk about self-awareness as the essential trait for leaders. They also recommend mindfulness for being at every moment to be in touch with the situation. But today I am not here to discuss about how to deal with Narcissism. In fact, I love them 🙂

My Brush with Narcissists

Probably, I loved working with tons of Narcissists. I say this as they loved to be ‘one’ and allowed people like me to gain in the process. Due to their over indulgence with themselves we were allowed into similar zones with our team. I remember even-though we were making  losses some of my bosses would ask us to fly business class with them when we took the same flight. Some others would book five star hotels for us as they wanted to avail the same luxury. Otherwise we had travel and stay in ‘budget’ when they weren’t with us 🙂

In one of my stints we started to move into new offices in rented buildings. My boss used to insist that we have nice metal name plate which had his name itched in it. He used to get great kicks unveiling those boards during office inaugurations. We were in an organisation where leaders quit almost every 2 years. So, we had to remove those boards before the next leader came. Grr! Before, I could get my own name-plates itched I left too 🙂

No Conclusion

Now, let’s not get holier than thou about others. If you want to be a leader you need to get comfortable with certain Narcissist qualities. Actually, we use certain polished corporate terms to describe them. If you sum them all up it would come to one term!

If you are too good to acquire them or display them you will will face another problem. You have to then get comfortable working for people who have them. Period.

As always, now to the narcissist part of my post, and my favourite part….

Narcissist and me? Never!

 

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, Feel free to comment for me to reflect on your ‘narcissist’ views

Many moons ago I wrote this post about “who is your favourite boss” contradiction?

Who is your favourite boss?