Leaders First… 1511


“Employees and investors around the world are expecting more maturity, patience, and leadership from their entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur needs to be a leader first, a CEO next, and an entrepreneur last. That’s the only order that really works.”

-Harsha Kumar

I bet that anyone who has ever worked at startups has worked with at least one founder who basically didn’t seem to care about anything but winning! The typical success-obsessed kind. I think that’s a great thing! It’s exactly what an investor wants to see in an entrepreneur. But more often than not, you will find employees at startups lamenting about this obsession coming at the cost of employee satisfaction, company culture, and long-term vision. It turns into a bane. I’ve seen it happen up close one too many times and I’ve spoken to enough founders to recognize the initial signals that lead to this downward spiral.

So this is a quick post for budding CEOs/entrepreneurs out there. Watch out for the following triggers. These triggers/thoughts will inspire bad behaviours that will quickly turn into habits, resentments and lead you into the trap of a creating a highly dissatisfied organization. I’m hoping that simply calling out these triggers might help you recognize them in the future and control your reactions to them…

People are not moving fast enough… 

Let’s be clear about one thing. This startup is your baby. You stand to gain the most out of its success, both financially and emotionally. So yes, no one will move as fast as you do. Accept it and work with it. Your job will require you to constantly be motivating your team. Getting upset about the pace of work and letting it reflect in your behaviour will have the opposite impact. So if you are doing the job right, people will move as fast they can.

If you need something done sooner, ask for it. If that doesn’t work, look for alternate ways – reimagine scope, break it down to get more people working on the problem. If all else fails, hire better in the future.

People just don’t understand the business like you do… they can’t do without you… 

If only I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard this one!

Yes, people do not understand the business like you do. And they won’t until you take the time to explain it to them. And they won’t until you keep repeating it till it is etched in their minds and till it is slowly etched into the DNA of your organization. Put in the work. Align everybody. This won’t happen overnight. It will take its own time. But you have to start somewhere.

Also Read:  Psychometrics: The Science Of Measuring The Human Mind

A great place to start is by giving ownership and responsibility to your key hires. Let them screw up a little. No better way to learn, than from one’s mistakes. Have the patience and the faith to be ok with mistakes. When you are a young startup, most mistakes can easily be corrected. The sooner you learn to give ownership to your team, the faster they will scale, the faster they will learn and the more ready they will be for when your little startup is a 100 times bigger!

You weren’t consulted before a business decision was taken… 

This is great news!! You did something right… Your team felt comfortable to go out on their own and do something which they believed is in the interest of the company! So step back from the shock of not being involved in the decision, and instead, enjoy it a little. Now introspect.

Was the decision wrong? If not, make a drink for yourself – enjoy this moment some more. If the decision was wrong, don’t make that drink! Use it as an opportunity to train your team. Help them understand the implications of the decision, so they can do better next time. But most importantly, don’t let this impact your faith in the team. Give them another chance. Let them screw up more. If you’ve hired well, over time, your team will catch up and you will find yourself focusing on higher order things instead of day to day operations. This is what you want. Refer to the point above…

“The belief that people don’t understand the business and can’t do without you. If only I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard this one! Yes, people do not understand the business like you do. And they won’t until you take the time to explain it to them.”

You don’t find the output up to the mark… 

You know this one is tricky. It’s a problem that most new team managers face. But the truth often is that people around them are just as smart. Their output isn’t bad at all. It’s just not what they would have done. So, step back and see if that’s what’s happening here.

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There are many ways to solve a problem. Accept that people come with different perspectives. This is a good thing. Unless the perspective is extremely poor in depth or quality, don’t dismiss it simply because it is different from yours. This will soon become a toxic habit and create a culture of dissatisfaction for you and for your team. Your team will soon start to feel that nothing is good enough for you. It will impact their motivation and drive, eventually their quality.

You feel that the output is not in-line with what you were expecting… 

How much time did you really spend explaining what you were expecting? How much time did you spend validating that your expectations were understood? Did you bother to check-in or review the work periodically to ensure that the deliverable was aligned? This is just management 101. You need to follow these basics even though you are the CEO. Once there is alignment between you and your team, you might need fewer follow-ups. But you will have to put in the work in the beginning.

There was a time when I suffered from the “Hero Syndrome”. When I felt that every successful startup had that one star, one entrepreneur, who could move boulders; whose sheer passion and faith could take the company to unprecedented heights. I don’t believe that BS anymore.

I know today that founders cannot move boulders. But they can align a bunch of smart folks on their team and help them move it. They cannot make the world believe what they believe. But they are humble enough to understand the world’s beliefs and pivot to a product their customers would rather use. Their passion alone does not make customers use their products. Instead, their team’s intellectual prowess does. Employees and investors around the world are expecting more maturity, patience, and leadership from their entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur needs to be a leader first. A CEO next. And an entrepreneur last. That’s the only order that really works.


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Ms. Harsha Kumar serves as Principal at Lightspeed Venture Partners. She joined the firm in 2016. Before joining Lightspeed, she was one of the early employees at Olacabs where she was Assistant Vice President of Product leading a 40-person team and driving design and growth for core products at the firm – ranging from Ola's customer and driving facing apps to backend infrastructure products and Ola's B2B solution. She was instrumental in taking Ola's apps to the number one position on both Android and iOS stores and scaling Ola’s user base from a DAU of 6,000 to over half a million in a short span of 8 months. Prior to Olacabs, she led product for AdNear (now Near) and managed DAU and revenue for two flagship games at Zynga. During her time at INSEAD, she worked with Dell and RIM on their go-to-market strategy and competitive analysis for Asian markets. She has 11 years of operating experience focusing specifically on technology and product. She holds an MBA from INSEAD in 2011 and a B.E degree in Computer Science from Cummins College of Engineering in 2005.

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