What I Learnt Working for a Young CEO – From Cut the Cr*p & Jargon
(Excerpted with permission from 'Cut the Crap & Jargon' by Shradha Sharma and TN Hari, published by the Penguin Random House)
One of the best ways to support your younger and possibly less seasoned boss is by telling her about things she doesn’t already know. Your experience gives you credibility. Use it to be helpful, said Peter Cappelli, professor, The Wharton School.
It was sometime in December 2013 — after Moody’s acquisition of Amba Research —that the start-up I worked for was a done deal and I began evaluating options. I was forty-eight years old at that point of time. Working for a large company wasn’t a choice— I was too much in love with start-ups.
While I was contemplating my next move, I was introduced to Raghu, the thirty-two-year-old founder of TFS — a taxi aggregator much like Uber — by Sanjeev Aggarwal, the managing partner at Helion Ventures (and investor at TFS). While I had always loved working with youngsters, working for a much younger manager would have been a first-time experience. Though I had heard very good things about TFS, and Raghu, I did have some concerns about working for someone who was sixteen years younger! I went for the meeting with an open mind.
The meeting was interesting. He told me everything that TFS was trying to do. After a short discussion about the industry and the start-up ecosystem, he told me, ‘I have heard of you and I don’t know if I am competent enough to interview you. We would be delighted if you join us and help us accelerate our journey.’
Obviously, the short conversation was the interview, but nevertheless, I liked the way he put it. I was there in the TFS office at 8 a.m. the next morning. For the next twelve months, until TFS’s merger with Ola Cabs, I was there in the office every day at 8 a.m.!
Here are some of the lessons I learnt during the twelve most exciting months of my professional life:
Age equips you with knowledge of the common failure points, but it also numbs you to the fact that each situation is unique and the mode of failure is usually never the same.
Therefore, while experience can help you with better judgement, do not take this advantage too seriously, especially if the prevailing mood is to experiment and take risks.
You need to adapt to the culture very quickly. If responding to emails at 1 a.m. is important, start doing it. Don’t start with being critical. If watching TED talk videos on Monday mornings is the norm, be a part of it.
You may have a family to go back to, but find a way of achieving a balance without making your younger colleagues feel that you don’t see yourself as a part of this culture. The bottom line is you need to genuinely start enjoying being a part of the team and what it stands for. Once you’ve established your unquestioned membership in the culture club, you can take a few liberties and also try and introduce some change.
You should, of course, put your foot down when it comes to things that are fundamental and non-negotiable. For instance, young start-ups may not realize that you can’t schedule meetings on the fly at 10 p.m. and expect the women in the team to participate wholeheartedly, without giving a serious thought to their safety on their way back home. If you see such a culture, you need to rapidly educate everyone on the importance of building practices that will create a more inclusive and diverse environment— and why it matters for the business.
Don’t forget that everyone has their insecurities and they tend to be a little more pronounced — though hidden — in young leaders. Because they don’t know whom to go to or how to address the problems they are faced with on their own, the problems fester.
You can help them address these insecurities and problems. Board issues, tricky team issues and difficult conversations are some of the common ones.
While experience is helpful, more often than not, the key to effectiveness is about being able to think correctly ground-up in every situation, and youth does not suffer a handicap when it comes to this. Cut Don’t jump in with your lessons at the drop of a hat.
Let the team discover a few things for themselves while you watch, unless the stakes are high. In addition, at a start-up, you need to earn your stripes every day. You can’t rest on yesterday’s laurels. Yesterday is history. Today is a new day. You won’t be excused for not doing what is expected of you today because you were walking on water yesterday. If history is irrelevant, experience counts for very little. Credits cannot be carried forward. They expire by the end of the day.
Use your experience in helping others solve some of the difficult problems they are grappling with. They will begin to appreciate the usefulness of asking you for help rather than wasting time reinventing the wheel.
Acknowledge and praise those younger than you for what they are really good at, and learn from them.
Raghu’s infectious energy, vision and empowering style gave many a sense of liberation and confidence that they too can fly! Several individuals quit TFS after the merger to start up and, going by the last count, at least five of them are on to something interesting — the TFS mafia to the PayPal mafia!
Above all, this experience reinforced what I suspected all along, but was never really sure of: Life is all about not letting success go to your head and having your feet firmly on the ground. It is about having a childlike curiosity, the willingness to learn from anyone, the ability to discuss an idea with anyone without prejudices and the ability to easily say, ‘I don’t know this’ or ‘Can you tell me more about this?’ If you truly believe this, you can liberate yourself from some of your self-imposed constraints and start enjoying life all over again!
Title: Cut the Crap & Jargon
Authors: Shradha Sharma, TN Hari
Publishers: Penguin Random House