Desperately Seeking Boring Leaders

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.

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