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Founders, show yourself the mirror

The strange dichotomy of fast-growing founder-led workplaces is this: Growth masks cancerous workplaces. We expect things to be 'bad' only when business slumps. This isn't true

Uber founder Travis Kalanick. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Uber founder Travis Kalanick. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Founders are wilful people. They’re supposed to be. It’s their special attribute. It helps them imagine new realities, dismiss naysayers and create tangible ventures out of ideas others might find too difficult, or too whimsical. Nothing that doesn’t exist seems possible until it actually does. And founders make that happen.

Yet the traits that make this possible don’t necessarily—and certainly, not intuitively—translate into great management skills. Or even inspiring leadership.

When your day job is to battle impossibility with fervent can-do, delusion can become an occupational hazard. Small wonder then that even the brightest entrepreneurs can become obstacles for their companies.

Contemporary business history is peppered with founders who were poor bosses. Worse, they were damaging leaders to the otherwise great ventures they started, or the worthy products they built.

The questionable behaviour of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, or accusations of sexual misconduct against The Viral Fever founder Arunabh Kumar, are by now only too familiar. The flaws, in their cases, were appalling. Their alleged misconduct shocked us and will hopefully lead to strong reflection on critical issues such as sexual harassment and building safe workplaces for women.

But what about the micro-transgressions that founders everywhere are susceptible to? When they start out, it’s easy to trip up on the “niceties" of workplace etiquette and team dynamics. Most founders don’t have a strong feedback loop. It’s easier than you think to fall into the comfortable trap of a feedback-free zone, especially for entrepreneurs without strong co-founding teams. Or those who don’t actively build a kitchen cabinet of sorts, with team members who can truly dissent, disagree and debate.

It also becomes second nature to make trade-offs: the chaos of growth over the setting-up process; short-term solution fixes over long-term career paths for people; soaring optimism over calibrated caution. The focus on survival, or a target on growth, can make much of this seem irrelevant. Even bothersome. These are legitimate, understandable trade-offs for a business builder. They can lead to exciting, adrenalin-filled workplaces. As easily though, they can result in turmoil, friction and stress.

We’re seeing this happen around us. Stories of unprofessional, toxic workplaces are emerging from the once glamorous accounts of exciting start-ups. Observers wonder how things could have been so bad when, not so long ago, the public relations machinery painted a glossy image of heroic entrepreneurs.

The strange dichotomy of fast-growing founder-led workplaces is this: Growth masks cancerous workplaces. We expect things to be “bad" only when business slumps. This isn’t true. What growth does well is keep the lid on. It contains the rumblings within.

But it’s tough to hide for too long when you are the founder. Founders’ struggles are never theirs alone. Even very personal flaws, and strengths, can become coded into company DNA.

How can founders guard against this? How can they ensure that their leadership gaps don’t pave the way for trouble?

Most importantly, who should they be at work? Is leading about complete control, even when doing that doesn’t come naturally? Or should they play to their strengths? If that is to be the best ideas person, be that. If it is to be the best technologist, be that.

Or does conventional hierarchy dictate that a founder must “lead", teams as well as growth? What happens when time spent eliminating inadequacies eats into productive time.

So, dear founders, marshal all the survival tips you need against demanding customers, inefficient suppliers and errant employees. But don’t forget that sometimes surviving yourself can be as urgent a task. And it can’t be outsourced.

Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.

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